When the Canada Life Assurance Company switched on the weather beacon atop its University Avenue headquarters for the first time on Aug. 9, 1951, the insurance giant mailed pocket-sized cards to every Toronto household explaining how it worked: The rows of small lights flashed up or down the sides of the beacon depending on the temperature, and the big one on top changed colour to show the forecast. (One newspaper ad showed two fish staring up at the tower from Lake Ontario. One fish says to the other: “I told you to fix our roof—the Canada Life weather beacon says it’s gonna rain.”) Years later, the building’s doorman was still handing out hundreds of cards a week to curious passersby.
Walk through the front doors of the Canada Life Building during business hours, and you can still find a glossy little card at the security desk. But if you want to know about the weather beacon, speak to the guard behind the desk. Four times a day—at 7 a.m., 11 a.m., 3:30 p.m., and 9 p.m.—whoever is on duty will check the Weather Network for the forecast. On the day I visit the building, that’s Martin Humphries. (He jokes that the guards used to phone Environment Canada, but “nowadays, we’re lazy.”) During his shift, Humphries will duck into a side room filled with diagrams of the building, where there’s an old brass panel with two sets of switches. The ones on the left control the smaller lights; the ones on the right control what Humphries calls “the cherry on top.” If, for example, it’s getting colder, and the forecast calls for rain, he’ll flick on the switches labelled “DOWN” and “FLASHING RED.” If the temperature is holding and the forecast is clear, he’ll flick on “STEADY” and “GREEN.”
“That thing’s just slightly older than I am,” says Humphries. And recently, the beacon’s age was starting to show: An average of four of the incandescent 39-watt bulbs burned out each day, and others were easily shattered if birds flew into them—to say nothing of the hydro bill. So this past summer, Canada Life and the building’s managers, GWL Realty Advisors Inc., got Aurora-based lighting-automation company Techno One to replace all the bulbs with LEDs.
Now, Techno One president Nima Parvinnejad and two electricians, Hao Liu and Carter Fan, are back. The first time they scaled the tower, it took two long days to swap out every last one of the 1,017 bulbs by hand. But the work proved worthwhile: Rather than four a day, now only two or three bulbs burn out each month. The crew takes an elevator from the lobby to the 17th floor. Then, they open a side door and clomp up a metal staircase that shrinks into a spiral the higher up they go. Out one last door, and they’re on the tiny roof. The weather beacon rises a full storey higher, the cube on top glowing green and the lights below it flashing their way up the tower.
Rather than stop to take in the panoramic view of downtown Toronto, Fan and Liu get right to work, maneuvering themselves up inside the 62-year-old beacon’s thin metal frame. Then comes the boring part: They carefully reach around and twist one small light bulb out, then another, then another, as easy as if they were swapping out lights in a chandelier. The two men just laugh when asked if it’s a scary job. “This one, no problem,” says Fan, a big smile on his face.
GOT A TORONTO MYSTERY THAT YOU WANT SOLVED? Even if it’s not about a building that can tell you when you’ll need to put on a parka, email it to email@example.com—or, go see if it’s one that’s already been crossed off the list.