Toronto in the 1920s

If you know the skyline of Toronto now, with the CN Tower and the Skydome, it's hard to imagine the city back then. In 1921, the population of Toronto was 522,000. It was only the second largest city in Canada. Montreal was bigger. Most of the people who lived in Toronto were of British descent.  Canadians believed that the people who came to the country then should be as much like British people as possible. They did not realize that people from many different countries could make Toronto into the wonderfully diverse place it is today. 

The 1920s was an exciting decade. No one realized that the hard times of the Depression in the 1930s were on their way. Lavish new skyscrapers went up, radio was the newest popular invention and electric appliances appeared in people's homes for the first time.

The Toronto Skyline, 1930s

postcard of Toronto skyline from about 1935This is a postcard of Toronto's skyline, taken around 1935 from Toronto Island. The domed building on the left is the Royal York Hotel. One of Canada's grand railway hotels, the original building was finished in 1929.  The tall skyscraper on the right is the Bank of Commerce Building on King Street. Now dwarfed by the many taller buildings that surround it, this thirty-two storey skyscraper was "the tallest building in the British Empire" when it opened in 1931, and remained so until the 1960s. 

If you look carefully at the centre of the photo, you can just see a tower with a clock on it. This is Old City Hall which was built in 1899. These three buildings are still standing and you can visit them.

Life was very different in the 1920s. Cars were just beginning to change in the way people lived. Until this time, cities were small and people tended to live close to where they worked. Toronto had a public transit system of buses and streetcars, and people travelled by train for longer journeys. Air planes were the very newest means of transportation and most people could never hope to fly in one. In the 1920s, adventurous pilots were just beginning to fly across the Atlantic, and mail was being carried by planes for the first time. Telephones were still fairly new. If people had a phone, there would be just one and you had to ask the operator to connect you every time you made a phone call. Movies were just beginning to be made with sound, replacing the older silent films with "talkies." 

Toronto had a professional hockey team, but it wasn't called the Toronto Maple Leafs, not yet. The Toronto St. Pats wore green and white uniforms. To find out more, visit the 1920s page in the web site. Toronto also had a professional baseball team at the time. It was--the Toronto Maple Leafs. To find out about this historic baseball team, click on the link to read an article by baseball historians Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright from, the minor league baseball site. When a man named Con Smythe bought the hockey team in 1927, he changed the name to the Toronto Maple Leafs and changed the uniform colours to blue and white.

Sunnyside Amusement Park, 1928

Sunnyside Amusement Park, 1928

Because most people didn't have cars, cities were set up to provide people with ways of amusing themselves without having to travel too far.

Today, hardly anything is left to show where the Sunnyside Amusement Park was. If you drive along Lakeshore Boulevard in Toronto's west end, you can still see the Bathing Pavilion, the children's wading pool and the Palais Royale, but you'd never guess what used to be there--a giant roller coaster, a carousel and many other rides, games of chance and food stands. 

Sunnyside Amusement Park was like the midway at the Canadian National Exhibition, but it was open all summer long. This photo shows how people crossed from one side of the road to the other at the amusement park. In the early 1950s, Sunnyside amusement park was torn down because the traffic on Lakeshore Boulevard was too heavy to allow people to cross the road safely.  Today, Lakeshore Boulevard is like a four-lane highway.     

University Ave. 1930s, Toronto

This postcard from the 1930s shows University Avenue. looking north from Queen Street. If you look very carefully near the bottom right hand side, you'll see the dome of Ontario's provincial legislature, Queen's Park, at the very end of the street. Today, University Avenue is lined with tall buildings, including Mount Sinai, the Princess Margaret, Sick Children's and Toronto General, all important hospitals. 

The skyscraper that dominates this picture is the Canada Life Building. Built in 1931 from limestone, this is one of Toronto's finest skyscrapers from the time period. From the 1950s on, the Canada Life Building has been topped by a weather beacon. It's green when good weather is expected, and red when the weather is going to turn bad. This makes the Canada Life Building a memorable landmark to Torontonians.

In the 1920s, lavish skyscrapers like the Canada Life Building and the Bank of Commerce Building showed how prosperous a place Toronto was.   

More About These Buildings

The Emporis website has information about buildings. If you click on the left of each page on the link under "Photo Compilation," you'll see more photos of each. These photos give you some idea how grand these buildings are. 

Here are the links:

The Royal York Hotel web page. For some history, visit The Times Magazine's article, The Royal Treatment

Bank of Commerce Building web page.

Canada Life Building web page.   

Another Toronto skyscraper is the Canada Permanent Trust building on Bay Street

You can also look at the firm of Chapman and Oxley, with links to a number of skycrapers they built in Toronto during this time. 

More about Skyscrapers

PBS has a good Skyscraper Basics page. The Skyscraper page from the How Products Are Made website is so detailed, you might be tempted to try to build one.

About Art Deco Style

Skyscrapers of the late 1920s and 1930s were build in Art Deco style. Reacting against the fussy styles of earlier times, Art Deco featured clean, geometric lines.This  bilingual website, Art Deco Montreal, will tell you about the style in what was then Canada's largest city. 

The Artcyclopedia website has a good Art Deco page that talks about the Art Deco movement with lots of examples of art.

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