By Jamie Bradburn, originally published September 13, 2011
Building comes full circle in its history
When the Loblaw Groceterias building at Bathurst Street and Lake Shore Boulevard West opened in 1928, the Toronto Star called it “the most modern warehouse building of its type in the dominion.” Behind a façade lined with Art Deco touches, employees of the rapidly-growing grocer made executive decisions, prepared products for shipping, and slipped in a few moments at the onsite bowling alley. Having sat empty for years, the designated heritage property’s fate will be determined by City Council who will approve a request from Loblaws on September 21st to demolish the facility and incorporate reconstituted portions of its southern and western sides into a new grocery store.
Designed by the architectural firm of Sparling, Martin and Forbes (who also designed the Masonic Temple at Yonge Street and Davenport Road, and the Lever Brothers plant on Eastern Avenue), the Loblaw Groceterias building was constructed atop infill that covered what had been portions of the Queen’s Wharf and the Western Gap. The building was divided into three main sections. The five floor main section fronted onto Fleet Street (as that section of Lake Shore Boulevard was known until the 1960s) and included the administrative offices, cafeterias, processing, storage, and some manufacturing facilities. The second section ran for one storey along Bathurst and was used to process produce. The third section at the north end of the building included a garage, carpentry shop, and paint shop. A railway siding along the east side allowed seven freight cars to unload simultaneously, while staggered loading docks on the west side had space for 23 trucks. According to Tim Morawetz, author of Art Deco Architecture in Toronto, “the stone trim topping the piers above the first floor and at the roofline features superb 1920s Deco geometric detailing.” In a profile that appeared in the June 1928 issue of Construction magazine, writer Donald M. Ross felt that touches like the trim showed that Loblaw Groceterias was among a new breed of businesses that were “beginning to appreciate the value of a sensible, attractive, and well designed exterior to their buildings.” Company officials estimated that consolidating administrative and warehouse operations under one roof would save $100,000.
Following its completion, the Globe predicted that the facility would “likely prove to be one of the showplaces in Toronto, in view of the fact that the management will make arrangements to allow the public to go through the warehouse at appointed hours.” During the Great Depression, customers were invited to open house tours of the facilities where they witnessed, as one ad put it, “white-coated attendants pack food into cellophane” and mechanical wonders like a machine that cut, weighed, and wrapped butter.
To keep employees in white coats and business suits content, a large number of recreational rooms were provided onsite. Among the perks they enjoyed were bowling alleys, billiard tables, lounges for intense rounds of euchre, and a cafeteria that included a stage for concerts or staff-produced plays. During the official opening ceremonies for the recreational rooms on October 3, 1928, over 800 employees from Windsor to Tonawanda tested out the new facilities in between speeches from dignitaries and dancing to live music provided by the corporate symphony. One person who wasn’t present was company president T.P. Loblaw, who was slowly recovering at his home in Alliston from injuries suffered after being thrown from a horse several months earlier.
The building assumed its present shape in 1934, when work commenced on a $375,000 addition to the rear that included a workshop, garage and additional warehouse space. Loblaws continued to use the building as its base of operations until the administrative offices moved into the Weston Centre on St. Clair Avenue East in the mid-1970s. After some years of disuse, Loblaws donated the warehouse space to the Daily Bread Food Bank temporarily in the mid-1980s, then as a permanent home starting in 1991. The food bank used it for a decade, but lack of proper refrigeration space eventually made the charity seek a more appropriate facility. Following their departure in 2000, occasional events were held on the site, but it mostly served as a venue for urban explorers over the following decade. Plans to completely demolish the building were rejected by the city in 2004, and negotiations about its future have been on-again, off-again since then. Whether the building’s slow decay will be reversed through renovation or demolition via a heritage easement remains to be seen.
Additional material from Art Deco Architecture in Toronto by Tim Morawetz (Toronto: Glue Inc., 2009), the June 1928 issue of Construction, and the following newspapers: the June 29, 1928 and October 4, 1928 editions of the Globe, and the January 27, 1928 and October 4, 1928 editions of the Toronto Star.