Toronto’s Eaton College: High Heels and Flowing Dresses

This post will be a little different, and in fact, will be the first guest post featured on Reisen.Go. John Y., a colleague of mine (at that full-time job I have), recently wrote and shared this piece about the beginnings of one of Toronto’s major tourist destinations: the Eaton Centre. So I took a little historical walk with him and added some photos to his story. Find the full story below!

John’s Personal Reflection:

There are many ‘time capsules’ in our lives …

… the homes and neighbourhoods we live in, schools and churches we attend, old family albums and modern-day memory sticks that hold the snapshots of our lives. And don’t forget our basements, attics, garages and public storage units that become keepers of the family archives, or museums for those difficult-to-part-with possessions.

So imagine my surprise … even shock … when I discovered a piece of my past in a most unlikely place – College Park.

Tucked away in the corner just inside the south side opposite the revolving doors that lead you out to the Shops at Aura is an area concealed behind tinted glass and locked doors.

There is no illumination, except for whatever daylight seeps in, but if you press your face against the panes and look to the left you will see something with a short plexiglass panel in front of ‘it’, but you probably won’t know what ‘it’ is.

But I sure do.

‘It’ is the last of the vintage escalators that serviced the once prestigious Eaton’s College’, the luxury retail division of the former Eaton’s chain of department stores.

It opened in 1930 – nine years before the outbreak of World War Two and almost half a century before its rebirth as today’s College Park.

The wooden escalator though the plexiglass, The Carlu
The wooden escalator though the plexiglass, The Carlu.

But what makes this escalator so special?

The steps are made of wood, with deep grooves … more like ruts, really.

‘Not sure why they were built that way, but as I recall, they played havoc with the women of the 1950s because of the fashion of the day – high heels and flowing dresses.

As a youngster, I remember my mother and how harrowing the experience, whether going up or down. She would secure me with one hand while grasping the thick, black, moving handrail with the other until we stepped off, or in my case, stumbled off.  Mom made very sure that her heels had found a secure place within the grooves, and that her dress was not billowing in the drafts and flashing too much leg.

Modesty was essential, and so was being a lady at all times.

And navigating those wooden steps was made all the more difficult when you consider that the escalator was narrow and allowed for only single file. My PF Flyer running shoes – and mom’s strong hand – kept me upright.

Of course, my mom could only afford to shop at Eaton’s College for ‘certain purchases’; that is, quality gifts for those special occasions – engagements, weddings, christenings, birthdays – given the high-end prices: exquisite jewellery; fine china; imported hand-cut crystal; and solid, wood-crafted furniture. In its prime, Eaton’s College boasted that it was “… the largest furniture and house furnishings store in the British Empire.”

Eaton’s College also featured the latest in women’s and men’s fashions from Europe, and the best wedding photographers in the business to capture that ‘big day’.

Otherwise, for my mom, it was the ‘regular’ more affordable, everyday shopping at  Eaton’s downtown department store at Queen and Yonge, or across the street at its competitor, Simpson’s. Hence, the term “upscale and uptown” when describing Eaton’s College.

By the way, Eaton’s used shuttle buses to ferry customers between its two stores until the subway opened from Eglinton to Union Station in March 1954, the month that I turned four years old.

You don’t need to see the wooden escalator to appreciate the uniqueness and beauty of Eaton’s College.

Walk through the various locales within the building … pause … take a second look at what you might have taken for granted: swirled marble imported from Europe wrapped around the original columns still visible in the Winners store, or glimpses of marble jutting out from between the drywall that was used during renovations to the basement food court. The exterior of the building is limestone and granite, with stone carvings and copper trim, now turned green and weathered with age.

Marble detail, The Carlu
Marble detail, The Carlu.

More of that beauty is clearly visible where you stand in front of the first-floor elevators that service the upper floor provincial courtrooms. ‘Just stand back and take a good long look at the marble wall and the pewter-coloured elevators!

Elevator and marble, The Carlu
Elevator and marble, The Carlu.

Gazing at Eaton’s College from the street offers a good look at the classical art deco of this 600,000 square foot landmark, which opened as Phase One on October 30, 1930.

It was designed by the same Montreal architectural firm that designed the Royal York Hotel, the nearby Maple Leaf Gardens (now Loblaws), and the Chateau-Laurier Hotel in Ottawa.

When first planned, Eaton’s College would have been a whole lot bigger – Phase Two would have expanded the property south towards Gerrard Street to create five million square feet of retail space and a 38-storey skyscraper, making it the largest retail and office complex in Canada, if not the world! The Great Depression of 1929 and the so-called “Dirty Thirties”, a term used to describe the tough economic times, scuttled that idea.

Even though Phase Two of Eaton’s College was never built, the vision would be ultimately realized in another Eaton’s project that would redefine downtown Toronto:  the opening of the mammoth Toronto Eaton Centre in 1977 … 40 years ago this month.

The Eaton Centre was built in two phases: the northern portion at Yonge/Dundas, followed later by the most southern portion down to Queen just west of Yonge where Eaton’s original store was located, a landmark since opening in 1883!  It was demolished to make way for the new generation of shoppers that would flock to the ultra-modern shopping complex. Up the street, Eaton’s College was spared the wrecking ball. It was sold to new owners and renamed College Park.

On the upper floor of College Park is the Carlu Centre. During the heyday of Eaton’s College, it was the 1,300-seat Eaton Auditorium – also known as “Eaton’s Seventh Floor” – the cultural hub of Toronto. As I said, the opening of the downtown Eaton’s Centre not only sealed the fate of Eaton’s College, but it also lowered the curtain on the   Eaton Auditorium … The new owners of College Park decided not to keep it open, citing huge renovation costs to make it competitive and relevant in Toronto’s ever-evolving entertainment scene and wider social circles.  

This treasure remained behind locked doors – another ‘time capsule’ – frozen in time for 27 years to await its rebirth!  Thankfully, it was rediscovered and, following a multi-million-dollar restoration, reopened under new management in 2003 with a new name: the Carlu Centre. Incidentally, ‘Carlu’ is Jacques Carlu, who had been retained by Lady Eaton, the matriarch of the Eaton family, to design the art modern auditorium.

Carlu – now a special-events venue for galas, weddings, fashion shows, concerts, corporate dinners – is beautifully preserved. Photos depicting the ‘before’ and ‘after’ phases can be found hanging on the original marble walls in the lobby of 21 College, which is part of the original Eaton’s College.

If the Carlu’s walls could talk … or sing … they would resonate with the big-band sounds of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and sway to the smooth ballads of that young and upcoming crooner Frank Sinatra, or be dazzled by the piano stylings of Canada’s own Glenn Gould and bewitched by the splendour of our National Ballet.

If a picture ‘speaks’ a thousand words, there is one in College Park that positively ‘shouts’. It fills the entire wall – I’m guessing 15 feet by 15 feet – just a few steps to the right of the main floor provincial court elevators and down a few stairs.

The Round Room, The Carlu, circa 1930
The Round Room, The Carlu, circa 1930.

It is a huge blow-up of a black-and-white photo, circa 1930, depicting sophisticated ladies in evening gowns and cultured gentlemen in their well-tailored tuxedos attending an event at the Carlu. You almost wish you could just climb into the photo and share their after-dinner coffee, tea and conversation. Perhaps, how lucky they were not to have had their lives and lifestyle ravaged by the horrific economic downturn of that time.         

One more thing … the next time you’re buying your coffee/tea/food from the street level Tim Horton’s, take a look at the three black-and-white photos above the menu.  The framed photo on the right really captures the essence of the décor of the old Eaton’s College department store.

So, next time you’re out shopping, eating or just taking a walk, look at the outside and inside of College Park … try to imagine the once glorious days of refined shopping, concerts and black-tie/evening gown events because …

…. before Bloor Street, before Yorkville, before Holt Renfrew, before Saks Fifth Avenue, before Burberry, before Tiffany’s, before Louis Vuitton … Eaton’s College was the go-to place for that extraordinary and exquisite shopping experience!

‘Look beyond the mundane Tim Horton’s, Winners, The Brick, Metro and assorted street-level stores and shops, and try to imagine the fashionable women of the time who navigated those rickety wooden escalators in their quest for a special gift … a gift that would mean so much in the giving because … it came gift wrapped from the Eaton’s College store.

That was Eaton’s College … classy … like my mom!

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