Jane's Walk 2018: Architecture, Elevators & History


Exploring Toronto's Vertical Landscape

Joshua Nelson
May 9th, 2018

On May 5th, 2018 Joshua Nelson led a Jane’s Walk through Old Toronto exploring significant buildings and their kinetic counterparts that made them possible. Below is the story, feel free to comment and share ideas as this is a work in progress. 

See the story here http://www.elevatorscenestudio.com/blog/2018/5/5/janeswalk-2018 On May 5th, 2018 Joshua Nelson led a Jane's Walk through Old Toronto exploring significant buildings and their kinetic counterparts that made them possible. Walkers explored elevators and learned about their indispensable role in cities and architecture across Toronto.

This Jane's Walk explored notable historical elevators dating as far back as 1894, from the historic Flat Iron building to the panoramic glass elevators overlooking the Eaton's Centre and Atrium on Bay. Along the way, walkers uncovered the indispensable role elevators played in building modern cities, the concept of vertical commuting and the technological advances that allowed people to live and work higher than ever before.

Elevators came into architectural history over a hundred years ago with the invention of the Otis Elevator Safety break. This ground-breaking invention allowed buildings to become entire "cities in a single block" as exemplified in the Royal York Hotel on Front St., or to showcase exceptionalism as demonstrated by the Canadian National Rail Company when they erected the CN Tower in 1976.

"Elevators exist between the strong emotional ties of those in the vertical transportation industry and those that take them everyday yet have over time forgotten to take notice of their marvellous wonder".


Elevators are an indispensable feature of modern cities. In fact, can you imagine a building without them? As people shifted towards living in cities, elevators have become a dominant mode of transportation. The leading four elevator manufacturers often tout the numbers of people they are moving vertically through cities compared to their horizontally counterparts Ford, Toyota, and GM.

Royal York Hotel Under Construction, 1927 (ish). Looking North from York St/Harbour Front.

Royal York Hotel Under Construction, 1927 (ish).
Looking North from York St/Harbour Front.

However this was not always the case. Imagine yourself standing on the muddy streets of Toronto just over a hundred years ago. The Royal York Hotel was starting to rise a tremendous 34 storeys into the sky, taller than any other building in the British Empire dwarfing all other 3-4 storey buildings in its vicinity. Torontonian's at the time were fascinated by the wonders of the elevator and lined up for an opportunity to ride this invention. With Toronto's ongoing condo boom, the average Torontonian takes 4 daily elevator trips with many taking significantly more. Over this time the excitement around elevators and their design has fallen to wayside, fading into the background of life just like other architectural advances like heating, ventilation, plumbing and electricity. Elevators have become so indistinguishable from any other element of the building we often take for granted the technology behind elevators. It's difficult to imagine when most Canadian's would never go higher than a storey or two off the ground in their lifetime. 

Arriving at the Fairmont Royal York, Josh introduces the building as "A City Within a City Block". At 28 floors, the hotel was the tallest building in the British Empire until the completion of Commerce Court North.  At an incredible 34 stories, the tower would remain the tallest building in the British Empire until 1962. 

Designed by Ross and MacDonald, the Fairmont Royal York was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway as part of the network of chateau-style hotels connecting Canadians coast to coast. A state-of-the-art hotel for it’s time, it featured ten Otis elevators that reached all twenty-eight floors. It's rumoured that people would travel to Toronto just for the opportunity to ride in them. 

  • Royal York bellman Michael Calnan has worked the Queen’s private elevator for each of her visits. He’s worked there for 32 years. 

  • Guests walk where the rich and famous walk: elevator number nine still carries illustrious guests such as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.


First, how do
elevators work?

Traction ropes go around a motorized sheave. The sheave, a pulley with grips around the circumference, hoisting the attached elevator cab up and down. The other end is connected to counterweights with equally load of approximately 40% elevator occupancy.  Learn More Here>


Gooderham Building.jpg

"Its appeal is more than its shape. The colour, steep copper roof and distinctive rounded tower express the prestige"

The next stop on the tour was the Gooderham Building more popularly known as the ‘Flat Iron Building'. The Flat Iron building is an office building wedged on the eastern edge of the city's financial district. Completed in 1892, the rounded red-brick edifice has become one of Toronto’s most iconic vistas. The building was designed by David Roberts, the Gooderhams private family architect. 

The manually operated Otis Fensom elevator is Toronto's oldest electric motor elevator and has welcomed infamous bootlegger Al Capone during the prohibition years. The five storey building was all that was permitted at the time, as local firemen's ladders dictated the height of buildings. With 13ft ceilings the elevator shuttled tenants up wood guide rails in the exposed elevator shaft that ran through the grand staircase. At that time elevators were manually operated, a feature that would fade away starting in  1950’s. One of the first steps towards full automatic control of elevators was in the 20's when Otis introduced automatic levelling. The operator could still control the speed, but when they released the controller the elevator levelled smoothly to the nearest floor, the control operating box wouldn’t come for another 50 years.

The previous building on the site was also a flat iron. At 3 storeys it was completed in 1830.


Built in 1908 for The Canadian Birkbeck Investment and Savings Company, this four-storey office building is typical of many small financial institutions prevalent in central business districts of Canadian cities before World War I. Designed by George W. Gouinlock, the Birkbeck Building was restored by the Ontario Heritage Trust in 1987 for use as its offices. Designated a national historic site of Canada as an example of a transitional building which combined historical style with modern technology. Its steel frame and fireproof finishing materials placed it in the vanguard of building technology in its time.

Ontario Heritage Trust | 10 Adelaide Elevator Restoration Project

  1. Re-modelling of the elevator car

  2. Refinishing of the Relay Board

  3. Retention of the original elevator sheave and governor switch.


The historic elevator in the building was renovated in 2018, to recover it's historical accuracy from years of neglect and quick fixes. The process of conservation and preservation of a historical significant object or structure becomes even more challenging if it will be used on a regular basis.

If the historic object or structure must also be brought into compliance with contemporary regulations and social norms, those challenges multiply. What does this mean for our stock of heritage buildings? Joshua Nelson believes that the best chance to preserve elevators from our past is to grow the general public appreciation and knowledge of the subject. 

Our ageing stock of building is expected to result in increasing demand for elevators renovations in residential, health care, and institutional facilities. 


In May of 1897 approval was granted to Mr. Dineen to build a 4 story structure on the site at 2 Temperance/142 Yonge Street with an expected cost of $30,000.  A fine producer of hats and furs, Mr Dineen desired a building comparable to the New York counterparts. 

In Nov 1973 his building was designated a heritage property. In 2014 Commercial Realty Group decided to employ an expensive adaptive reuse method to restore the building. While the elevator was not reused in the renovation, the owners did restore the cab keeping it on display in the lobby. A significant feature not to be found anywhere in Canada, the cab represents the first time a sprague automatic elevator was installed in any building outside of New York state.

  • “A Sprague automatic elevator is also a feature not to be found in any store in Canada, this being the first time one has been placed in any building outside of New York State

  • In 1892, Sprague formed the Sprague Electric Elevator Company, and with Charles R. Pratt, developed the Sprague-Pratt Electric Elevator. 


Daily Mail and Empire - Oct 25, 1897.


The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres are a pair of stacked theatres; the seven storey Winter Garden sites above the Elgin Theatre below. The building was designed by architect Thomas W. Lamb who also designed the Ed Mirvish theatre (Canon Theatre) nearby.  The building was completed in 1913 and featured three electric motor elevators (two upon opening with a third added a few years later). 

In 1981, the Ontario Heritage Trust bought the structure from Famous Players. The building closed in 1987 for a full restoration, reopening again in 1989. Part of the restoration included refurbishing the original Otis Fensom elevator cabs and adding additional safety features like the automatic floor leveller which still requires an operator.

"Last surviving Edwardian stacked theatres in the world". 

One of the elevators is believed to be haunted, and has been often seen to travel by itself to the Winter Garden level spooking staff and guests alike. 


1913 – December 15: Loew's Yonge Street Theatre opens. 

1914 – February 16: the Loew's roof garden theatre, the Winter Garden, opens,

1928 – May: The Winter Garden is closed to the public; the lower auditorium remains open and is wired for sound

1978 – March 17: The Yonge Street Theatre is re-named the Elgin

1981 – December 1: The Ontario Heritage Trust purchases the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

1982 – June: The Winter Garden Theatre is declared a National Historic Site; designation of the Elgin follows shortly thereafter

1989 – December 15: After almost three years of restoration, the grand reopening of the historic Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres takes place.

2011 – Work is undertaken to restore the terracotta façade and three arched windows overlooking Yonge Street

2013-14 – The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre celebrates its 100th anniversary


Eaton's partnered with the Cadillac Fairview development company and the Toronto–Dominion Bank to construct the Eaton Centre. The complex was designed by Eberhard Zeidler and Bregman + Hamann Architects as a multi-levelled, vaulted glass-ceiling galleria, modelled after the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, Italy. 


At the time, the interior design of the Eaton Centre was considered revolutionary and influenced shopping centre architecture throughout North America. 


Eatons Centre

  • 1977

  • 4 Storeys (mall arcade, including galleria), 10 (portion formerly occupied by Eaton's store), 8 (Hudson's Bay building), 36 (highest number of storeys of office component)

  • 5 Main, 2 North, Escalators elsewhere

Joshua Nelson has often imagined the building as a cross between the Lloyds Building, Centre de Pompidou, Crystal Palace and of course the Galleria Vittorio in Milan. 


Originally opened in 1979, the Atrium on Bay takes up most of the block bounded by Yonge, Dundas, Bay, and Edward Streets in Toronto's Commercial heart, just north of the Eaton Centre.


H&R plans to add 5 storeys to each of the office towers, while carrying out several changes to the ground floor configuration, and rebuilding the complex's connection to Bay Street. Other plans include three new elevators to be added to the banks currently serving the existing floors in each tower. (moved from before the last sentence, to after)

  • Atrium *on Bay

  • 1979

  • 14 floors East * 13 floors west (+3 Basement)

  • 20 Total

Panoramic elevators were originally only installed externally, as solutions to connect different streets in urban areas with complicated topographies. Examples are many, but perhaps the most famous is the well-known Lisbon Santa Justa Elevator, which has been operating in the Chiado neighborhood since the beginning of the 20th century


On May 5th, 2018 Joshua Nelson led a Jane's Walk through Old Toronto exploring significant buildings and their kinetic counterparts that made them possible. Walkers explored elevators and learned about their indispensable role in cities and architecture across Toronto.



When taken out of the mundane daily context and put on display, people are able to once again feel the excitement of these overlooked piece of kinetic machinery, just like those who would travel far and wide to ride the elevators of the Royal York or line up to view the panoramic interior of the Eatons Centre glass galleria.


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Jane's Walk is a movement of free, citizen-led walking conversations inspired by Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), a writer, urbanist and activist who championed the voices of everyday people in neighbourhood planning and city-building. It encourages people to share stories about their neighbourhoods, discover unseen aspects of their communities, and use walking as a way to connect with their neighbours. Learn more at www.janeswalk.org

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I would like to acknowledge that the buildings visited during this walk are situated upon traditional territories. The territories include the Wendat (wen-dat), Anishinabek (ah-nish-nah-bek) Nation, the Haudenosaunee (ho-den-oh-sho-nee) Confederacy, the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations, and the Métis (may-tee) Nation."