Toronto's CNE Shell Tower

The Highpoint of the Canadian National Exhibition.

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The Shell Oil Tower championed the companies progress and prosperity with a 120 foot tower.

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The Shell Tower was built by the Shell Oil Company in 1955, its architect George Robb. Located on Princess Boulevard, it was a glass and steel structure, almost 12 storeys in height (120’), containing an observation deck near the top. Above the observation deck was a large clock, visible from anywhere within the CNE grounds.

When the tower was renamed the Bulova Tower, the clock was converted to digital, one of the first in the city. The tower was demolished in 1985 to accommodate the Indy race track. 

Based upon a winning competition entry by Toronto architect George Robb, the Shell Oil Tower was an Exhibition Place landmark from its completion in 1955 to its demise in 1985. The welded-steel and glass structure, the first of its kind in Toronto, extended 120 feet above the midway and provided fairgoers with panoramic views over the city and Lake Ontario from its open-air observation deck. Hardy patrons could eschew the elevator and climb twin staircases that scissored back and forth behind the glass walls, the equivalent of ascending a nine-storey building. Capping the tower was a giant clockface 16 feet in diameter, visible from across the fairgrounds, with hour markers three feet high.

 
 

During the 1960s and 70s the Shell Oil Tower was renamed the Bulova Tower and traded its analog clockface for a then-new digital readout, but retained its popularity as a viewing platform and fairground meeting place. Elevator breakdowns and other maintenance issues led to its closing in 1983, however, and in 1985, despite protests from architects, preservationists and urbanists such as Jane Jacobs, the tower was demolished to make way for the first Molson Indy racetrack. More about Exhibition Place’s Modernist buildings can be found here.

“An elevator is waiting to whisk you to the observation platform, far above the ground, where you can look down on the breathtaking spectacle of the greatest show on earth, the Canadian National Exhibition,” the advertisement read.

The Shell Oil Tower was one of the first modern observation decks in Toronto. It predated similar features at TD Centre, Commerce Court, and the CN Tower. Image: City of Toronto Archives.

The Shell Oil Tower was one of the first modern observation decks in Toronto. It predated similar features at TD Centre, Commerce Court, and the CN Tower. Image: City of Toronto Archives.


 

CNE’s Shell Tower depicted on a postcard (left), and a photo of the tower.


At almost 30 years old, the steel and glass tower was in urgent need of maintenance. The stairs and elevators were structurally unsafe and required about $500,000 to fix, according to the general manager of the CNE, Winfield Stockwell.

Elevator breakdowns grew more frequent—in one incident five teens trapped for one-and-a-half hours were rewarded with free popsicles for their misery (to which one teen responded “Big deal. You can get them free inside the Food Building”). After the elevators and staircases were declared unsafe, the tower closed in 1983. When plans for the first Molson Indy were devised, the tower site was deemed attractive for a pit stop. CNE officials willing to tear the tower down to meet Molson’s demands stated that the $500,000 required to repair the structure would be better spent on other facilities. Among the local architects, preservationists and urban activists who criticized the impending demolition was Jane Jacobs, who told the Star that it ominously indicated “a resurgence of the ruthless attitude toward existing buildings and monuments that was so prevalent during the ’60s and ’70s. Despite the cases made for its architectural and landmark value, and a proposal to move it elsewhere on the grounds, the tower came down in November 1985.

Based upon a winning competition entry by Toronto architect George Robb, the Shell Oil Tower was an Exhibition Place landmark from its completion in 1955 to its demise in 1985.

 
Slight overhead view of crowds on CNE grounds and new Shell oil tower – September 6, 1958  Creator: Harvey R. Naylor Date: September 6, 1958 Archival Citation: Fonds 1526, File 94, Item 8  Credit: City of Toronto Archives  www.toronto.ca/archives   Copyright was transferred to the City of Toronto by the copyright owner.

Slight overhead view of crowds on CNE grounds and new Shell oil tower – September 6, 1958

Creator: Harvey R. Naylor
Date: September 6, 1958
Archival Citation: Fonds 1526, File 94, Item 8

Credit: City of Toronto Archives
www.toronto.ca/archives

Copyright was transferred to the City of Toronto by the copyright owner.