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Toronto Eaton Centre Officially Welcomes 40 Years of Shoppers

Photo Credit: Chris Nagy

Toronto's largest indoor shopping mall is surely bustling like usual this weekend. Now known officially as CF Toronto Eaton Centre (the 'CF' initials are in accordance with Cadillac Fairview's recent branding initiative across many of their retail properties), the retail complex's service that hosts more people in 2015 than any other mall in North America with pedestrian travel that exceeds that of the Toronto's Pearson International Airport as well as major tourist draws such as the Las Vegas Strip and even Disneyland parks in the United States. A complex currently consisting of 227 stores including a new Nordstrom high-end luxury department store, Canadian Tire, Best Buy, Indigo bookstore and a bridge to the nearly 1.3 million square feet Hudson's Bay location, the CF Toronto Eaton Centre serves just under 49 million pedestrians as well as provides a source of retail or service employment for thousands. Just the weekend started, the downtown shopping locale crossed four-decade mark since it first entered its routine.

On February 10th of 1977, the first stage of the Toronto Eaton Centre was christened by a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The official opening for the massive retail space in the heart of the Canadian city welcomed an equally large crowd. Dignitaries present for the ribbon-cutting included several members of the Eaton family using John Craig Eaton, Ontario Premier William Davis, Lieutenant-Governor Pauline McGibbon and Toronto's mayor David Crombie, The opening was also followed by the early shoppers of the Toronto Eaton Centre. Overall a $250-million project opening in two parts with the second phase stretching to Queen street completed two years later in 1979, the first phase contained 150 stores including a mammoth, nine-story Eatons department store. The new store replaced the Queen street location as well as the College Park location and stood by a a 29-story One Dundas West building. The new era of retailing in Toronto was celebrated after ribbons and bagpipes left by the ringing of cash registers in a sound that was not realized easily.

The Eaton Centre that Never Was

Part of a master redevelopment plan dating back to as far as 1953, the Eaton Centre's early incarnation was aided by several land purchases back in 1920. As Toronto finally broke ground on a brand-new, long-awaited city hall in the late 1950s, the Eaton Company saw the opportunity to shine light on their vision for modernizing the lands alongside Yonge Street between Dundas and Queen. Additionally, north of Toronto along the Macdonald–Cartier Freeway  (better known as highway 401), an all-new Yorkdale Shopping Centre opened in 1964 exposed promise for the indoor multi-store shopping complex. Eaton's pitch was for a mecca of business and leisure to be built in the center of Toronto.

Consulting with several architects and potential partners, the Eaton's family would unveil their proposal in 1966 for the future Eaton Centre super block. Construction of a 200-store shopping centre would be joined by erecting five major towers. The tallest skyscraper in the proposed Eaton Centre would measure 69 stories (at approximately 207 meters in height, that tower would exceed the Tour de la Bourse in Montreal that stood at the time as the tallest building in Canada). A pair of 57-store buildings and a circular-shaped 550-room hotel borrowing styling inspiration from Toronto's new city hall were also part of the Eaton Centre complex.

The Eaton Centre proposal was eagerly welcomed by Toronto as a grand contemporary view of the downtown. However, with the famous Queen street Eatons store slated to receive the wrecking ball in favour of progress, another iconic turn of the century monument was also destined to be removed. The Old City Hall building stood as an obstacle to the massive development. As Toronto's municipal government settled into their new, Viljo Revell-designed city hall building, many power brokers in the city expressed little interest in maintaining the rustic former nerve center. One plan would have saw Old City Hall completely leveled while another idea would have saw it partly maintained as a narrower clock tower. Some opposition to the demolition of Old City Hall were in place but the fate of the building was secured by a change in deal-making. Originally planning to buy Old City Hall's land, Toronto council instead insisted on leasing the land for the Eaton Centre development. Negotiation for a lease value would proceed for a time but Eaton's would pull the plug on the entire complex plan in 1967 but would obviously revisit the notion of a mega shopping center in a prompt manner.

Going Through a Phase 

After their highly-publicized 1966 plan was scrapped, the Eaton Centre dream continued to be developed. Compared to the previous ideas for the land, the shopping centre we know today was presented by Eaton's of Canada in 1970. Ultimately, the Toronto Eaton Centre came to fruition by a three-way partnership between Cadillac Fairview, Toronto Dominion (TD) Bank and the Eaton family.  Contributing 15 parcels of land to the development, Cadillac Fairview was the biggest stakeholder of the project owning 60 percent while the other parties equally held 20 percent. Cadillac Fairview's president Neil Wood and TD Bank's president R.M. Thomson were among the VIPs present at the 1977 grand opening ceremony as their businesses that (to this day) shares a connection to the Toronto Eaton Centre.

Shovels hit the ground for the massive first stage of construction in 1974 with a heavily revised layout. The new Eaton Centre was less impacting to several surrounding structures. Old City Hall is spared from the wrecking ball as the shopping center's new partnership realized the growing significance of the neighbouring historic building. Cadillac Fairview president Neil Wood summed-up the changed opinion of the Old City Hall building describing it as a 'sacred cow' to the Toronto Star. Eaton also attempted to buy the Holy Trinity Church site during the original planning for their development but was rebuffed.

Original 1960s ideas for the Eaton Centre had intended to have a new Eaton's store built on Queen Street in roughly the same plot of land where their flagship department store had engaged in a mutually respectful rivalry with Simpsons for over a century. When the Toronto Eaton Centre opened in 1977, the anchor store was moved to the northern part of the building along Yonge and Dundas. This allowed the old Eaton's department store to remain open during phase one construction and presented the new shopping location as the Queen street store would be demolished for the mall's phase two expansion.

Image of Map taken from Early Toronto Eaton Centre brochure 

Completion of phase two of the Eaton Centre would consist of an 18-screen movie theater called the Cineplex (later expanded to 21 screen in 1981). At the time it opened it was a world record-holding venue for cinema enthusiasts and the Cineplex name would become a staple beyond the Toronto. The second phase was also anchored by a second tower that now houses Cadillac Fairview's headquarters. Last but not least, the Eaton Centre would be joined to Simpsons flagship store by a glass-roofed bridge. During the peak of the Eaton's/Simpsons rivalry during what was termed 'The Miracle of Queen Street' (a reference to the storied Macy's/Gimbels department store battle), the Queen street crossing between the two stores along Yonge street was one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in Canada. By the 1970s, approximately 5,000,000 shoppers would cross between Eaton's and Simpsons per year. The incorporation of the bridge provided a link that proved physical as well as symbolic connection between the two competitors at the time. In 2014, the building on the other side of the Toronto Eaton Centre bridge (now housing Simpsons purchaser Hudson Bay Company) was purchased by Cadillac Fairview and was officially absorbed into shopping mall.

A Visual Example to the Migration Towards a New Shopping Era 

Opening to the people of Toronto, the Eaton Centre was also a tourist attraction welcoming shoppers across Canada and around the world. Every place worth visiting needs to have a feature to draw a crowd. Something to experience and to remember the downtown complex, a unique art display would greet customers of the Toronto Eaton Centre since the opening of the second phase. Hanging from the arched glass roof of the shopping mall, 60 fiberglass Canada Goose shapes were arranged together in an art display called Flight Stop.

Photo Credit: Chris Nagy

Commissioned by Cadillac Fairview and created by Toronto native Michael Snow, Flight Stop was masterfully crafted with an artistic challenge. The Eaton Centre required a sculpture that could be seen on multiple floors. Through photographs of geese including a culled bird that lived on Toronto Island, Snow was able to create the surface of each display piece. Styrofoam and fiberglass were used to create the structure for the 60 Canada Goose forms conveying various stages in flight. Flight Stop has been hanging inside the Eaton Centre since 1979 and has been a permanent fixture. In 1982, a controversy related to Flight Stop display arose when Michael Snow brought a suit against the shopping center for tying ribbons to the geese during Christmas. Snow successfully fought to prevent the artwork from being modified.

Another symbol of the Toronto Eaton Centre until the turn of the century was a statue representing the founder of Canada's once proud retailer, Timothy Eaton. Originally presented as a gift from employees of the Eaton's Toronto store to the founder's family in 1919, the statue has been located in the Queen street store until its demolition. The Timothy Eaton statue would be moved towards the new store at Dundas when the Eaton Centre opened. When the Eaton's department store chain went bankrupt, descendants of the Timothy Eaton were able to retrieve the statue. The Timothy Eaton statue is still found in Toronto but now sits in the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum).  

40 Years Since the Ribbon-Cutting

The Eaton Centre survived beyond the namesake company that pressed for the massive vision for downtown Toronto. The Eaton department store was a casualty of a company retailer that failed to keep up to changing Canadian consumer trends. After the Eaton's department store chain went under, Sears Canada took over the nine floors of retail space. It was briefly operated under the eaton's brand name (note the use of the small 'e') but the experiment was dropped. The store assumed the Sears name until February 2014 when the retailer left the mall. The location of the former Eaton's anchor store is now shared by Nordstrom and Japanese fashion retailer Uniglo.

Image taken in February 2014 of Sears location prior to closing. (Photo Credit: Chris Nagy)

Other changes to the Toronto Eaton Centre included the closure of the Cineplex in 2001. In the later years of the movie cinema, audiences dropped and the facility featured a dated and worn decor. Also gone from the original Eaton Centre in 2003 was the original Dundas parking garage. The space consisted of parking space as well as additional retail space for Canadian Tire and Best Buy. Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management is also found within the Toronto Eaton Centre complex.

Photo Credit: Chris Nagy

In 2011, eating at the Toronto Eaton Centre was blessed by an updated food court. Replacing the original food court, the mall's new Urban Eatery presented many popular eating establishments such as McDonald's, KFC, New York Fries as well as Toronto-based quick dining hot spots like Urban Herbivore and Big Smoke Burger. Along with providing a sophisticated place for customers to eat, the Urban Eatery area employed more environmentally-friendly waste management efforts resulting in plastic dishes, cups and mugs and real cutlery. After finished dining, patrons take the tray of usable eating wear to a staffed collection station.

In the past 40 years, there have been many changes the have altered the geography of the city of Toronto as well as the habits of Canadian consumers. The CF Toronto Eaton Centre not only endured adjustments in shopping behaviour but continues to introduce something special that can't be found on a computer screen or touch device.

With 10 years to go until the CF Toronto Eaton Centre's golden anniversary, projections would suggest as much as half a billion pedestrians will visit over the period.  It remains to be seen what splendors awaits customers our the next decade.


Retail Council of Canada. Canadian Shopping Centre Study (2016, December) pp. 32

CF Toronto Eaton Centre. Cadillac Fairview (Retrieved February 8, 2017)

Lowman, R. (1977, February 10). Secret book tells story of Centre, Toronto Star pp. A10

Lowman, R. (1977, February 10). New Eaton's opens with trumpets, pipes, Toronto Star pp. Cover, A10

Langford, M. (ND). Flight Stop

Taylor, D. (2014, February 26). Toronto’s old Cineplex Eaton Centre Cinema,

Osbaldeston. M. (2008). Eaton Centre (pp. Section 4 1-23) Unbuilt Toronto


  1. Hi Christopher I am completing an article on the history of malls in the GTA. Do you by chance have any old mall directories specifically from the 80's, 90's? Much appreciated.


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