The Whitney Block – Toronto’s Empty Tower

June 27, 2021

In Toronto, almost any building that has been vacant since last Thursday has a sign on it for redevelopment as a condo project. So how is it that we have one right downtown that was last used in 1968? Its roots lie in the Ontario Legislature building at Queens Park which was completed in 1892 when the province had a population of just over 2.1 million people. Over the next two decades the population grew by 40 percent and the government quickly outgrew a couple of expansions. Rather than adding a couple of more floors to Queens Park it was decided in 1923 to purchase the land on the east side of Queens Park Crescent. Francis R. Heakes was the Chief Architect for Public Works Ontario and was given the task of designing the new office space that would occupy the site. Envisioning the ongoing growth of the province he designed a facility that could be expanded easily. Plans called for 3 east-west wings, joined by a central north south hallway. Three identical wings could be added, one at a time as required to the south of them. During design and construction it was known as the East Block and the corner stone was laid on July 30, 1925. Each wing was 6 floors except the centre one which had a 7th floor at the front. The first three wings opened on March 26, 1928. The Google Earth capture below shows the site today with the original three wings to the north, the central tower and a fourth wing to the south of it. The land purchased for the fifth and sixth wings is now a park. The MacDonald Block is comprised of the taller buildings to the east.

With the Depression less than a year old, the government approved the next expansion partially as a make work program. The first three wings had cost $2.5 million, of which only $2,000 had not been spent on Canadian materials and labour. The second phase would be similar with all local materials and a hand dug foundation. Francis Heakes died in September 1930 and George White was brought in to complete the works. He added a 16 story tower that had not been in the original plans.

Art Deco architecture became popular around 1915 and had run its course by 1940. One way to recognize Art Deco is the artwork that the buildings are decorated with. These government buildings are no exceptions and display quatrefoils everywhere. A quatrefoil is made of four overlapping circles and in the original Latin context it applied a four-leaf clover. The Canadian Imperial Bank tower is another great example of Art Deco in the city.

The doorways have a nice Gothic arch which gives each of the buildings an interesting entranceway.

Twelve carvings by Toronto sculptor Charles Adamson adorn the buildings with one each on the four upper corners and two on each side a couple of floors lower.

The four carvings on the upper floor are all female and represent Justice, Tolerance, Wisdom and Power (seen below).

Each side of the building has two male figures set in the following pairs: Farming and Forestry, Law and Education, Labour and Mining and finally Finance and Health with the latter being shown below. The tower had a bowling alley in the basement and an entire floor for animals being kept by the Department of Health. It also still has a hand-cranked elevator, perhaps the last one remaining in the city. Unfortunately, one of the problems with the building was poor ventilation and the only way to get fresh air was to open the windows. Government employees were never happy with the slow elevator and the single stairwell. This lack of egress in case of emergency situations led the building to be deemed a fire hazard. All but the first few floors have now stood empty for over 50 years. The tower was featured in the movie “Chicago” and many claim that the spirit of Francis Heakes still haunts its hallways.

Even before the East Block was completed it was being called The Whitney Block although it would have to wait until 1966 to get the name officially. James P. Whitney was elected to his first term in 1905 as the first Conservative Premier in 33 years. Whitney was elected to four consecutive majority governments winning at least 70% of the seats each time. He died in 1914 shortly after the fourth victory making him the only premier to die while in office. His legacy includes bringing power to Ontario through the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario as well as passing the Workers Compensation Act. The image below shows the carving “Agriculture”.

This Toronto Archives aerial photo is from 1956 and shows the houses and buildings that used to stand on the south end of the site. These were cleared away in 1958 in preparation for the construction of the fifth and sixth wings.

However, even as they were planning the next phase of construction it was becoming obvious that two more 6-story wings would not be enough to meet the needs of the ever expanding provincial government. The idea was scrapped and instead the Macdonald Block was built to the east of the site. It consist of four towers of 24, 14, 14, and 10 stories and like the Whitney Block is currently undergoing a massive renovation project which includes new windows and energy efficiency upgrades. A park was developed on the site and now is home to the Ontario Police Memorial. Below the statues of a male and female police officer are the names of those who died in service.

This drawing shows what the Whitney Block would have looked like when it was fully built out. It was taken from the Archives of Ontario and is dated to around 1930.

It’s hard to say what the future holds for this building but the exterior has been kept well restored and perhaps one day a plan will be made to do something with the interior. A proposed exterior staircase on the east side of the building (hidden from Queens Park) and ventilation upgrades might put the tower back into service. However, the single stairway might be adequate if the building was opened for tours and to allow people to get a closer look at the carvings. Time will tell.

Further reading from a little different perspective can be found in these recent articles by Now Magazine and Blog TO

Also see our post on Queens Park

Google Maps Link: Whitney Block

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3 thoughts on “The Whitney Block – Toronto’s Empty Tower

  1. hallaloo

    First of all, thank you for sharing your extensive knowledge in an entertaining yet informative way. Secondly, how do you know all this stuff?

    Reply
  2. Kevin Jenson

    thank you for this I have often wondered about the history of this building and now I want to take a closer look at those sculptures

    Reply

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