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The transformation of Toronto's skyline from 1880 to today

Posted by Derek Flack / August 30, 2010

Toronto skyline 1970sThere's few more obvious ways to track the growth of a city than by charting the transformation of its skyline. Perhaps this is especially the case with a city like Toronto, where developments have seemed to come in major stages, whether this be the rise of the Royal York Hotel in the late 1920s, the Toronto Dominion Centre in the late 60s or, of course, the addition of the CN Tower in the mid-70s. And even if such documentation fails to tell an in-depth story about the nature of the city, it remains intriguing to examine the process by which Toronto grew up on a macro level.

The photos below speak mostly for themselves in this capacity, but a few provisos are worthy of mention. In a perfect world, an exercise like this one would compare depictions of the skyline from the same vantage point so as to give the most accurate representation of its growth. Unfortunately, however, this is not strictly the case with the images below. While an attempt has been made to be consistent, there is quite a bit of variance from one angle to another.

This is noteworthy because certain vantage points from the east and west tend to make the skyline look more populated (as they include buildings not generally seen from more direct angles like Toronto Island). Nevertheless, with a sharp eye, comparisons can still be drawn from decade to decade -- particularly during those periods in which major additions make their appearance on the skyline.

But, enough preamble. This isn't supposed to be a scientific comparison, so much as a visual demonstration of the profound development Toronto's core has experienced over the last 130 years or so.
(When the specific year in which an image was taken/produced is unknown, I've used the decade as a label).

Toronto skyline 1875

Toronto skyline 1893

Toronto skyline 1910

Toronto skyline 1920

Toronto skyline 1930

Toronto skyline 1940

Toronto skyline 1950

Toronto skyline 1968

Toronto skyline 1973

Toronto skyline 1987

Toronto Skyline 1999

Toronto Skyline 2007

Toronto Skyline 2010

What it might look like in 2014
Toronto Skyline 2014The above image was created by Scott Dickson and posted on Urban Toronto a while back. Dickson took to the task of rendering the skyline with buildings scheduled to be built in the upcoming years. For a high resolution look at his images (one of which is labeled), please follow the link.

All images but the first and last two are sourced from the Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons licence. The second last photo is from steve colwill of Flickr and the last is by Scott Dickson.



bob / August 30, 2010 at 04:22 pm
Has anyone seen Gehry's plan for Louis Vuitton Foundation museum in Paris? It's half the cost of AGO and twice as amazing, and follows similar concepts.

ps. beautiful article
Keith / August 30, 2010 at 05:34 pm
There is something wrong with the 1973 picture. CIBC (both towers) as well as Redpath Sugar are shown as being WEST of 1st Canadian Tower when seen from the lakeshore. The picture was doctored.
Blair replying to a comment from Keith / August 30, 2010 at 06:45 pm
Keith is right about the 1973 image. It is definitely incorrect.
Blair replying to a comment from Keith / August 30, 2010 at 06:47 pm
On second glance, it has not been doctored other than the fact that it is a mirror image.
Derek replying to a comment from Keith / August 30, 2010 at 07:10 pm
I think I know what the problem is. It's not doctored so much as just inverted. I would guess that in the process of scanning the photo, it was somehow flipped horizontally. I flipped it back in Photoshop as a test, and it looks right. Not sure if I want to post the corrected version, though -- it is someone else's image.

Good eye!
ed / August 30, 2010 at 08:06 pm
Toronto used to be a city that had skyscrapers in concentration, but the the whole city is going vertical, and I can't say that I always like it. I really don't want to see Toronto as another New York or Chicago.

geroe / August 30, 2010 at 08:07 pm
funny, the last photo has a lot of old designs on it, namely Aura and One Bloor
Piro / August 30, 2010 at 09:06 pm
@ ed

Why not? Those cities are amazing, and are plenty distinct from each other. Toronto can be another great city, yet still be distinctly Toronto.
keith / August 30, 2010 at 09:17 pm

Your right, its just inverted not doctored.
RKMK replying to a comment from ed / August 30, 2010 at 09:55 pm
I don't know about New York, but I would *love* if our architecture took after Chicago. That city has amaaaaaaaaaaaazing history of beautiful buildings - including apartment buildings where original hardwood floors and built-in bookcases aren't even mentioned in vacancy advertisements because they're so common. Sigh. I really don't mind the glass condos as much as other Torontonians; if we could bulldoze all the concrete eyesores and intersperse some Chicago-style gothic architecture here and there, I'd be thrilled.
Adam Sobolak / August 31, 2010 at 12:08 am
The "1950s" shot might actually be touching into the 1960s, judging from the presence of Peter Dickinson's Prudential Building to the right of the Bank of Commerce...
Nunavuter / August 31, 2010 at 01:10 am
In addition to being inverted, the image labelled 1973 was taken in at least 1976 given the presence of a finished Royal Bank Plaza and First Canadian Place.

These fixable boo-boos aside, I really appreciate the montage. Thanks for the effort!

What I'd like to see is a late 1974 pic, with a partial CN tower and First Canadian Place still under construction. I've never seen that moment captured in a photo.

Nunavuter / August 31, 2010 at 01:59 am
Another thought: We can narrow the 1967-9 photo to late 1966 or very early 1967, because the TD Tower is "topped out" but the cladding is not finished. Just a year later, and there would be the frame of the Royal Trust Tower going up next door.

The transformation between 1966 and 1976 was rather pronounced. It's funny how when I was a teenager in the 1980s the skyline really impressed me, and now any pre-1990 picture looks "empty." I'm sure the 2007 picture will look similarly empty ten years from now given the rate things are happening right now.

Now I'm feeling old. :)
rick mcginnis / August 31, 2010 at 09:42 am
It's remarkable that the Royal York and the Bank of Commerce tower ruled the skyline for decades, and then became virtually buried in ten years - the '70s, basically, when Toronto unseated Montreal as the country's banking centre after the FLQ crisis. For the decades previous to that, Montreal's skyline wasn't nearly as stagnant.
Sherri / August 31, 2010 at 12:47 pm
Wow. I love this. It's great how the church on the right is among the tallest buildings in the 1920s, then it becomes microscopic in the 50s shot.

Ed, I think as long as the CN Tower is standing, Toronto will be distinctively Toronto.
Mark Dewdney / August 31, 2010 at 05:18 pm
We're all "cheering" for Howard and Vaughan to enter the mayoral race. Wish Fletcher, Bussin & others would follow suit! :) Let's have a BUNCH of lefty candidates!
Dialog replying to a comment from Mark Dewdney / August 31, 2010 at 05:42 pm
Yes, because in this election, Toronto desparately needs a fractured left.
Dialog replying to a comment from Mark Dewdney / September 1, 2010 at 02:12 am
Yes, because in this election, Toronto desparately needs a fractured left.
Joel replying to a comment from Nunavuter / September 8, 2010 at 10:40 pm
I was interested in a 1974 photo too, so I found this on Flickr. Enjoy :)
Ross replying to a comment from RKMK / September 9, 2010 at 12:41 pm
Amen! I've been to both Chicago and New York, and out architecture does not fare well by comparison. The design and attention to detail of the buildings in the US cities is truly astounding (including having design elements like sculptures, gargoyles, etc) near the top floors where hardly anyone would see them.

Toronto? Bland. Or, perversely ugly on occasion.
accozzaglia / September 14, 2010 at 02:10 am
FYI: The 1950s photo by flickr user pjs_deceased is a copyrighted photo, not under Creative Commons. You can <a href="";>verify it here</a> if you'd like.

At the very least, link the photo above to the original source with proper attribution. Cheers.
MTDL / September 16, 2010 at 10:40 pm
ugh. as much as i i like condos and want more tall building in are city i love old buildings like royal york hotel and the more homey feel and i hope Toronto doesn't look like that in 2014 it just looks out of place and CN tower doesn't fit there
Bill Freeman / September 17, 2010 at 10:56 am
The photos give a very dramatic representation of the changes to Toronto's skyline. Thanks.

I don't agree with some of the comments about Toronto's architecture. Some of the newest buildings in the city are quite spectacular, but we can do so much more with interesting materials, innovative design features and public art. What is even more important to me is the public space around the buildings and the amenities that invite the public to use and enjoy the space. Those are elements we need to promote.

Thanks again, Bill Freeman
CW replying to a comment from RKMK / September 18, 2010 at 09:58 am
Couln't agree more on Chicago, they stuck to their plans since 1909, not only are the buildings and 'after the fire' folklores interesting and incredble to look at, they stuck to the rules and now have a beautiful city with parks and walkways, river walks all along downtown. We were just there and I couldn't stop wishing our city was a bit like Chicago in architecture and city planning. I'm sure they have their issues, not sure what its like there in the winter, may be a ton of cold wind tunnels around all the buildings BUT I still Loved it!
V G / September 20, 2010 at 08:42 am
Nice work on putting this together!

Huge changes in the 20's but what is really tragic is the difference between the mid 80's and now when the wall of hideous condos went up and blocked the city off from the waterfront.

Our "world class city" got world class political corruption and mismanagement.
Betty replying to a comment from RKMK / September 20, 2010 at 10:50 pm
i completely agree!!!! chicago is mind blowing beautful!!!
i wish toronto can be half as nice as chicago!!!
Danny / April 28, 2011 at 12:15 pm
Interesting... I wish we could start building with more traditional and actually visual appealing materials such as limestone and granite though. Our entire skyline might as well be a long stretch of green glass if no one steps up and does something.
Taal / April 29, 2011 at 01:44 am
Regarding Chicago; They have some marvelous architecture from the earlier part of the last century, some may even argue better then New York.

In more recent times though you'll find more variety (and better, at least in my opinion) architecture in Toronto.

Chicago also has some grand streets (and parks as other have mentioned), something Toronto doesn't too well. Having said this, I do find Toronto has more in the way of interesting and vibrant neighborhoods around the core.

For something that Toronto has done 'right' surprisingly, I urge everyone to check out sherbourne common / sugar beach. It really puts HTO park on the central waterfront and every other public (or even private) project in Toronto in recent times to shame. They did an excellent job here and the attention to detail is amazing. It's too bad there isn't a similar project in the core. By the looks of it I don't have high hopes for the NPS revitalization.
Martin Reis / May 29, 2012 at 04:51 pm
Awesome post. So fascinating. Thank you.
matthew / August 23, 2012 at 12:43 pm
always consider toronto as my second home. so cool to view how it has been transformed over the years.thanks so much for putting the display up for viewing
JP / October 20, 2012 at 04:21 pm
Wow. Toronto basically looked like Omaha, Nebraska until the mid 70s.
JP / October 20, 2012 at 04:24 pm
@ed you don't want to see Toronto become another New York or Chicago? Why on earth not? Those are great cities.

As long as our moronic city leaders start providing adequate transportation/utilities for the growth at some point, and as long as the architecture isn't awful, vertical growth like this is a great thing.
Sandra / March 17, 2013 at 03:05 pm
Hello there, does anyone remembers in the 80's when going in the elevator up the C N Tower, you were handed a large white handheld device so you can hear when someone speak and tell you all about the tower? Anyone I told about that hinks I am crazy but I do have pictures from November,1986 holding that device in the tower elevator.
Aaron / March 17, 2013 at 03:58 pm
Huge skyline transformation (let's hear it for cheapo investorboxes!), same crappy subway over the last 6 photos. Priorities, in a city run by quick-buck developers.
lizzy / October 22, 2013 at 09:21 am
why should toronto look like new york or chicago toronto is unique so should its skyline
Cassie Gill / October 22, 2013 at 11:27 am
How come the CN Tower is missing from the 70's and 80's photos - wasn't it built by then?
Dylan / October 22, 2013 at 11:53 am
I appreciate this post. I absolutely love studying the urban development of Toronto and other major cities. But I feel this post lacks consistency! In the future, it may be more dramatic to feature photos of Toronto's skyline from a similar angle as you progress. The last three photos (before the 2014 rendering) are each taken from different points of the lake - so it is difficult to actually see, in reality, the progression of density in the city as a whole. I do understand the need to feature different views of Toronto in a post like this though, but maybe different views in one era, followed by the same in the next era, would be more appropriate :)
Linden / October 22, 2013 at 06:42 pm
I can take 2007 picture but 2014 is depressing and this is the reality. I have been wondering myself, do developers really hate Toronto, where is the great design, the style, the architecture. Are they all for the money, and no grand vision.
stopitman replying to a comment from Cassie Gill / October 22, 2013 at 07:17 pm
@Cassie Gill - the CN Tower was started in 1973 and completed in 1976, which is why it's not visible in the 1973 photo.
Dipset replying to a comment from bob / October 22, 2013 at 08:22 pm
That is amazing and the type of architecture we can have if we decide to. And I bet they aren't complaining about snow or how to clean its windows or inane comments that tend to hold us back.
boofboof replying to a comment from stopitman / October 22, 2013 at 10:41 pm
even if it was completed you wouldn't be able to see it anyways.. when you mirror the photo it's only showing the east side of the core.
Sheila / October 23, 2013 at 11:38 am
I remember taking the train into Toronto in the 70s and looking for the Royal York. I felt sorry for it when it was buried amongst the other buildings.:)
Having just come back from Chicago I now feel sorry for all of Toronto. Where are the fountains , the boulevards, the open spaces? Toronto feels dark and cramped in comparison - but I still love it.
Jon / October 23, 2013 at 01:58 pm
Not sure what people are talking about when it comes to the design element. The L-Tower, Massey Tower, 88 Scott St., the Ice Towers, 1 King West, Gehry-Mirvish proposal, One Yonge proposal, 37 Yorkville proposal, the AGO, UofT, Queens Park, Casa Loma, City Hall (old and new), Summerhill Station, the new subway stations on the University/Spadina extension, Union Station, the Brookfield place atrium, CN Tower, Allen Gardens, OCAD, Yonge & Grenville proposal, Ryerson student learning center, etc. These are all quite interesting and add to the city. Yes there are a lot of "cookie-cutter" glass boxes going up but people too quickly forget about the unique and interesting developments both existing and planned in the city.
Matt / May 29, 2014 at 02:11 pm
I'd take the shining modern glass and steel over the dreary oppressive mid-century concrete that dominates so many other cities (cough New York cough). If you want history, go live in Ottawa, if you want open spaces, go live in the suburbs, I love Toronto the way it is.
Eric / August 18, 2014 at 07:15 pm
When I was younger, I was always amazed how tall the white "BMO" building was... now there are condos surpassing that eighty easily..
mike replying to a comment from Derek / November 16, 2014 at 02:06 pm
I have scanned hundreds of old slides before and it is quite easy to load some in backwards, resulting in what you see here. If one is not familiar with the scene, then they may not know it needs to be flipped.
Bernie Brule / March 2, 2015 at 07:45 am
From amazingly beautiful
to unusably ugly
way to go To.
paul / March 26, 2015 at 07:01 pm
ahhh...Toronto of the late 1980's. look it was beautiful even up to 1995...we still had a chance.

But Toronto is too full of trough feeders...from the politicians , Councillors and to development companies who only want to make a quick buck.

The ugly 197o's buildings will still be intact in 15 years but the condos and cheaply built glass towers will start literally falling apart
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