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What the original TTC subway station tiles looked like

Posted by Chris Bateman / December 3, 2013

toronto subway tileLong gone are the days when the Toronto subway had anything approaching a cohesive interior look. Though some efforts are being made to restore a handful of stations, the TTC has long allowed a hodgepodge of tile colours and textures to proliferate across the system.

It wasn't always so. When the Yonge line was still in the planning phase, the TTC selected a special kind of glass-faced ceramic tile to line the walls of the planned stations known as Vitrolite. The colours would alternate between stations but each would draw from the same theme, much like the Bloor-Danforth line (mostly) does.

Tenders SC-1 and SC-2, won by the Foundation Company of Canada, called for the glossy tile, popular in art deco buildings, over glazed terra-cotta and a type of tin-glazed tile, after the construction company offered a discount of $163,000. It still wasn't the cheapest option but the TTC board chose it anyway.

The original swatches consisted of four colours - "Primrose," "Pearl Grey," "Jade," and "Shell Pink" - but the supplier, Murray Associates, was ultimately unable to provide Shell Pink or Jade in the desired quantities at the budgeted price. "Alamo Tan" was offered as a substitute but the TTC settled on three tints for the 12 stations: "Primrose," "English Egg Shell," and "Pearl Grey."

Union station, shown below in its original tile, got Primrose, as did Dundas, Bloor, and St. Clair. Rosedale, at the top of the page, shared English Egg Shell with King, College, and Davisville while Eglinton, Summerhill, Wellesley, and Queen were lined in the Pearl Grey tone.

toronto subway tileIt's not completely clear what the TTC paid for the tile because the cost was often lumped in with other work the FCC carried out on the subway, including installing the cashier booths and building a station entrance at Union. One early breakdown put the cost at $1.6 million for materials and installation, though the price fluctuated once work began.

The tile itself, while attractive, was difficult to work with and had a tendency to shatter like glass. The FCC billed an extra $18,000 in broken tiles because it felt the problems were due to the "inherent character of the material," not the fault of its workmen.

toronto subway tileThe fragile nature of the Vitrolite glaze ultimately led to its gradual disappearance from the subway. Warping walls, shifting ground, or minor accidents would shatter entire two-inch thick tiles. Rather than pay for the upkeep, the TTC began replacing its original subway tile or covering it in plastic slats, in some cases entombing the damaged Vitrolite behind.

Lucky for us, photographer Ben Mark Holzberg documented the tile and donated his work to the national archives before much of it was lost for good. (Eglinton, pictured in close-up below, is the only station with its original glass-faced tile still intact.)

Some more colour pictures not included here, including a close-up of the tile at College, are available here.

toronto subway tiletoronto subway tiletoronto subway tiletoronto subway tiletoronto subway tiletoronto subway tileChris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: Ben Mark Holzberg/Library and Archives Canada, City of Toronto Archives



Borte / December 3, 2013 at 02:48 pm
Vitrolite wasn't durable, but it sure was classy.
virtual vitrol / December 3, 2013 at 03:27 pm
those st clair and king photos are striking!
Peter McCarthy / December 3, 2013 at 03:33 pm
A technical note: vitrolite is a glass tile, not "glass-faced ceramic tile."
jen / December 3, 2013 at 04:10 pm
So lovely, bright and clean looking!! I wish the stations could look like this again.
Becca replying to a comment from jen / December 3, 2013 at 04:25 pm
Completely agree
Vi Trolite / December 3, 2013 at 04:27 pm
You can still see some of these at Union at the west end on the sides of the wall at the end of the platform and at King on the northbound platform a bit of vitrolite is visible between two ads. The exit to Albert St/Eaton Centre at the north end of Queen also has vitrolite still on the walls on the stairs down to the platform. Broken tiles were replaced by enameled metal panels. You can see a couple of them at Queen and if you tap them with a finger they sound hollow and look crappy compared to the glass tiles.
v79 / December 3, 2013 at 04:33 pm
Speaking of TTC station tiles, has anyone else noticed the absolutely shoddy tiling job done at the "new and improved" Dufferin station? It looks like they had the cast of Canada's Worst Handyman do it. You'd think they could at least afford some spacers with the millions they're shelling out.
W. K. Lis / December 3, 2013 at 05:17 pm
Want to see impressive stations? See for some. However, to go for that maybe considered just gravy, and we can't have that. Can we, please?
iSkyscraper / December 3, 2013 at 05:21 pm
It's not hard to bring this look back - just use porcelain tile. There are many porcelain tiles which have a glassy look but are far more durable and easier to cut and handle than the original tiles. Porcelain tile like this was not around in the 1950s but today it is inexpensive and widely available. I've used it myself on lobby renovations, it's very similar to the original TTC look.

Examples (be sure to click on the photos):
John Labatt / December 3, 2013 at 05:53 pm
Looks like a drunk did the tiles. Real shitty work
Torontonian / December 3, 2013 at 08:35 pm
The standard observation of the '50s and '60s
was that the stations looked like the inside
of washrooms.
Drew / December 3, 2013 at 09:33 pm
very beautiful. i must say though, I quite like Rosedale as it is now.
W. K. Lis replying to a comment from Torontonian / December 3, 2013 at 10:08 pm
More like the inside of do-it-yourself washrooms.
nb replying to a comment from W. K. Lis / December 3, 2013 at 10:47 pm
These photos look like the inside of a nice washroom. The tiles at stations we have now make them look like the inside of a do it yourself, slumlord apartment washroom. Perhaps appropriate considering the lack of funding the ttc recieves from their own government slumlords.
Toron / December 3, 2013 at 10:48 pm

Thrilling post BlogTo. On vitrolite tiles. Seriously?
Steve replying to a comment from Toron / December 4, 2013 at 09:04 am
If you aren't interested, don't click. It's pretty simple.
Brent / December 4, 2013 at 12:26 pm
Some great photos on that linked site. Not only the old Vitrolite panels but also the clarity and simplicity of the signage. When people complain about unclear TTC signs, TTC seems to add more extraneous crap to them.
Brian / December 5, 2013 at 10:13 pm
Here's what you see now at the north end of the southbound Sheppard platform.
Torontois / March 31, 2014 at 01:47 pm
The replacement tiles for many stations are horrendous - the ugly orange used at St Clair stairways for instance. Unfortunately many stations were tiled over during the 70s and I'm sure I heard that the TTC bought tiles on discount, which is why the subway ended up with such horrid and lurid colours.
Peter Kropotkin replying to a comment from W. K. Lis / April 5, 2014 at 09:49 pm
Westminister station, maybe, and that should be it.

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