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Lawrence Plaza opened Oct. 29, 1953. - Dan Pearce/Torstar
Lawrence Plaza opened Oct. 29, 1953. - Dan Pearce/Torstar

Lawrence Plaza: Toronto’s First Suburban Shopping Centre Opened in 1953

At 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 29, 1953, a huge bang resounded throughout North York, as a cannon was fired at the northwest corner of Lawrence and Bathurst streets. It marked the exuberant official opening of two-storey Lawrence Plaza, Toronto’s first suburban shopping centre, and also then the city’s largest, a pivotal moment in North York’s modernization. Before, the land had been cow pasture.

There were 40 retail shops on the ground floor, medical, dental and general offices on the second, a 300-seat restaurant, and 2,000 parking spaces floodlit at night for evening shopping. It was considered a super-colossus for its time.

A.J. Bennett, one of three brothers who developed the $3 million plaza through their firm Principal Investments Ltd., described as Canada’s biggest commercial landlord, told The Globe and Mail: “It has been obvious for some time that some decentralization of shopping was necessary in Toronto to ease the downtown crush.”

The location had been carefully chosen — in the heart of the new large subdivision of Lawrence Manor between Bathurst Street and what is now the Allen Expressway and Lawrence Avenue to Hwy. 401, readily reached by Torontonians everywhere.

There was tremendous public excitement about the opening. At 7:30 a.m., two hours in advance, crowds were lined up at the doors of stores advertising giveaways. By noon, 3,000-pound bags of coffee, 1,500 cups and saucers, and 2,000 packages of chocolate had been handed out and the parking lot was jammed. A pipe band paraded. “Speedboats,” a children’s amusement, spun in a circular pool of water.

Eleven months later, around 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 19, 1954, two teens casually went downstairs to the basement of the plaza’s Canadiana Restaurant where its safe was, pried it loose, covered it with a raincoat, went back upstairs and strolled out without customers or staff wondering about the big bundle they were carrying. They got into a waiting car and disappeared before anyone realized what had happened.

In Aug. 1955, the Montreal-based Henry Morgan & Co. department store chain chose to open Toronto’s first suburban department store in the plaza. Morgan’s was bought by The Bay in 1960.

Written by Susan Goldenberg.

Originally published on October 25, 2020, on toronto.com.