Shell Oil Tower

Princes' Boulevard, Toronto, ON.

“The demolition of the [Shell Oil] Bulova Tower in the fall of 1985 was a decisive moment.  Obstructing a proposed race course for an ‘Indy’-style car race at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds, the Bulova Tower was destroyed, despite the 11th hour protest of a group of citizens and members of the Toronto Historical Board and City Council. The reluctance of the man in the street to acknowledge the historical significance of the Bulova Tower and its wanton removal from the CNE grounds inspired a group of concerned architects and urbanists to organize a series of public events aimed at raising awareness of Toronto’s modern architecture.”

-The Bureau of Architecture and Urbanism, Toronto Modern:  Architecture 1945-1965

George Robb’s competition-winning design for an observation tower for Shell Oil Company of Canada Ltd. at the Canadian National Exhibition was diminutive in scale yet heroic in spirit.  The Shell Oil Tower foreshadowed the office towers of the Modern Movement that would follow in downtown Toronto.  The tower, later named the Bulova Tower, was a familiar landmark and much-loved experience for visitors to the CNE for 30 years.

The Shell Oil Tower was located on Princes’ Boulevard on axis with the 1927 Princes’ Gate.  It stood over 36m. in height and with a footprint of just 37sq.m.  A welded steel structure framed two stair towers on either side of an elevator, all of which were enclosed in glazing within steel sash.  An open-air observation deck cantilevered several metres in each direction beyond the face of the tower.  An enormous luminous beacon, with clock faces of 5m. in diameter, crowned the tower.  At the base, a freestanding canopy with a curved plan provided the only departure from the otherwise, strict, rectilinear composition.  Atop the canopy, illuminated letters spelled out “SHELL OIL TOWER.” The tower was painted with the company’s signature colours of yellow and red. Fluorescent lights on the exterior and incandescent lights inside provided nighttime illumination.

The project was featured in the inaugural issue of The Canadian Architect, in November/December 1955.  Robb’s Shell Oil Tower was an essay in minimalism, and Toronto had not seen as bold an expression of the Modern Movement until that time.  It was the first all-welded steel structure in the city.  The bilaterally symmetrical composition was taut and lean.  Robb successfully employed a minimal palette of industrialized building components: steel, glass, an elevator, a clock, and light fixtures.  The nighttime effect versus the daytime effect was particularly sophisticated, and each image appeared to be a photographic negative of the other.  The Shell Oil Tower seemed to be composed of simply steel and light.

The tower was part of a significant building campaign at the Canadian National Exhibition in the post-war era, which included the Grandstand Stadium (Marani & Morris, 1948), Women’s Building and Queen Elizabeth Theatre (Page & Steele, 1956), Food Products Building (Richard A. Fisher), Dufferin Gates (Philip R. Brook, 1959), Hockey Hall of Fame (Allward & Gouinlock, 1962) and Better Living Centre (Marani, Morris & Allan, 1962).  These places formed a significant cultural heritage landscape of the modern era, which was dramatically expanded to the south with Ontario Place (Craig Zeidler Strong, 1971).

The Shell Oil Tower was directly associated with the petroleum company Shell Oil of Canada, first established in 1911 by Royal Dutch/Shell Group.  In 1973, Bulova took over the lease from Shell.  As the pioneer of electronic time keeping, Bulova replaced the analogue clock with a digital one, signaling a new era of technology.

With its free admission and panoramic views over the CNE fairgrounds and Lake Ontario, the tower was particularly successful with fairgoers of all ages.  Ascending the tower, the equivalent of a nine-storey building, was an annual ritual for many families.

By the early 1980s the tower was in need of repair, and was eventually closed.  Lacking heritage protection and amidst protests from members of the architecture and design community, the Shell Oil Tower was demolished in 1985 to accommodate an automobile race.

George Robb died in 1991, and was nominated to the Honour Role of the Ontario Association of Architects the following year for his contribution to the profession.  The Shell Oil Tower garnered him a posthumous Urban Design Award in 1995.

Finally, the Shell Oil Tower is associated with the birth of the conservation of modern built heritage in Ontario.  The demolition of such a significant building led to the formation of the Bureau of Architecture & Urbanism, which was to produce the first exhibit and publication on Toronto’s post-war architecture and urbanism.