The Better Living Centre is located at 195 Princes’ Blvd (between Ontario Dr and Prince Edward Island Cres) at Exhibition Place in Toronto. It’s directly across the street from the Queen Elizabeth Building and Theatre.
Before the Better Living Centre
When the Manufacturers’ Building burned down in 1961, arrangements quickly got underway for a new structure to display home furnishings, appliances and goods. The CNE commissioned the renowned architectural firm Marani, Morris & Allan to design a building to bring the homeowner into the modern age.
Opening for the 1962 CNE, the Better Living Centre is a one-storey Modernist-style building which emphasizes form over ornamentation. It’s faced with white glazed brick and has curved corners, irregularly-placed full-height glass entrances, and initially had a central courtyard. The flat roof which appears to be gently resting on the building, is cantilevered 3.7 m or 12 ft past the perimeter.
Keeping with the streamlined form, the Better Living Centre is topped with a rectangular steel grid tower that features randomly placed orange, black, blue, red and white plexiglass panels that resemble the abstract artwork of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian.
The building’s modern, more-functional-than-pretty architecture was merged with several landscaped terraces on all exterior sides where visitors could rest and enjoy the surroundings; plus, on the north wall is a reflecting pool that once had fountains.
Showing the Latest in Consumer Goods
The Better Living Centre was made to house permanent exhibits that would only be displayed during The Ex. Manufacturers showed their most up-to-date models of various consumer goods, such as kitchen appliances, washers and dryers, sewing machines, vacuum cleaners and entertainment equipment.
Throughout the building were complete displays of “decorator rooms” featuring the latest look for kitchens and bathrooms, ultra-chic bedrooms and living rooms, each with a host or hostess. There was also a theatre with cooking shows, celebrity chef demos and workshops.
For many CNE visitors, the Better Living Centre was where they first experienced technologies like a transistor radio, a colour TV, a home computer and electronics.
In 1982, the permanent displays were removed so the space could be rented for other consumer shows. In 1997, home furnishings exhibits were moved out of the Better Living Centre into the newly built National Trade Centre (today known as the Enercare Centre).
Gadgets Galore & the Building Today
The building then became the place to get the latest gizmo you just couldn’t live without. Salespeople on a circuit, crisscrossing the country to places like the CNE, fairs and malls, made their annual stop at The Ex, pitching and demonstrating gadgets or “as seen on TV” products. One seasoned salesperson called Canadians “be-backs” because they had to think about it before buying, while Americans were likelier to purchase on the spot.
The Better Living Centre continues to host various events and shows, and today, during the yearly fair, it’s home to the CNE Farm and CNE Casino.
Did You Know?
Before opening in 1962, the Better Living Centre was also referred to as the Home Furnishings and Appliance Centre.
The building has 5 acres or over 200,000 sq ft of floor space.
The Better Living Centre is part of a collection of Modernist style buildings at Exhibition grounds that shifted from earlier Beaux-Arts and Classical architectural designs. Other buildings of this style include the Queen Elizabeth Building, the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, the Food Building and the former Exhibition Grandstand, the latter of which was also designed by Marani & Morris.
A few characteristics of Modern architecture include clean lines, the use of large smooth shapes, walls of glass and windows, broad roof overhangs, an open layout and a relationship with the outside natural landscape. All of which the Better Living Centre has.
Since at least 1975, there had been talk about enclosing the central courtyard, however, it didn’t happen until 2006.
The building received heritage status from the city in 1993.
In the late 2010s and early 2020s, the Better Living Centre served as a city respite site for those experiencing homelessness and during the pandemic.
“The Painter’s Eye” mosaic mural in the north entrance of the Better Living Centre was created by artist Ronald Satok. In 1959, the artist supply company Reeves and Sons (Canada) Ltd commissioned Mr Satok to create the 4.9 x 2.1 m or 16 ft x 7 ft mural. It’s made from Venetian glass and ceramic tiles and originally hung on an exterior wall at Reeves. In 1971, the mural was donated to Exhibition Place and installed on the east-facing wall of the Governments Building, what we know today as Medieval Times. In 2011, the Painter’s Eye was moved to the Better Living Centre. Another of Ronald Satok’s works of art is the “Face-Off” mural initially located at the former CNE’s Hockey Hall of Fame. The painting now decorates the entrance of Gate 5 at BMO Field.
Garden of the Greek Gods, a collection of 20 mythical limestone sculptures by artist EB Cox is located directly south of the Better Living Centre.