Shell Oil Tower, later Bulova Tower, was once located just east of where Princes’ Blvd and Nunavut Rd intersect today at Exhibition Place in Toronto.
Shell Oil Tower Architecture
Built in 1955 by the Shell Oil Company, the 12-storey observation tower was designed by architect George Robb. The soaring Modern-style structure sat on reinforced concrete foundations. The tower was constructed of welded steel beams and glass and topped with a clock.
The 1st to 9th stories housed the stairwells and elevator. Behind glass walls, two sets of stairs, one on each side of the elevator shaft, zig-zagged back and forth. Visitors could climb the 139-step stairwells or take the 25-passenger elevator to the observation platform.
The 10th storey was an open-air observation platform with great views of the Canadian National Exhibition, the waterfront and Downtown Toronto.
The 11th and 12th stories were the two giant analog clocks, one facing east and the other west. Painted the vibrant yellow and red of the Shell Oil Company logo, the clock could be seen almost anywhere on Exhibition grounds. At night, its numerals and portion outside the clockface were lit with neon and glowed brightly. Electronic chimes rang at the top of the hour over a PA system.
Newspapers featured ads with the promotional pitch, “Meet me at the Shell Oil Tower!”
In the early years of the tower, Shell Oil Company put on a display at Christmas time. From The Princes’ Gates, families followed the Avenue of Lights to Shell Oil Tower, where a tall tree decorated with thousands of lights stood in front of the red-lit glass column. Santa greeted the children, and they were given gifts of candy.
In 1965, the analog clocks on the Shell Oil Tower were changed to digital.
The Bulova Tower
In 1973, Bulova took over the sponsorship of the tower, and the name and logo were updated. The clock remained in its original yellow and red colours until the late 1970s, when it was changed to light blue and white.
Dismantling the Landmark
The waterfront landmark started experiencing elevator breakdowns, and in 1983, the tower was closed as the stairs and elevator were structurally unsafe. Restoration costs were estimated at up to $500,000.
In September 1985, an application was made for a permit to take down the Bulova Tower. There were efforts to preserve the contemporary structure by a citizens group and architects, plus there was a proposal to move it elsewhere on Exhibition Place grounds. The Toronto Historical Board recommended the tower be given heritage status for its architectural value. But despite the opposition and protests, work to dismantle the landmark began in November 1985 to make way for the Molson Indy-style auto race track.
Did You Know?
The tower was 36 m or 120 ft high, 12 m or 40 ft long, and 3 m or 10 ft wide.
It was constructed of 100 tons of steel and 9,000 sq ft of glass.
The glass on the front and back of the tower was opaque, while the glass on the ends was transparent.
The observation platform encircled the tower 27 m or 90 ft over the ground and was 3 m or 10 ft wide.
The electric analog clock was 5 m or 16 ft in diameter and had 1 m or 3 ft numerals.
The tower was illuminated with incandescent bulbs on the inside and fluorescent bulbs on the outside.
For the grand opening in 1955, Shell Oil launched 35 gas-filled balloons with bright red bags attached. The bags contained a $10 or $25 voucher that could be mailed in for cash.
In its first year, the tower attracted 11% of CNE-goers.
Shell Oil Company paid the CNE $10,000 rental yearly and had a 10-year renewable lease.
When the digital clock displayed the time as “9:94” it let everyone know it was closing time at the CNE.
Shell Oil/Bulova Tower Photos
The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Aug 25, 1955, pg 3
The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Dec 20, 1957, pg 13
The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Aug 26, 1969, pg 5
Toronto Star Newspaper Archives: Aug 19, 1974, pg C2
The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Apr 14, 1983, pg 1
Toronto Star Newspaper Archives: Nov 7, 1985, pg B1
Toronto Star Newspaper Archives: Nov 22, 1985, pg A12
The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Nov 26, 1985, pg A19
Shell’s Family Guide to the Exhibition brochure, circa 1955
The Billboard Cavalcade of Fairs: Nov 24, 1956, Section 2, pg 58