Shell Oil/Bulova Tower – The Contemporary Landmark Once at The Ex

1960s – Shell Oil Tower and the Flyer, was once located at Exhibition Place, near where Princes’ Blvd and Nova Scotia Dr intersect today. Shell Oil Tower was built in 1955 and designed by architect George Robb. It later became Bulova Tower and was dismantled in 1985
1960s – Shell Oil Tower and the Flyer, was once located at Exhibition Place, near where Princes’ Blvd and Nova Scotia Dr intersect today (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 150, Item 13)

Shell Oil Tower, later Bulova Tower, was once located near where Princes’ Blvd and Nova Scotia Dr 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 reach 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 clock on the Shell Oil Tower was changed to digital.

Mid-1980s - Looking west through The Princes' Gates towards the Bulova Tower, originally the Shell Oil Tower. The tower stood at Exhibition Place from 1955 until 1985
Mid-1980s – Looking west through The Princes’ Gates towards the Bulova Tower, originally the Shell Oil Tower (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 416, Item 7)

The Bulova Tower

In 1973, Bulova took over the sponsorship of the tower, and the name and logo were updated. The clock remained in the 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.

1972 – Looking out from the observation platform of the Shell Oil Tower once at Exhibition Place. The platform was on the 10th storey of the tower and 27 m or 90 ft above the ground
1972 – Looking out from the observation platform of the Shell Oil Tower once at Exhibition Place (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 94, Item 16)

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

1955 – Looking west on Princes' Blvd towards the Shell Oil Tower during construction. Notice the Flyer roller coaster located behind the tower
1955 – Looking west on Princes’ Blvd towards the Shell Oil Tower during construction. Notice the Flyer roller coaster located behind the tower (Toronto Public Library R-2743)
Between 1955 and 1960s - Looking west on Princes' Blvd towards the Shell Oil Tower and the Flyer roller coaster once located at Exhibition Place. The contemporary tower was designed by architect George Robb and later became the Bulova Tower
Between 1955 and 1960s – Looking west on Princes’ Blvd towards the Shell Oil Tower and the Flyer roller coaster once located at Exhibition Place. The contemporary tower was designed by architect George Robb and later became the Bulova Tower (Courtesy of the Canadian National Exhibition Association Archives)
1960s – Shell Oil Tower and the Flyer was once located at Exhibition Place, near where Princes’ Blvd and Nova Scotia Dr intersect today. Shell Oil Tower was built in 1955 and designed by architect George Robb. It later became Bulova Tower and was dismantled in 1985
1960s – Shell Oil Tower and the Flyer was once located at Exhibition Place, near where Princes’ Blvd and Nova Scotia Dr intersect today. Shell Oil Tower was built in 1955 and designed by architect George Robb. It later became Bulova Tower and was dismantled in 1985 (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 150, Item 13)
1955 – The Midway and Shell Oil Tower at the Canadian National Exhibition. The clock was painted the vibrant yellow and red of the Shell Oil Company logo
1955 – The Midway and Shell Oil Tower at the Canadian National Exhibition. The clock was painted the vibrant yellow and red of the Shell Oil Company logo (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 536, Item 417)
1955 – Visitors on the observation deck at Shell Oil Tower making a phone call from the highest spot in the CNE
1955 – Visitors on the observation deck at Shell Oil Tower making a phone call from the highest spot in the CNE (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 94, Item 32)
1958 - Crowds on the CNE Midway at Exhibition Place. The Shell Oil Tower was built in 1955 and later became the Bulova Tower until it was dismantled in 1985
1958 – Crowds on the CNE Midway at Exhibition Place. The Shell Oil Tower was built in 1955 and later became the Bulova Tower until it was dismantled in 1985 (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 94, Item 8)
Mid to late 1950s - The Musical Ride of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the Exhibition Stadium. Notice the Shell Oil Tower and the CNE Midway in the distance
Mid to late 1950s – The Musical Ride of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the Exhibition Stadium. Notice the Shell Oil Tower and the CNE Midway in the distance (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5742)
1964 – A view from the Exhibition Stadium towards the Flyer on the CNE Midway. Notice the Shell Oil Tower still has an analog clock
1964 – A view from the Exhibition Stadium towards the Flyer on the CNE Midway. Notice the Shell Oil Tower still has an analog clock (CNE Archives)
1965 – The 3rd York Militia gun crew from Fort York firing a cannon to start CNE's first marathon car rally. Notice the Shell Oil Tower has a digital clock face
1965 – The 3rd York Militia gun crew from Fort York firing a cannon to start CNE’s first marathon car rally. Notice the Shell Oil Tower has a digital clock face (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5799)
1965 - The start of the Canadian National Exhibition's first marathon car rally with the Shell Oil Tower in the background
1965 – The start of the Canadian National Exhibition’s first marathon car rally with the Shell Oil Tower in the background (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5796)
1972 - Looking between the Flyer and the Shell Oil Tower once located at Exhibition Place. Notice the Alpine Way in the distance
1972 – Looking between the Flyer and the Shell Oil Tower once located at Exhibition Place. Notice the Alpine Way in the distance (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 94, Item 32)
1972 – Looking out from the Shell Oil Tower observation deck  once at Exhibition Place. The platform was on the 10th storey of the tower and 27 m or 90 ft above the ground
1972 – Looking out from the Shell Oil Tower observation deck once at Exhibition Place. The platform was on the 10th storey of the tower and 27 m or 90 ft above the ground (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 94, Item 16)
1972 - Looking south from the observation platform of the Shell Oil Tower once at Exhibition Place. Notice the Ned Hanlan Monument (now at Hanlan's Point on Toronto Island), the locomotive (now at the Toronto Railway Museum), Stanley Barracks occupied by the Marine Museum and the view of Lake Ontario
1972 – Looking south from the observation platform of the Shell Oil Tower once at Exhibition Place. Notice the Ned Hanlan Monument (now at Hanlan’s Point on Toronto Island), the locomotive (now at the Toronto Railway Museum), Stanley Barracks occupied by the Marine Museum and the view of Lake Ontario (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 94, Item 19)
1972 - Looking north towards the Ned Hanlan tugboat (now at Hanlan's Point on Toronto Island) and the Shell Oil Tower at Exhibition Place during the CNE. Notice the Coliseum Building on the right, the Flyer roller coaster on the left and the Alpine Way in the distance
1972 – Looking north towards the Ned Hanlan tugboat (now at Hanlan’s Point on Toronto Island) and the Shell Oil Tower at Exhibition Place during the CNE. Notice the Coliseum Building on the right, the Flyer roller coaster on the left and the Alpine Way in the distance (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 94, Item 62)
1972 – Looking southwest from the observation deck at the Shell Oil Tower once in Exhibition Place. Notice the CNE Midway rides and the Exhibition Stadium & Grandstand
1972 – Looking southwest from the observation deck at the Shell Oil Tower once in Exhibition Place. Notice the CNE Midway rides and the Exhibition Stadium & Grandstand (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 94, Item 17)
1973 – Looking north towards the CNE Midway. The Bulova Tower, originally known as the Shell Oil Tower, was once located at Exhibition Place, near where Princes’ Blvd and Nova Scotia Dr intersect today
1973 – Looking north towards the CNE Midway. The Bulova Tower, originally known as the Shell Oil Tower, was once located at Exhibition Place, near where Princes’ Blvd and Nova Scotia Dr intersect today (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 97, Item 17)
1974 - Looking through the Tornado roller coaster towards the Bulova Tower, originally the Shell Oil Tower, during the Canadian National Exhibition
1974 – Looking through the Tornado roller coaster towards the Bulova Tower, originally the Shell Oil Tower, during the Canadian National Exhibition (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 94, Item 82)
1974 - Looking towards the Tornado roller coaster and the Bulova Tower, originally the Shell Oil Tower, at the CNE. Notice on the centre-right the Ned Hanlan tugboat (now at Hanlan's Point on Toronto Island), the CN Tower under construction and the Toronto Dominion Towers
1974 – Looking towards the Tornado roller coaster and the Bulova Tower, originally the Shell Oil Tower, at the CNE. Notice on the centre-right the Ned Hanlan tugboat (now at Hanlan’s Point on Toronto Island), the CN Tower under construction and the Toronto Dominion Towers (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 94, Item 81)
1976 - Looking north from just south of Lake Shore Blvd W towards the Flyer roller coaster and the Bulova Tower once at Exhibition Place. Notice the Coliseum in the distance
1976 – Looking north from just south of Lake Shore Blvd W towards the Flyer roller coaster and the Bulova Tower once at Exhibition Place. Notice the Coliseum in the distance (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 129, Item 12)
1970s – An aerial view of the CNE Midway. Notice the Flyer roller coaster in the front centre, Coliseum Building in the distance and the Bulova Tower, originally the Shell Oil Tower on the right
1970s – An aerial view of the CNE Midway. Notice the Flyer roller coaster in the front centre, Coliseum Building in the distance and the Bulova Tower, originally the Shell Oil Tower on the right (CNE Archives)
Between 1978 and early 1980s – The Bulova Tower, originally the Shell Oil Tower, was once located at Exhibition Place. Notice the Marine Museum, Ned Hanlan tugboat and the Flyer roller coaster
Between 1978 and early 1980s – The Bulova Tower, originally the Shell Oil Tower, was once located at Exhibition Place. Notice the Marine Museum, Ned Hanlan tugboat and the Flyer roller coaster (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 628, Item 4)
Between 1978 and early 1980s – An aerial view looking southwest towards Exhibition grounds. Notice The Princes' Gates, Bulova Tower (originally Shell Oil Tower), the Flyer roller coaster, Exhibition Stadium & Grandstand and more
Between 1978 and early 1980s – An aerial view looking southwest towards Exhibition grounds. Notice The Princes’ Gates, Bulova Tower (originally Shell Oil Tower), the Flyer roller coaster, Exhibition Stadium & Grandstand and more (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 362, Item 8)
Mid-1980s - Looking west through The Princes' Gates towards the Bulova Tower, originally the Shell Oil Tower. The tower stood at Exhibition Place from 1955 until 1985
Mid-1980s – Looking west through The Princes’ Gates towards the Bulova Tower, originally the Shell Oil Tower. The tower stood at Exhibition Place from 1955 until 1985 (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 416, Item 7)
2021 - Looking west through The Princes Gates at Exhibition Place towards the site of the former Shell Oil/Bulova Tower
2021 – Looking west through The Princes Gates at Exhibition Place towards the site of the former Shell Oil/Bulova Tower
SOURCE
  • 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
  • Photos: Denise Marie for TorontoJourney416
  • Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library, CNE Heritage & Canadian National Exhibition Association Archives