Its time on Earth was too short, but in its brief life 444 Front St. West would witness many things: hundreds of thousands of newspaper stories created, countless cigarettes smoked, the odd fist fight engaged, the occasional marriage contracted, and the utter transformation of one industry.
The Globe and Mail's home for nearly 43 years – the newspaper moves next week to a purpose-built new headquarters in downtown Toronto – was a building of almost singular ugliness. One journalist described it as "a basement in the air," and it inspired a perverse affection in the people who walked its duct-taped carpets and wrote award-winning stories on computers that seemed constantly on the verge of crashing. It had no sushi bar, no pool tables, no Nerf footballs, and dogs were banned after one left a deposit under the managing editor's desk.
But for hundreds of reporters and editors, advertising and marketing people, receptionists, security guards, cleaners and executives, it was home. A slightly odd-smelling home filled with hidden stairwells and doors that went nowhere, but home nonetheless.
Those journalists produced stories that changed the way Canadians saw and thought, ranging from the tainted-blood scandal to the war in Afghanistan, the financial crashes of 1987 and 2008, the violence facing Canada's indigenous women, the mistreatment of the country's thalidomide survivors. Constitutional crises and prime ministers came and went, and occasionally reporters would look up from their desks to see a famous face wander through the newsroom: Was that Bill Gates? Did Bono just take my coffee cup? Then they'd go back to work.
While the building remained the same – the air barely changed in four decades – the city of Toronto and the newspaper industry transformed around it. Once, the neighbourhood in the city's west end was a desolate wasteland, with a sock factory to one side and a strip club on the other. Today it's the bustling heart of Toronto's digital economy. Once, the building shook every evening when the mighty Goss presses rumbled to life. Now the newspaper is sent as PDFs to printing presses across the country, and by microwave antennas to phones everywhere.
444 Front St. West was born in October, 1963, a state-of-the-art newspaper factory with 1,500 tons of clattering presses in its belly, designed to grow with the Toronto Telegram's expanding ambitions. When it died, 53 years later, the building had been The Globe and Mail's home for more than four decades, and computer technicians sat where pressmen had once left their inky bootprints.
Telegram Publishing Ltd. had bought the 3.5-acre site at Front and Spadina streets in 1959, razing a Jesuit seminary (formerly Loretto Abbey) to build its temple for spreading a different kind of word. In October, 1963, the Telegram began publishing from its new headquarters, "loaded with would-be Hemingways." Eight years later, the newspaper was dead, with a red -30- (the reporter's sign-off at the end of a story) on its front page.
By the beginning of 1974, The Globe and Mail had outgrown its offices at 140 King St. West, and prepared to make the move into the old Telegram building (the Toronto Star, having bought the Tely's subscription list, had been using the presses at 444 Front St. West for two years). On Feb. 16, the Globe staff put the paper to bed for the last time on King Street, unplugged the pots of molten metal needed for the Linotype machines, and shipped them several blocks west to their new home. Some beer was consumed that night. In editor Clark Davey's office, the seldom-used "stop the presses" button was pushed so many times that the building electrician came upstairs to cut its wires.
Less than 48 hours later, on Feb. 18, 1974, the bulldog – the first edition of a day's paper – was rolling off the new presses, 60,000 copies an hour. "This is what it is all about," said The Globe and Mail's publisher, James Cooper, as he hit the button to begin the press run. "These faster presses in this spacious new building are what brought us here. In starting these presses, I wish all those who feed and tend them good luck and Godspeed."
So began four decades of camaraderie, gallows humour and world-beating journalism – along with, it must be said, a certain amount of giggle-inducing journalism. One particular weekend editor was so enamoured of animal tales that Monday's paper was often filled with stories like the one that began, "Skunk owners usually kill their pets with kindness …"
Until the mid-eighties, all work in The Globe and Mail newsroom was conducted in a fog of choking cigarette smoke. The linoleum floor was scarred with ground-out butts. One day the head librarian appeared and yelled to the newsroom, "Where's the ashtray?" and a copy editor responded, "You're standing in it." A well-used cigarette machine sat in the cafeteria until the early nineties.
In those days, a series of pneumatic tubes carried copy and layout designs from the newsroom to the composing room. The desk where the editors sat – "the rim" – featured a giant metal spike for impaling copy (and, it was rumoured, lazy reporters). As deadline approached, editors were sent to the composing room to trim stories "on the stone," that is, to make them fit the allotted space. Compositors with the skill of surgeons would slice and replace single letters and words (if they liked the editor making the request) or instead would bark, "Just cut from the bottom, no one reads that far anyway" (if they didn't).
By the late 1970s, computers arrived in the newsroom, though never enough to go around. Report on Business journalists often had to queue for the computers to write their stories – some allotted for smokers, others for abstainers. This is where some, though not all, of the fist fights broke out. A particular corner of the ROB, known for its foul-mouthed inhabitants, was tagged "the Swearing Zone."
While the Globe building would never be mistaken for a love hotel, it did have its share of affairs and assignations, some of which were even sanctified by law. The dim and eerie stairwells were rumoured to produce the kind of stories that couldn't be printed in a family newspaper. There was a dark side as well: In the unenlightened days when there were still "women's pages," young female journalists were taken aside and warned which senior editors were best avoided in those stairwells.
In the newsroom, the corner where some of the more louche reporters sat was dubbed Mellowville. There, journalists spent most of their working days playing pranks on each other: One of them might call another from the lobby, saying that he was Inspector Clouseau and needed a chat; an investigative reporter's story about environmental malfeasance was changed so that all the references to "harbour" were replaced with "headcheese." When a reporter published a story about the efficiency of a particular condom, but got the thickness wrong by a factor of 100, Mellowville celebrated with a week of mockery.
In 1994, the presses were removed from 444 Front St. West, the building no longer shook each evening and its inhabitants forgot the smell of oil and ink. The age of the Internet had arrived, and by 1996 there were three dedicated Internet-connected terminals in the building for looking up information on something called the World Wide Web. Certain diehards clung to their phone books and dismissed it as a passing fad.
Over the years, journalists in the newsroom – and in Globe bureaus across Canada and the world – rose to the occasion when news broke. After the calamity of 9/11, reporters rented cars and fanned out across the continent. When the entire Eastern Seaboard went dark in the blackout of August, 2003, they huddled in the basement by the light of candles and flashlights. On New Year's Eve at the turn of the millennium they gathered on the rooftop deck, on hand to cover a Y2K disaster that never happened, and watched fireworks fill the Toronto sky as the editor-in-chief handed out $100 bills.
Occasionally, a famous face would appear, a disconcerting jolt of glamour against the shabbiness of 444 Front. Rachel McAdams and Valerie Bertinelli came to the newsroom to learn how to pretend to be journalists (pull pranks; complain about the food; never throw anything out). Bono and Bob Geldof arrived in May, 2010, to put out a special edition of The Globe, although Bono stuck Bob with most of the heavy lifting. Heads of state came by for meetings with the editorial board; the Mexican president brought his sniffer dogs and a sharpshooter, deployed on the roof. A circus school rented space in the building, and it didn't seem very odd to arrive at work and see an elephant in the parking lot.
All the while, as the journalism flourished, the building crumbled. The duct tape on the carpets went from being a joke to a permanent fixture (according to one unconfirmed rumour, new tape was put down after the president of Chile nearly took a header on a bit of ripped carpet). Mice were chased away, then ignored, even as they ran over reporters' feet. Water sometimes dripped from burst pipes, and one copy editor taped a golf umbrella to her chair to avoid the leaks. The Globe's cafeteria, which had once enticed customers with delicacies such as "steak shape," closed down for good, taking its much-loved staff with it.
And so, although barely old enough to have a midlife crisis, it was obvious that 444 Front St. West had come to the end of its life. The land it sat on was sold to a developer. The people who had given it life over the years – the ones who sold advertising and maintained the computers and vacuumed around the duct tape – prepared to leave.
Some of us had grown up in that newsroom. By the time we all said goodbye to 444 Front St. West, we were resigned to the fact that we would never know where the mysterious stairways led, or what was behind the tiny door on the landing. The building would go, and take its secrets with it.
Elizabeth Renzetti is a columnist and feature writer at The Globe.