The mid-20th century was an era of immense growth and change in Toronto, as suburbs expanded outward in a car-fuelled postwar boom of subdivisions, highways, and shopping plazas.
Malls and plazas became the de facto town squares in what were then sparsely-built-out ‘burbs, many of which remain hubs for their communities to this day, like Sheppard Plaza at the northwest corner of Bathurst and Sheppard in the former suburb of North York.
Constructed in 1959, the plaza opened amid an onslaught of similar suburban shopping clusters built to serve the city’s outward expansion, and it remains a staple of the Bathurst and Sheppard community over a half-century later.
But Sheppard Plaza’s constant presence in the area hasn’t come without changes, one of which sticks out like a sore thumb in the plaza’s parking lot.
A small, seemingly abandoned hut exists near the edge of the parking lot close to the Bathurst and Sheppard intersection. It blends in with the urban white noise of the plaza, but this curious little shack is actually an important relic of history that was actually one of the plaza’s busiest spots decades earlier.
The hut was actually a later addition to the plaza, introduced in the decade after it opened as part of what was then a rapidly-expanding chain of photo development drive-through kiosks known as Fotomat.
The California-based chain proliferated in mall and plaza parking lots across the continent, including a location at Sheppard Plaza housed in the now-forlorn-looking booth.
Toronto was home to other Fotomat locations, including one at the corner of Richmond and Victoria in the heart of the city.
In the late 1980s, the rise of the one-hour photo business — made possible by a machine known as the minilab — rendered Fotomat’s business model obsolete.
The brand would live on as a digital photo-processing website until 2009, but the booths have all since been repurposed or demolished. In some cases, Fotomat booths have been repurposed into drive-thru coffee and other businesses requiring minimal overhead, but the Bathurst and Sheppard location would see a different fate.
After years of disuse, the former Fotomat booth was given a new lease on life in 2011 when artist Stephen Cruise converted the structure into a sort of tree house with his Share the Moment installation.
The project morphed the building with a natural-looking exterior, but the iconic three-tiered pyramid roof once seen atop Fotomat huts across North America is a telltale reminder of an era before phone-tography and the instant gratification of cameras with preview screens.
The art installation, now well over a decade old, has begun to show signs of age, opening up the door for a new era of possibilities for this parking lot shack.