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House of Cards
by Christopher Doty

crystal hall collapseWell, in a case like that, anything is liable to happen.

Reid's Crystal Hall on Dundas Street had earned its name for the fine imported glass and chinaware it carried. But by 1907 the owners had decided to change the direction of their business. Most of the stock was either sold off or stored on the third and fourth floors while the lower levels were leased to Peter Smirlie.

Smirlie had plans to convert the space into a billiards hall, a shoeshine parlor and a bowling alley. As part of the renovations, he asked his contractor to cut ten more windows into the east wall to improve lighting. He also asked that the centre wall be removed and replaced by iron pillars. The workers and the building's owner didn't like the idea, arguing the windows and the wall's removal would weaken the entire structure. The east wall needed to be shored up before such work continued.

Smirlie waved away their concerns, arguing that a combination of iron pillars and beams would be in place immediately and would support the renovation. W. J. Reid, who had already cashed the first rent cheque, shrugged his shoulders and walked away. There was no point in calling city hall since council had considered the hiring of a building inspector an unnecessary expense.

Shortly after four o'clock on the afternoon of July 16 the building was largely vacant, save for two painters and laborers moving stock. Next door at Brewster's five and ten cent store, two salesgirls were sorting out stock for the grand opening later that week. At a nearby clothier's, customers were making their final purchases for the day.

At 4:12 Reid's Crystal Hall rumbled. Workers watched in horror as large cracks opened up in the east wall. As it gave way, the wall smashed through Brewster's and the photographer' studio. The roof then began sliding forward into Dundas Street, followed by an avalanche of bricks, glass and woodwork.

As the floor gave way under her, Blanche Westlake made a desperate lunge for a nearby window sill. Miraculously, the wall and window held, leaving the young woman dangling in midair, screaming for help. A ten year old boy, Jimmie Clugston, was entombed by falling debris in the alley separating the two buildings while Percy Robinson was pinned by a falling beam.

Within seconds, Londoners converged on the scene and began clawing through the wreckage for survivors. Clugston and Robinson were pulled out unharmed while Westlake jumped to safety into the arms of rescuers. Others weren't so lucky. Rescuers could hear one victim singing the hymn "Nearer My God to Thee" from under the tons of debris but, by the time they dug him out, they were too late.

Recovery efforts continued into the night, but not before the mass of timbers, brick and broken crockery had crushed the life out of seven Londoners and injured 40 more - all of them innocent bystanders.

While newspaper editorials screamed for justice, city officials blamed Reid for allowing the renovations to go ahead without an architect's approval. Reid shot back that the city did not have a building inspector. Smirlie attempted to shift responsibility by arguing that an earlier fire at the building had weakened the structure and that no one had bothered to tell him.

"Well, in a case like that, anything is liable to happen," muttered Reid.

While the collapse of Reid's Crystal Hall claimed less lives than the City Hall Disaster of 1898, it was a far more spectacular tragedy. The site of a building strewn across one of London's major streets proved to be an irresistible photo op for newspaper editors and postcard vendors. By the fall of 1907 images of the disaster had circulated across Canada and the incident had become a public-relations disaster for city officials.

An article written by Toronto's city architect roundly criticized London's lack of building inspectors while an inquest into the disaster predictably ended up with Reid, Smirlie and city officials blaming each other.

By the time the last piece of rubble was removed by a steam-powered crane, a red-faced Mayor Judd stated "very firmly" that London would have an inspector and a Building Inspection Bylaw in place by the end of his term in office.

The author wishes to thank Ken McTaggart for the use of passages from his 1999 book, London's Darkest Hours.