Valhalla demolition (Urban Toronto)
03 . 06 . 2014

A sad string of losses for Modernist Toronto

AUTHOR Dave Leblanc

Before Chicago’s Prentice Women’s Hospital came down, the National Trust for Historic Preservation led a massive campaign to save it. With its unique “cloverleaf” design, the 1975 Bertram Goldberg-designed concrete building was considered a landmark, so in November, 2012, the Chicago Architecture Foundation presented an exhibit showcasing more than 80 designs for its possible adaptive reuse.

As it was being pulled apart in October, 2013, Michael R. Allen, writing in Next City, connected the loss to New York City’s original Beaux-Arts Pennsylvania Station (1910-1963), which caused a sea change in the preservation movement, and wondered if this might be Modernism’s “‘Penn Station Moment’ to dramatize what is at stake and encourage action.”

Interestingly, when demolition began on Toronto’s Riverdale Hospital this past September, nary a peep was, well, peeped. Yes, some had fought valiantly back in 2005 when the issue had come to light; your humble Architourist and others in the media cried out, and those in the architecture world proposed a few schemes to reuse the “half-round.” But, as the years went on, cries became whimpers, and then even the whimpers fell silent.

Since silence won’t save our Modernist landmarks, I feel a reminder of what we’ve lost while I’ve been on watch is in order. That’s because I’m also feeling reflective: next month I’ll celebrate 11 years with The Globe and Mail, and this summer I’ll celebrate 10 as weekly columnist.

Trend House #1 (1952, demolished June, 2006): I begin with the smallest structure, at 1000 square feet. It was a cold December afternoon in 2003 when I met Hugh MacDonald, owner of the very first “Trend House” on Rathburn Road in Thorncrest Village. Built as an exhibition home to showcase British Columbia wood products, 200,000 people toured the Modernist home in the summer of 1952, with Mr. MacDonald among them. The next year, he purchased it as 10 more Trend Houses were built across the country. Never open to the public again, my wife and I – and Mr. MacDonald, then in his 90s – brought about 800 people through the home during Doors Open 2004. I still believe a coffee table book on the Trend House Program would be a good idea; if any publishers are reading this, I’m available (as a side note, the Montreal Trend House was demolished in 2011).

Inn on the Park (1963, demolished spring 2006), Regal Constellation (1962, demolished spring 2011), Valhalla Inn (1963, demolished autumn 2011): So much for hotels with fun themes or architectural features that set them apart from the bland, stuccoed boxes that predominate in the 21st century. AsJetsons-esque as the Constellation was and as lush and dreamy as the Valhalla was, perhaps most painful loss here is the Inn on the Park, as demolition began the day before heritage status was to be debated by city staff; Heritage Canada The National Trust lists it in its “Worst Losses” archive.

Bata Headquarters (1965, demolished 2007): It’s hard to get spitting mad any more about this one, which once graced the hill at Eglinton and the DVP, since the buildings replacing it for the Aga Khan are so lovely. But I still have to ask: cleaned up and all spiffy, would it not have made for a heck of an administrative building within the new complex?

Yolles Residence (1958), Tick Residence (1956, both demolished late-2000s): Both on Toronto’s tony Bridle Path, these long, low, Modernist gems were left abandoned, if you can believe it. The Samuel Tick house at No. 73, as a matter of fact, had been empty for more than a dozen years when I arranged with a realtor to get inside to photograph (and write about) it. Burle Yolles’s home, No. 89, abandoned for about three years, didn’t even require an appointment: I just waddled through the tall weeds to the side door and opened it, then marveled at the Peter Dickinson design (with an addition by Ron Thom). It still boggles the mind that someone with money and a dislike for revivalist 50-room palaces never surfaced.

Sports/Hockey Hall of Fame, C.N.E. (1961, demolished 2006): Only a pasted-on zig-zag canopy and Ron Satok’s mural remain at an entrance to the new BMO Field to remind us of the accordion-shaped walls and gold-anodized aluminum screens that once made up this rhythmic building. I used to gaze at the large array of flagpoles out front, squint and pretend I was in Brasilia.

Back in 1987, the editors of Toronto Modern: Architecture: 1945-1965 viewed the demolition of George Robb’s Shell Oil/Bulova Tower (1955) as a defining moment. But, when the book was rereleased by Coach House in 2002, Marco Polo wrote that there was “clearly still much work to be done to address public perceptions of contemporary architecture.”

That was a dozen years ago, and I fear it’s still the case.

Right now, Coca-Cola’s former Overlea Boulevard headquarters is threatened by Costco, which desperately wants to demolish the stunning Mad Men-era building for a big-box complex. And, even harder to believe is the uncertain future of Eb Zeidler’s futuristic Ontario Place, which, in my opinion, would make a perfect location for the much-ballyhooed-but-never-built Toronto Museum.

If Riverdale didn’t become our Penn or Prentice Moment, will one of these?

Image source:  Urban Toronto