01 . 02 . 2016

Peter Dickinson’s modernist gem to be lost to Toronto

AUTHOR Shawn Micallef

Visiting a building behind a demolition fence is like paying respects to somebody on their deathbed. Such was the mood on a recent visit to the old Regis College seminary in North York.

Opened in 1961, it was built by the Jesuit Fathers of Upper Canada and designed by Toronto’s original Mad Men-era architect Peter Dickinson. One of the city’s most influential modernists, he designed a flurry of mid-century modern buildings in Toronto, beginning in the early 1950s until his premature death from cancer at age 35 in 1961.

The seminary wasn’t a conspicuous Dickinson building, tucked away in what is now a cul-de-sac of houses east of Bayview Ave. just south of Steeles Ave. Crossing a small valley and a branch of the East Don River via Garnier Ct. is the only way to reach the isolated college.

When the Jesuits planned construction of their new seminary in 1958 this area was rural. Over time North York grew up around the college and some of the seminary grounds were sold off for housing developments. Today, a ring of houses that date to the 1980s and 1990s surrounds the building that is being demolishing to make way for yet more single-family homes.

In 1976 the Ontario Bible College moved from their Spadina Rd. location and took over the seminary and eventually rebranded as Tyndale University College and Seminary, a Christian post-secondary institution named after William Tyndale, a 16th century Reformation theologian.

Earlier this year Tyndale moved all of their operations across the valley, taking over much of St. Joseph’s Morrow Park, an all-girls Catholic school, itself a striking building with a rather magnificent chapel rising over the Bayview Ave. property. The old property was sold to developers.

Dickinson buildings can be found all over Toronto, sometimes as subtle as schools and midrise apartment buildings that dot the city, to landmark places such as the Sony (nee Hummingbird, nee O’Keefe) Centre and the Family Court building at 311 Jarvis St. Quite a few have been lost though, demolished because we don’t yet value mid-century modern architecture the way we do older styles.

An application by the North York Community Preservation Panel to list the seminary as a heritage site was submitted last April but apparently too late to save the building.

“If this was a modest Victorian row house in downtown Toronto it would have been designated ages ago,” says Michael McClelland of ERA Architects, a firm that specializes in heritage restoration and advocacy. In 1997 ERA put together an inventory of modern architecture in North York, and updated it in 2010, an extensive volume that shows how much modern heritage Toronto’s inner suburbs has, including the seminary.

This is fabric of the pre-amalgamation city, and so much of it is at risk right now the way Victorian architecture was in the 1950s and ’60s.

Dickinson, in particular, is a major figure in Toronto’s explosive growth after the Second World War. In his excellent and exhaustive 2010 monograph of his life and work, John Martins-Manteiga writes that Dickinson’s buildings “looked like they did not belong” and that there was “an otherworldliness about them”.

Indeed, even behind the demolition fence with a bulldozer parked at the ready, the Tyndale seminary still retained space-age lines, even if a little worse for wear. There’s no reason this beauty couldn’t have been converted into residential units or sold to another institution.

“Anything by Dickenson needs careful consideration for heritage value,” says Scott Weir, also of ERA Architects. Heritage preservationists like to say the greenest buildings are the ones standing, as all the energy put into building them would be wasted with demolition.

With the loss of Regis College a renewed look at the GTA’s rich mid-century heritage — to see what’s at risk and in need of protection — is in order.

Image source:  Toronto Star