By: Christopher Hume Urban Issues, Published on Mon Jan 23 2012
Even before Crate and Barrel opened its new CB2 store on Saturday, the American furniture retailer was being hailed as a local hero. By restoring the heritage building at the corner of Bathurst and Queen, the chain did the city a huge favour and brought the reclamation of this ratty intersection one giant step closer.
Although long hidden behind a coat of putrid purple paint, the late 19th-century structure turns out to be a modest but utterly appealing rediscovery. Despite having lost its finest architectural feature — a high mansard roof dominated by a north-facing cupola — it retains a sense of balance and scale that stand it in good stead all these years later.
Now comes word that the magnificent 1905 Bank of Commerce at 197 Yonge just north of Queen will also be cleaned up and brought back to life. This remarkable building, a genuine temple of commerce, has sat empty for 25-odd years, an embarrassment to the city. The price of restoration is steep — a 60-storey condo tower directly behind the impressive neo-classical heap, but the developer will also give land on Victoria St. to Massey Hall, which has seen better days but remains Toronto’s finest concert venue.
On the other hand, Odette House, an exquisite late-1800s Second Empire residence at 81 Wellesley St. E. was quietly town down last week to make way for — what else? — a condo. Because the house wasn’t listed or designated as a heritage site, which it obviously was, the city issued a demolition permit without a second thought. Indeed, the trees around the Wellesley property had more protection than the building itself.
And yet, as the world-wide rush to urbanize picks up, it’s clear that 21st-century cities will have more in common with those of the 19th century than the 20th. Our great-grandparents understood instinctively the need for compactness, connection and coherence. Though cities of the 2000s and the 1800s won’t look alike — verticality has replaced horizontality — both will be planned around the need for proximity. For us, of course, there are other issues, too — global warming, fuel costs, congestion….
However, after more than 60 years of sprawl, rebalancing urban priorities won’t be easy. One need look no further than Toronto Mayor Rob Ford to see the forces of backlash unleashed.
The difference now is that developers are starting to grasp the economic potential of heritage. Before CB2, there was Loblaws in Maple Leaf Gardens, Leon’s in the Round House and the biggest heritage renewal project of them all, the Distillery District.
Sadly, Toronto remains overly eager to settle for saving a façade here, a wall there — it’s called “facadomy.” Fortunately, retailers are well ahead of the city on heritage. Even some condo builders are beginning to figure out it’s better to situate their schemes within the larger context.
In truth, heritage preservation has never made as much sense. Most of us prefer historical architecture to our own; typically, materials are finer, the scale more human and design more engaging, more urban.
And as we move into a world of taller buildings and higher densities, the case for conservation, practical as well as cultural, is self-evident. It pays off civically and economically.
But we’re not there yet. Who could forget the sad fate of the old Empress Hotel building at Yonge and Gould? It burnt to the ground last year; police say the fire was the work of an arsonist. So far, no charges have been laid.
Christopher Hume can be reached at email@example.com