Kenneth KiddJanuary 8, 2011
“First we shape our buildings, then they shape us, then we shape them again.”
Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn
On the northeast corner of Yonge and Gould Streets, just across from the former and now fire-gutted Empress Hotel, sits a vacant lot strewn with rubble.
This is where Sam the Record Man used to be, where generations passed under those spinning neon records to pick up the latest hits — in LPs, 45s, eight tracks, cassettes and, finally, CDs
Ryerson University plans to build a student centre there, but the most striking thing about the lot right now is where it meets the sidewalk.
In the fashion of archeological digs, it’s easy to make out the original stone foundations of a half-dozen 19th-century buildings, gradually subsumed by the expanding Sam’s, which, to the untrained eye, came to look as if it were just one or two structures.
Over the decades, the place had simply evolved, responding to changes in the way society behaves, how it awards esthetic value, what it expects a building to provide.
Was Sam’s, as a building and a destination, any less beloved than the tiny shops into which it relentlessly grew?
Ironically, this may be the key question amid all the handwringing over the demise of the more historic Empress Hotel, a sad victim of demolition by neglect.
We might construct buildings with a specific use in mind, but fashion, economics and technology start to intervene almost from the outset.
In time, original uses are no longer required and new needs arise. We suddenly want central heating, or indoor plumbing, or fibre optics, or places to put cars rather than horses.
With rare exception, the buildings that truly flourish over time are those that adapt to the changing demands we put on them. Many are astonishingly resilient.
“I’m talking to you now from an old textile building on Spadina, with wonderful big windows so I can do my needlework,” jokes Joe Berridge, a partner with the planning and design firm, Urban Strategies.
“This building has learned to have another life, as have all these buildings, or they would be down by now.”
So the real question might be this: How do we harness an inevitable process and make it work toward the salvation of the next Empress Hotel?
Simply appealing to our sense of history isn’t enough. There is probably no other western metropolis of the size and stature of Toronto that has less collective interest in its heritage and, until recently, less admiration for the finest architecture of any vintage.
We are a city of immigrants, of course, but so are New York, Chicago and London, all of which venerate their pasts.
Toronto almost deliberately turns its back on all that has gone before. Unlike other great cities, we still have no museum dedicated to our own civic history, nothing to inform us fully of the legacy we inherit.
Instead, we’re prone to a kind of self-flagellation, in which our own past achievements are deemed slight, and current efforts thought to be inherently inferior to anything elsewhere. It’s an equation of self-defeat.
“We live in what surely is the greatest civil society on the planet and we’re building one of the least attractive, least efficient modern cities in the world,” says Paul Oberman, chief executive of Woodcliffe Corp., whose portfolio of heritage properties includes North Toronto Station and the Gooderham Flatiron building.
Could it be that what Toronto has failed to recognize is this: Preserving heritage buildings is actually more about ensuring a vibrant future than just treasuring the past?
Jane Jacobs once famously declared that all new ideas arise in old buildings.
As she scathingly wrote about large-scale, urban rebuilding projects: “They will have all the attributes of a well-kept, dignified cemetery.”
For Jacobs, the real genius of great, liveable cities was rooted in their chaos, the disorder of people making decisions based on their wildly disparate needs.
The most vibrant neighbourhoods, in other words, tend to be ones with both old and new buildings, with a dizzying array of uses, but always marked by constant evolution. Like a shark, when they stop moving, they die.
“The downtown really needs this whole mix of buildings from different periods, different uses,” says Michael McClelland, a principal with E.R.A. Architects Inc., who has worked on such projects as The Distillery District.
Despite the enormous pressures of population and economic growth, and an official city plan that actively promotes increased density, central Toronto is still blessed with a vast number of heritage buildings.
The Empress Hotel, which dates to 1888, could serve as a kind of mental proxy for many of the streetscapes in the central core.
Whole sections of upper Yonge Street, as well as King and Queen Streets, boast comparable architecture, much of it preserved by neglect, especially on the upper floors.
This is not, as with the Empress, a long-term method of preservation. Lack of maintenance eventually takes it toll.
In and of itself, simply declaring them to be of historic value is insufficient. Across the entire city, roughly 8,000 buildings are listed as being of historic interest, about 4,500 of which are also more formally designated by city council as heritage buildings under the Ontario Heritage Act.
But this is of limited utility when property owners are either determined to demolish a building, or cannot financially justify the cost of rehabilitating them. Work orders issued by the city can go ignored for as long as possible, and even the city’s refusal to issue a demolition permit can be appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board.
The result is a lengthy standoff, during which the building continues to deteriorate. “Once it gets into a fight, it’s lost,” says architect Ian McGillivray, who does a lot of work in heritage preservation. “You end up with two immovable blocks.”
This is, sadly, a familiar narrative, with developers and property owners cast as villains, which in some cases they might actively be. But not always; there are, and can be, different outcomes.
“We judge preservation, I think, a bit by the exception rather than the generality,” says Berridge, who notes how relatively few buildings of historical note have come down in the last couple of decades.
How then, to ensure that today’s preservation by neglect doesn’t lead to the same fate that befell the Empress?
With that building’s partial collapse and subsequent fire, it’s easy to lose sight of the number of successfully rehabilitated old buildings, from the Distillery District and Carlu to the Drake and Gladstone Hotels, the latter of which have sparked a lot of other restoration work in Parkdale.
“People often think that the development industry is anti-heritage, but most of the heritage conservation work that happens in this city is in relation to some development project,” says McClelland.
Sometimes, developers do that conservation work in return for concessions, such as increased density for an adjacent condo. But not invariably so.
Oberman, for instance, likes to boast that his own projects, such as the former North Toronto Station, now a very chic LCBO, are ample proof that developers can still make money restoring and updating heritage buildings.
He’s now in the process of restoring a collection of 19th-century buildings immediately west of St. Lawrence Market, with plans for restaurants, sidewalk cafes and, if the city proves amenable, even a flower market under the balcony of the market across the street.
But there are inevitable hurdles to such restoration and reuse, especially when they involve buildings less storied or publicly admired than the Gooderham Flatiron Building.
The numbers have to dance, since the cost of refurbishing and maintaining older buildings is inevitably higher than constructing new ones of the same scale.
And the amount of government funding currently available through heritage programs is often relatively slight compared with the amount of work needed.
If we want to get serious about preserving heritage buildings, then maybe we’re going to have to rethink how we go about paying for it.
As it happens, Oberman has at least one modest proposal.
Various levels of government, including the City of Toronto, have tax rebate programs aimed at historical conservation.
But Oberman thinks that, ideally, all such efforts ought to be consolidated under the umbrella of a federally mandated program, administered locally.
It could be modelled on Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., whose insurance program has stimulated residential construction for decades.
Here’s how it might work. If a property is being restored to some enforced standards, then the owner would be allowed to assign the ensuing tax rebates over the coming years to a lender.
Based on that future cash flow of tax rebates, the owner could then borrow a significant sum of money, but only if it’s used for restoring and maintaining the building.
For governments, it might even be self-financing, since higher property values would lead to higher taxes.
Oberman’s idea didn’t get much traction when he first presented it to the federal finance committee in 2009.
But if the demise of the Empress is to have a lasting legacy, then it’s this: We need to think more about causing what we want to happen, not just stopping what we don’t.
As Lloyd Alter, president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario puts it: “We’ve got to take carrots and not a stick to this.”
Buildings inevitably have life cycles, so figuring out which ones to save and when can get terribly tricky.
A great many now-famous structures – from the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben to the Chysler and Empire State buildings in New York – were hugely unloved when they where first built.
Lewis Mumford, the most influential architectural critic of his day, tartly dismissed the Rockefeller Center in 1933 before it was even completed, dubbing it “mediocrity – seen through a magnifying glass.”
The opposite can also hold true, as initially admired buildings fall from fashion. Hence the near-death experience of Toronto’s Old City Hall once its successor was ensconced in Nathan Phillips Square.
In his recent book, Makeshift Metropolis, Witold Rybczynski notes that the biggest test for most buildings is usually between their 30th and 50th birthdays, a time when “architectural tastes have changed and the original design no longer seems fresh.”
Penn Station in New York, after all, was only 54 years old when it was torn down, an event that, now more than half a century later, is still referred to by architects as one of the greatest acts of civic vandalism in American history.
If, however, buildings manage to survive their mid-life crisis, they often go on to find favour with newer generations. But Rybczynski adds a telling proviso:
“It helps if a building is functionally, as well as esthetically, outstanding, for the argument that great architecture should be held to a different practical standard generally falls on deaf ears.”