They were built in 1856 in the Georgian style and were Toronto’s last standing townhouses from the 19th century, but now Walnut Hall is no more. The historically-designated property began collapsing yesterday at about 4 p.m. and is now almost entirely rubble [CityTV video]. Shuter Street was closed from Jarvis east to Pembroke Street until late this afternoon.
The property was notorious for its decrepit state. Once owned by the RCMP along with the adjacent former RCMP headquarters (now the Grand Hotel), the townhomes were sold to a developer who intended to demolish them and rebuild, but in May of 1997, they were designated as historical architecture under the Ontario Heritage Act and had to remain standing.
Currently under new ownership, the property was allowed to suffer a similar fate to some other historic buildings around the city, where a developer allows the structure to fall into such dereliction that it either collapses by itself or it is deemed unsafe and eventually has to be destroyed. Property owners aren’t mandated to maintain historical properties as they decay. Two beautiful Victorian brick homes on Wellesley east of Yonge were allowed to be torn down a couple of years ago to make way for a condominum despite being historically significant buildings. One of the homes was allegedly in enough disrepair that it was given the green light for demolition, while the other was deemed as historically “recognized,” but not notable enough to be preserved by law.
Article continues with more photos under the fold. Top photo by Mr Kevino from the Torontoist Flickr Pool, who also created a drawing of Walnut Hall as part of a series on display at the Cameron House for the rest of the month. All other photos by Marc Lostracco.
According to the Star, the building experienced the first significant signs of collapse in 1999 when bricks began falling from upper floors and engineers evaluating the townhomes recommended immediate demolition. Instead, a chain link fence was erected around the property. A few classic homes on nearby Sherbourne have also been lost in recent years due to neglect.
Walnut Hall was built by John Tully, who was one of Toronto’s preeminent architects at the time (his design was one of four considered for the construction of Old City Hall in 1844). The townhouses were originally named O’Donohoe Row, after alderman John O’Donohoe, who bought the land from baron William Jarvis. In the mid 1900s, the structure was renovated to add a storefront and renamed as Walnut Hall, and had served as a rooming house and a municipal hostel. It has stood shuttered and empty for two decades.
The question arising for the umpteenth time is why the City has no law in place to fine or convict property owners for a dereliction of responsibility in maintaining historically significant properties. The City’s alleged preservationists have been notorious over the last century for allowing swaths of incredible architecture to meet the wrecking ball for the sake of high-density downtown development. If a developer buys a designated property to patiently wait for “demolition by neglect,” the community can do nothing except watch it decay. Does the same fate await gorgeous but deteriorating buildings like the former TD and CIBC bank buildings across from the Eaton Centre? And do the buildings that replace them actually improve the architectural identity of the area?
As we lose great structures like the Riverdale Hospital and the Uptown Theatre, we should remember the Distillery District, Yorkville Fire Hall and The Courthouse as examples of what can and should be done with historically-significant structures. Torontonians would be up in arms if there were demolition plans for the Daniel Brooke Building (1833; King and Jarvis) or the John Daniels House (1867; Yorkville), yet we seem to be powerless to stop the last two centuries from disappearing at the hands of negligent owners.
Photos by Marc Lostracco