Photo of the Thomas Meredith House by Timothy Neesam.
If memory serves, high school Canadian history classes always struck us as a little wimpy. How, we felt in our drama-loving teenage hearts, could coureurs des bois and Trudeau hold a candle to Napoleonic exploits and JFK? With age comes wisdom, fortunately, and we now find Canadian sagas as compelling as their flashier counterparts elsewhere. Helping us along are organizations like Heritage Toronto, whose mandate is to get us excited about our fair city’s past. In a first for the organization, it is currently co-hosting a photography exhibit showcasing some of Toronto’s most interesting and vulnerable heritage buildings. It’s one of those ideas which works so well that it’s a wonder no one thought of it before: get some of Toronto’s great photographers—in this case, members of the Shadow Collective—and send them for a ramble through a few of our most architecturally compelling landmarks. “Building Storeys” is the result, an exhibit which, in the words of Heritage Toronto historian Gary Miedema, gives us “a unique way of looking at these buildings.” Part history lesson and part artistic adventure, “Building Storeys” had its opening party Tuesday night and early indications are that the show will be a hit.
Olena Sullivan, a founding member of the Shadow Collective, first hatched the idea for “Building Storeys” during a car-ride with one of her collaborators. They’d been listening to a story about ten of the most endangered buildings in Canada, and Sullivan started mulling over a photo exhibit dedicated to a Toronto-based version of such a list. She approached Heritage Toronto, which jumped on the suggestion excitedly and started making plans. The organization’s Conservation Committee put together a list of sites to serve as subjects for the photographers; foremost among their goals, according to committee chair Mark Warrack, was to ensure that the full range of Toronto’s architectural diversity was represented. The committee made sure to select buildings that served a variety of functions, were built at a variety of time periods, and were located in different areas of Toronto. Fourteen sites were ultimately chosen, all of them somewhat at risk. The seven members of the Shadow Collective then went off exploring, taking more than two hundred and fifty shots between them; forty or so of their favourite photos made the final cut and are now on display.
Photo of Union Station by Яick Harris.
“Building Storeys” is both an artistic venture and a public education campaign: Peggy Mooney, Executive Director of Heritage Toronto, told us that part of the show’s purpose is “to make the people that own [the buildings] aware of how valued they are by the community.” The hope is that the exhibit will inspire us all to give our heritage sites a bit more love, and perhaps to work a bit more diligently for their preservation. But despite the buildings’ fragile state, said Warrack, “we wanted it to be positive,” and many of the photos have captured scenes of delicate beauty lurking in the decay. (Our favourite photos by far were of the decrepit Thomas Meredith House at 305 George Street.)
Among the buildings are some familiar icons (Union Station and Maple Leaf Gardens, for instance, which are endangered by renovation plans which may not respect their historical nature) and some fascinating unknowns (like the Milne House, an abandoned farmhouse in the Don River Valley). One of the best aspects of the exhibit is that every site has been shot by several different photographers, allowing viewers to juxtapose a range of perspectives on each location. While some photos work better than others, the overall quality of the images is excellent, and “Building Storeys” is thoroughly enjoyable for both its artistic and educational merits. The buzz amongst Heritage Toronto staff is that they are so pleased with the show’s reception they are already contemplating future installments, an idea of which we are unabashed fans.
“Building Storeys” continues at the Gladstone Hotel until February 22.