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cityscape

Goodbye Historic Concourse Building, Hello Ernst & Young Tower

One of downtown's few remaining Art Deco office towers will leave a rich artistic legacy, but only on its facade.

“The Concourse Building introduces colour for the first time in downtown Toronto,” a newspaper ad boldly proclaimed in March 1929. “The austerity of eternal gray which pervades our streets is relieved in this building with a lovely warmth of gold. An office in this building will be more than an office.”

Colourful it was. From the mosaics designed by Group of Seven member J.E.H. MacDonald at its entrance to the aboriginal-inspired decorations lining its top, 100 Adelaide Street West’s 16 storeys stood out among Toronto’s early skyscrapers. But that colour has dimmed over the years, first because of grime, now because of facadism. Over a decade after getting initial approval, Oxford Properties is proceeding with plans to gut the Art Deco-style Concourse Building and use two of its facades in the base of a new, 40-storey Ernst & Young Tower.

Built in 1928, the Concourse was designed by the firm of Baldwin and Greene, who also worked on the nearby Victory Building. The building’s name was intended to reflect a gathering of industry. One of its early tenants was the Toronto Industrial Commission, which promoted the city as a business centre.

MacDonald and his son Thoreau were hired to create mosaics at the Adelaide Street entrance and art in the ground-floor lobby. The main piece above the front door celebrates the confluence of the four elements, while the smaller works lining the Romanesque arch honour Canadian industry. “Standing on Adelaide Street near Bay,” MacDonald noted in the Telegram in February 1929, “and viewing the building in the morning sun, it suggests to the fancy a brightly illuminated letter in a fine manuscript, beginning, perhaps, some greater chapter of our future development.”

The artist also provided a detailed description of the lobby area:

The colour idea is carried into the floors, walls, and ceilings of the foyer, the floors being of bold angular designs in green and buff terrazzo inlaid with bronze stars. The walls are mostly of a warm, ivory travertine and the ceiling designs show Canadian motifs in definite colouring in gold on a warm, reddish-grey ground. There are running deer, Canadian trees and flowers, various types of sporting fish in gold, with flying birds, wild ducks, and cloud forms.

MacDonald believed that “the Colour Age seems to have some interesting possibilities, and it looks as though our architects and their clients were about to enjoy themselves. There seems to be no reason why business and building should not be entertaining as well as efficient.”

The foyer walls were inscribed with verses from eight Canadian poets ranging from Bliss Carman to Duncan Campbell Scott. “The undisclosed anthologist who has selected the poetical quotations has contributed to the relief of business pressure,” observed the Globe in April 1929. While we can’t say how many tightly-wound office workers relaxed upon reading the chiseled lines, we know that several of the honoured poets were on hand to praise the developers when the Concourse formally opened on June 17, 1929.

Unfortunately, later renovations removed the poems, while other lobby elements were covered up. Soon after Oxford took over the grimy-looking building in 1998, it released plans to replace the Concourse with a 40-storey, 720,000 square foot tower that would incorporate two of the original walls.

Preservationists won a brief reprieve in the spring of 2000 when the Toronto and East York community council set a May 2 deadline for Oxford to devise an alternative solution. Battle lines formed. Oxford’s lawyer, Stephen Diamond, told the Star that while the developer was spending millions to preserve MacDonald’s mosaics, “when you look at the building wall, that is not, in my humble opinion as a layman, the most architecturally significant historic building I have seen.” The Concourse’s defenders, hampered by weak heritage preservation laws, tried to find potential buyers, even though Oxford refused to sell the site. “The building may be worn and ill-used,” National Post columnist Robert Fulford reflected, “but it could at a reasonable cost be brought back to vibrant life by one of those sensitive developers who have been reviving downtown structures ranging from warehouses to tall buildings from the same era as the Concourse.”

By a 38 to 12 vote on May 10, 2000, city council gave Oxford the go-ahead. The developer indicated it would wait until market conditions felt right before proceeding, which resulted in a stay of execution that lasted for over a decade. The current plan, designed by Kohn Pederson Fox and WZMH, calls for a LEED Platinum certified, 40-storey, 900,000-square-foot tower whose base will include the south and east walls of the Concourse. The building will be integrated into the PATH as part of Oxford’s Richmond-Adelaide Centre. Named after main tenant Ernst & Young, the new tower is scheduled to be completed by summer 2017. Presumably the segment of the Toronto-Dominion Centre bearing Ernst & Young’s name will receive a new moniker.

While the Star’s architecture critic, Christopher Hume, lauded the aim of a green building, he lamented yet another case of a heritage building being turned into a “partial architectural artifact.” As he put it:

What gets forgotten is the notion that the Concourse has economic value because it’s a heritage site. There are many businesses in Toronto that would choose to be in a local Art Deco masterpiece, but they’re not the sort that interest Oxford. Its focus is strictly corporate. It provides top-of-the-line AAA office space; that means convenience, not character; brand new, not historic; efficiency, not charm. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s exactly what companies like Ernst & Young, the main tenant, want. Who can blame them?

Additional material from the May 1929 edition of Construction, the April 6, 1929 edition of the Globe, the May 8, 2000 edition of the National Post, the March 15, 1929, May 14, 1929, March 18, 2000, March 24, 2000, May 11, 2000, and June 14, 2013 editions of the Toronto Star, and the February 26, 1929 edition of the Telegram. All photos by Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist unless otherwise noted.

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