Toronto's Famous Architects: Peter Dickinson
Torontoist has been acquired by Daily Hive Toronto - Your City. Now. Click here to learn more.




Toronto’s Famous Architects: Peter Dickinson

Yesterday, the wrecking ball had its way with the last vestiges of the landmark Inn On The Park. Once run as an upscale Four Seasons hotel, then as a Holiday Inn, and finally as the bland Don Mills Hotel, the demolition was viewed by many as another of Toronto’s development tragedies despite having fallen into disrepair.
The renowned modernist architect behind the Inn On The Park is familiar for his buildings but less so for his name. Born in London, England in 1925, Dickinson arrived in Canada after World War II, soon making a reputation for himself that would resonate long past his tragic early death from cancer in 1961. As Canada’s most celebrated architect at the time, he is best known for the Hummingbird (née O’Keefe) Centre and Montreal’s CIBC tower, but many more of Dickinson’s legacies are prominent around Toronto.

architect_dickinson_face.jpgIt has been said that Dickinson built the Inn On The Park for the Four Seasons hotel chain on his deathbed. A luxurious retreat, it was perched on a hill at Eglinton and Leslie overlooking the Don Valley; an appealing location for executive conferences and celebrity getaways. What is most prominent about the design is what can only be seen from the air: it was built in the six-pointed shape of the Star of David. The architect had previously designed the hotel chain’s first project, the modest Four Seasons Motor Hotel, built in 1961 at Jarvis and Carlton.
The 1950s were a time of huge growth and shifting trends in Toronto. Highrise apartments were a relatively new and vibrant concept meant to appeal to middle-class, young urban sophisticates, but often arrived at the expense of old Victorian neighbourhoods. Dickinson’s five 14-storey towers dominated Regent Park, aligned to compass points rather than the street grid, and were seen at the time to be a revolutionary improvement over the razed slum of South Cabbagetown. With the current redevelopment of Regent Park, only one of his towers will remain.
architect_dickinson_buildings.jpgAnother of his apartment buildings at 500 Avenue Road was the first in Canada equipped with an individual thermostat control. The famed Benvenudo Apartments in Forest Hill have been recently turned into upscale condominums, and renovations have updated Dickinson’s hotel designs like the Marriott Courtyard and Park Plaza courtyard and canopy (now the Park Hyatt). A Sheraton hotel for Montreal was designed but never completed. Peter Dickinson also built the Church Street Public School and York Mills Collegiate, but also religious institutions like the grand Beth-Tzedec Synagogue and Willowdale’s Jesuit Seminary.
As Dickinson lay dying, his most acclaimed tower neared completion. La tour CIBC in Montreal was the tallest building in the Commonwealth at the time, which incorporated the illustrious glass curtain wall first employed in New York’s Lever House and imitated countless times in noteworthy architecture since. Its floorplate was small for the era due to zoning restrictions, reflecting the trend for tall and skinny skyscrapers to come.
Next to today’s flashy building materials, construction technology and bold designs, many of Peter Dickinson’s works look rather grim. Many of his structures in the downtown core (4 King West at Yonge, 111 Richmond West at York, 365 Bay at Richmond) no longer fit into their neighbourhood context and can even be considered loathsome and ugly. The Inn On The Park, however, symbolized something different. It was a hallmark of post-war optimism within a booming city, intended as a decadent urban escape from the glass and concrete.
What will replace it is another symbol of luxury: a Lexus dealership.
Photos courtesy of Dominion Mondern, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Google Maps, and GWL Realty Advisors.