A collection of façades on BCE Place on Wellington Street.
As a follow-up to Torontoist’s previous article on façadism in architecture, we sought the expertise of Alec Keefer, president of Toronto Architectural Conservancy. He took us on a tour of some examples of façadism around the city. He chose to focus on the downtown core because of its volatile nature; as both the oldest part of the city—with dozens of heritage sites—and the financial and commercial heart of the GTA, preservationists and developers frequently get territorial, especially considering the soaring property values in the area. And too often, the expedient “compromise” of maintaining the front face of a building while destroying the rest cheapens its integrity so greatly that outright demolition may be preferable.
In the first part of Façadomy, we explained how the practice of façadism often allows heritage buildings to be treated as “sentimental wallpaper” to be stuck onto the front of newer structures. An example of this (literally) skin-deep interpretation of architectural preservation can be found at BCE Place, known for its sprawling, glass-and-whalebone arcade (photo left). When construction began on BCE, the block of Yonge street between Front and Wellington housed a series of turn-of-the-century warehouses. The City of Toronto pressured the developer (Brookfield Properties) to maintain the original structures by integrating them into the larger building as street-level shops. Brookfield resisted, insisting that clients would be hampered by the constricted spaces. The city caved, allowing the warehouses to be destroyed as long as the front faces were retained.
Once completed, one of the first clients was the Marché Restaurant (now Richtree Market Restaurants), which wanted to put up partition walls in alignment with those of the former warehouses in order to bring a sense of coziness and human scale to the gargantuan office building. The property managers readily agreed, and new walls were built in place of old ones that had been destroyed on account of their uselessness. As a final touch to this theme park version of preservation, the area inside the building was renamed “Heritage Square.”
However, contrary to media’s depiction of developers as soulless Machiavellians who relentlessly bulldoze Toronto’s history and culture, it’s the city that often makes the most damaging decisions about heritage preservation.
The building to which this façade (photo right) was once attached resided on 40 King Street, and was the home of the Wood Gundy brokerage (c. 1905). It’s a wonderful example of High Renaissance design, with lovely glazed cream-and blush-coloured terra cotta. When the current building was being built on Gundy’s former site, the terra cotta was cut into blocks, numbered, and shipped off to a warehouse in Scarborough until construction was completed. Then it was returned and affixed to the back of the building on Adelaide, adjacent to the underground parking entrance.
The retention of the foot-thick façade is pointless at best, torn away as it is from its original location and reduced to little more than a cheesy corsage pinned onto the newer building—and the cost of this façade would have been astronomical (and arguably, unreasonable) to the developer. But as mentioned in the previous article, the city of Toronto, in violation of UNESCO World Heritage statutes, treats façadism as though it were genuine heritage conservation. Even though the Gundy building had been stripped of all historical significance, the city required that the lobby inside the newer building be laced with mock-historical flourishes, such as Neo-classical dentils and Edwardian columned archways.
The most saddening part of the tour was the former Savarin Tavern (erected at 330 Bay in 1919), a cultural hot spot for jazz and, later, R&B in Toronto. When the tavern was demolished in 1980, its façade was moved into the new office building’s interior courtyard. But when we arrived to investigate the remnants of the former tavern, we found that even the heritage-designated façade was gone. Mr. Keefer was absolutely stunned, explaining that they had obviously not consulted the city about its destruction or he would have heard about it. But why would they have bothered to consult the city? The former heritage site had already been trivialized to the point that no one cared about it anymore. Instead of destroying heritage sites by a wrecking ball, façadism often just prolongs the destruction through a drawn-out and costly process of relocation and trivialization until, devoid of any context to what they once were, they are tossed aside in the next renovation.
Photo of BCE archway by Archangeli.