Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Victory Building, November 6, 1936. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 3.
Henry Falk is an enigma. The New York entrepreneur and builder doesn’t appear in the pages of any of the Who’s Who publications of his day. His background isn’t clear, nor is his date of arrival in Toronto. But his big ambitions garnered him plenty of press in the city’s late-1920s building boom, when a spate of skyscrapers—including the Royal York, Sterling Tower, the Toronto Star Building, the Canada Permanent Trust Building, and Falk’s own Central Building—rapidly transformed the skyline.
Falk had already built a number of buildings, including the Clarendon Apartments and Lawrence Park Manor, when he began working with architect Martin Baldwin, of Baldwin and Greene, on the Claridge Apartments. It’s difficult to be certain which of the two was the visionary. Baldwin was connected to the thriving local arts community and Falk was inspired by and wanted to emulate the new breed of skyscrapers being erected in New York. But both embraced the Art Deco aesthetic and collaborated to build the sixteen-storey Concourse Building, one of the city’s most distinctive, at Adelaide and Sheppard in 1928.
Construction commenced on an even more ambitious project, the Victory Building on the old Gaiety Theatre site at 80 Richmond Street, in May 1929. Falk and Baldwin had “investigated the most recent advances in engineering and architectural design,” according to The Star, “with a view to making the Victory building the last word in beauty and efficiency.” Designed to rise twenty-six storeys with stepped-back floors near the apex, it was to be the tallest all-concrete structure in the Empire. With Art Deco’s emphasis on mass and contour, rather than distracting decoration, all its lines were meant to draw the eye upwards. The Victory Building would revel in its own strength and height and reflect the confidence and exuberance of the era. The skyscraper was to be, Falk said, “as much the triumph of the engineers as of the architects.”
The Victory Building became a symbol of its age, though not as Falk anticipated. After the stock market crash in the autumn of 1929, construction halted. For the next eight years, The Globe said, the ghost tower stood “on the city’s skyline as a none too pleasant reminder of boom days, depression and broken hopes.” Like Casa Loma and the Park Plaza Hotel at Avenue and Bloor, the Victory Building was “a scar on civic pride.”
Rendering of the original design from The Star on July 5, 1929.
For each of his buildings, Falk wanted—and was willing to pay for—the finest designers and artists available. When he had a particular artist in mind, he’d simply ask, “How much do you want?” And he’d pay the asking price. As a result, he’d been able to recruit Group of Seven artist J.E.H. MacDonald for the Claridge and the Concourse. To ensure the Victory Building likewise brightened the commercial district with artistry, he enlisted sculptor Aaron Goodelman, a Russian émigré from New York City, then ensconced him in a fourteenth-floor studio in the Concourse Building.
Unlike that earlier tower, the Victory Building would not feature any topmost decoration on the tower since, as Falk said, it wouldn’t be visible to those on the sidewalk. Goodelman’s work, announced in The Star on December 27, 1929, would sit at street level with a great stone marquise, twenty-feet long, that would extend ten feet over the sidewalk. Made of the same stone as the building and supported by hidden steel girders, the marquise would appear, as Falk desired, like “it were actually pinched out of the building.” The sculptoral elements of the marquise, inspired “by the advent of the skyscraper and the era of the machine age,” depicted electric flashes and elements of engineering like derricks, chains, and rivetted plates. In the lobby would stand an eight-foot statue of white metal and marble depicting man’s power and strength over the globe. As a whole, Goodelman said, the artistic scheme would “convey an impression of security to the passer-by.”
Construction of the Victory Building progressed rapidly through the summer of 1929, with the superstructure completed to about the twentieth floor and the brickwork to the seventeenth, by late October. Then, with the crash, construction ground to a halt. And, leaving tools and building supplies where they fell, workers abandoned the site almost overnight. All the scaffolding, wooden forms and other woodwork were left in place. Rumours swirled through real-estate circles that the foundations were slipping or worse. Falk fervently denied the rumours, and claimed to be redesigning certain elements of the top six storeys. By the end of November, he admitted that there’d been financial difficulties—on the part of the underwriter, not him—but he remained optimistic that work would soon resume and the building would be complete on schedule.
Despite his bravado, the Victory Building eventually went into liquidation, with the Royal Trust Company acting as trustees, and Falk disappeared from the public eye. Last heard from building model homes showcasing General Electric’s modern household conveniences, Falk’s ultimate destiny in Toronto or New York is as obscure as his origins. Baldwin became curator—and later a director—of the Art Gallery of Toronto in December 1932.
Victory Building—19th floor, October 28, 1932. City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Subseries 1, Item 1176.
Sitting untouched for two and a half years, the Victory Building was more than just a blight on the streetscape hiding behind construction hoardings. The empty hulk was viewed by City Hall as a menace to public safety. The Board of Control had long tried fruitlessly to petition the building’s owners to clean up the job site. In May 1932, councillors decided to take action themselves and sent J.J. Woolnough, the City Architect and Superintendent of Building, to inspect the building and take photos. He would return numerous times over the course of the year.
Victory Building—19th floor, October 28, 1932. City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Subseries 1, Item 1177.
He reported that on the upper floors, large numbers of wood forms remained still waiting to receive concrete. Reinforcing steel rods were piled here and there, while a wooden chute and a hoist were deteriorating on the west side of the building. “As the building now stands,” he continued, it is “in an unsafe condition, and should any person or property be injured by reason of falling of the wood from the building, the city might be liable.” The two-thousand-dollar bill for putting the structure in a safe condition, council decided, would be assessed to the property’s tax bill—which, by 1936, owed thirty-thousand dollars in arrears.
Victory Building—16th floor, October 28, 1932. City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Subseries 1, Item 1180.
According to Annual Reports of the Department of Buildings, commercial buildings accounted for $21 million worth of construction in 1928. That number had dropped to $8.6 million in 1930, to $2.7 million in 1931, and again and again throughout much of the 1930s. Nevertheless, realtors and contractors remained hopeful that successful completion of long-proposed buildings, like the designed but unbuilt Bank of Nova Scotia Building, or suspended projects could provide jobs for thousands of Torontonians. Of them all, the Victory Building was considered to have the best prospect for prompt completion. Every year, newspapers carried optimistic accounts of its potential sale or refinancing. Each time, the arrangements were hailed as a symbolic return to prosperity. And each time, when the arrangements inevitably fell through, no reasons were ever reported.
General Electric Ad from The Globe on April 2, 1937.
Relief for the bondholders finally arrived in June 1936 when the sale of the Victory Building to ship-owner and financier Alfred R. Roberts for only $110,000—plus $5,000 for mechanics lien holders—was approved by Osgoode Hall. Construction resumed that September with a compromised design—scaled back to only twenty-one storeys, removing the set-back pinnacle, and with a much more modest decorative scheme.
Instead of Goodelman’s ornamentation, the lower portion of the building was faced in green bowacord granite with Briarhill sandstone trim. While Roberts didn’t rechristen the tower, he decided the name was better as a reference to Lord Nelson’s famous flagship than to the Great War. So instead of Goodelman’s imposing statue, the lobby had a nautical motif. A model of the H.M.S. Victory was cut into the marble floor; anchors, ship’s wheels, and compass points graced the ornamental ceilings; and ship-inspired radiator grilles adorned the main vestibule.
While Roberts altered Falk’s intended artistic theme, he certainly didn’t change his intentions for the skyscraper. A thoroughly modern office tower—purported to be the first such building in Canada to be air conditioned throughout—the Victory Building also featured open-concept floors, special acoustical treatment of the ceilings to reduce noise, and four high-speed, automatic elevators.
Surpassing all expectations in the middle of the Great Depression, nearly 80% of the office space had already been leased by the time the first tenants moved in on April 1, 1937. Locals were also attracted—motivated in part by curiosity to see inside the building that had stood vacant for so many years and by the novelty of air conditioning during that summer’s heat wave. “These are signs of returning prosperity,” The Star proclaimed of the first large office building completed in the city since the onset of the Depression before dryly adding, “But what can be done with the city’s Casa Loma?”