Documenting Toronto's Art Deco Glamour
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Documenting Toronto’s Art Deco Glamour

Photo of the Eglinton Grand by spotmaticfanatic from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

The Eglinton was the grandest of Toronto’s Art Deco movie houses. People from all over Toronto flocked to Eglinton near Avenue Road for the grand opening showing of King of Burlesque. Kaplan and Sprachman, the prolific pair who would design over one hundred cinemas in Canada, won the Governor General’s architecture award for the building in 1937: although it was asymmetrical, its elegant design and fine interior detailing invested a trip to the movies with an aura of sophistication, its defining feature the colourful, neon-lit marquee that’s been a neighbourhood icon for generations.
Over time, some of the Streamlined Moderne decorative treatment of the facade, such as the speed-stripes framing the edges of the building above the marquee, has been replaced with blander ceramic tiles. The building was closed as an operating cinema by Famous Players in 2002, but has since been partially renovated and reopened as the Eglinton Grand. It is but one of the city’s vibrant monuments to the Art Deco tradition documented in Tim Morawetz’s newly published Art Deco Architecture in Toronto (GLUE INC, 2009).

Some of the best known Art Deco gems have been discussed in passing in the city’s seminal architectural histories by Eric Arthur or William Dendy and William Kilbourn, in guidebooks, and on the handful of dedicated Canadian websites.

Photo of the R.C. Harris Filtration Plant by uwajedi from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

But the impact of the 1920s to 1940s architectural movement on Toronto hasn’t had a comprehensive treatment until Morawetz’s highly informative volume. Downtown office towers, such as the Concourse Building, the Bank of Nova Scotia at King and Bay, the Victory Building, and the Canada Permanent Trust Building, are probably the city’s most visible Art Deco landmarks. Lesser-known apartment buildings dot residential districts. Others, especially industrial buildings, have been radically altered to make way for condos. A number were demolished, or fell into disrepair and disrepute. Art Deco Architecture in Toronto contains entries on all of these and more. Each has a brief write-up, handsomely laid out in 1930s type, to give background information and to point out interesting architectural features that place each structure within the three phases of Art Deco Morawetz describes in his introduction.
The entries are copiously illustrated with contemporary photos and rarely seen archival photos drawn from period trade publications such as the Journal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. These give glimpses inside lobbies and auditoriums in all their original splendour as well as in their present life. Some of the contemporary photos date from the late eighties and nineties—especially if the building has been dramatically altered or demolished since then, as Our Lady of Mercy Hospital was in 2007—showing the book’s long gestation period.

Photo of the Canada Permanent Trust Building by swilton from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Having developed a love for Art Deco as an architecture student at university, Morawetz has spent fifteen years leading bus and walking tours, and has been involved in campaigns to save the Concourse Building, Eglinton Theatre, Maple Leaf Gardens, and Timmins’s Daily Press Building. This soft-bound book is a result of Morawetz poring over the files and slide decks he’s painstakingly amassed over the years, and the breadth of his research and his passion for the subject shine through.
In an introductory essay, Paul G. Russell places the architectural movement within the historical context of a changing, maturing city—when the late 1920s economic boom manifested itself physically with a surge of skyscraper construction. Art Deco, the design aesthetic then in vogue in Europe, was brought to Toronto when Lady Eaton hired French designers for the family’s new flagship store at College and Yonge. It was originally meant to be a grand, stepped-back office tower—Morawetz includes the original rendering in the book—but only the podium was built. Likewise, the Victory Building was to have an additional five floors, and the Star Building was to have a second tower. Given that so many of Toronto’s Art Deco buildings had their ambitions similarly thwarted by the great crash, it’d have been a bonus to have more original renderings to offer tantalizing glimpses of the city that might’ve been. But such historic images can be a nightmare to find (if they exist at all), and they fall beyond the intentions and focus of Morawetz’s volume.
Given Toronto’s reputation for paving over its past, Art Deco Architecture in Toronto is a heartening reminder that there are a great many Art Deco buildings still standing, scattered throughout the city. Hopefully the book, which is available for purchase in a limited number of independent bookstores and through its website, will help kindle public interest in their continued preservation.
Although each of the buildings in the images above appear in Art Deco Architecture in Toronto, these particular photographs—drawn from the Torontoist Flickr Pool—do not.