Historicist: The Colonnade’s City Within A City
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.
Photo of the Colonnade by Wai photo album from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
One Sunday evening in 1959, after a screening of the Toronto Film Society, architect Gerald Robinson and engineer/builder Irwin Burns chatted over coffee. The two shared a common viewpoint that the city’s urban core was in decline. The same was happening in cities across Canada as municipal governments were more interested in improving traffic and encouraging sprawl rather than revitalizing their downtown districts.
The very next day, Burns heard from real estate developer Murray Webber that a lot with Bloor Street West frontage was going to become available for a hundred-year lease from Victoria University. “There,” Burns told Robinson, as he recalled in the Globe and Mail of October 18, 1963, “is the place to demonstrate what we talked about last night.” The architect’s sketches were ready by the end of the week and their radical proposal was chosen over twenty-five others by Victoria University.
Robinson’s Brutalist design for the Colonnade at 131 Bloor Street West, with its sweeping curves and exposed concrete frame influenced by Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, was an iconic expression of Yorkville’s slow transformation from counter-cultural village to chic and urbane neighbourhood. The Colonnade was one of several contemporary redevelopments occurring in Yorkville. Lothian Mews opening on Bloor in May 1963, the Four Seasons Hotel was built at Avenue and Cumberland in 1971, and Hazelton Lanes followed shortly afterward.
At its official opening in 1963, the three men most responsible for the ten million dollar project—Robinson, Burns, and Webber—looked to the past to describe the Colonnade as “an expression of the city’s vitality, the cosmopolitan air and the sophistication it has achieved in the past 10 years.”
However, Robinson’s more important innovation was to combine retail and office space with a residential tower. The Colonnade was one of the earliest, if not the first, mixed-use developments in Canada. Noting how forward-thinking the three had been, the Globe and Mail‘s architectural critic has opined that “the Colonnade was an accurate prediction of where Toronto was headed.”
Ad from the Globe and Mail, October 16, 1963.
Robinson was self-consciously aware that his mixed-use tower represented something new in a city where most post-war downtown development had resulted in generic, single-use towers that sat abandoned at night. “The whole city should be like this,” Robinson spoke of his new building to the Globe and Mail while puffing on a short-stemmed pipe. “It is the very opposite of University Ave. where you can’t even buy a package of cigarettes among the obelisks. The principles we have used here will be needed in any downtown redevelopment if it is not to be dehumanized.”
The English-born architect had an engineering degree and PhD from Leeds before receiving his Masters of Architecture from Harvard in 1953. Although Robinson worked in private practice in Toronto, apparently designing theatrical sets among other things, the design of the Colonnade was also assisted by the firm of Tampold and Wells, whose Brutalist legacy in the neighbourhood included 30 and 35 Charles Street West (both 1970) and Tartu College (1969).
Robinson was particularly sensitive to the modest scale of the existing neighbourhood. When Star columnist Ron Haggart toured the city with Alexander Leman, a Belgrade architect, in October 1963, they were struck by the Colonnade. “This is a significant precedent for Toronto,” said Leman. “Here, a new building does not try desperately to outdo its neighbors, but in fact tactfully pays respect to the existing, even though the existing may be just ordinary.”
The Colonnade’s street level podium, featuring two levels of retail as well as office space, matched the setback of neighbouring buildings, then curved inward to form a semi-circular forecourt (an element that is mimicked on the rear of the building). The podium’s scale and horizontal detailing, Haggart noted, matched the third floor roof line of the neighbouring buildings. Above, the rectangular residential tower was raised on a series of arches supported by concrete columns—the colonnade that gives the building its name. The tower’s defining aesthetic feature was—as Patricia McHugh writes in Toronto Architecture (McClelland & Stewart, 1985)—its “small concrete waffle grid.”
Ever conscious of pedestrian street life, Robinson ensured that the tower was optimally positioned to provide adequate sunlight to the sidewalk. A concrete lip on the podium, offering street level protection from inclement weather, was later removed to extend the street level stores closer to the street. One significant element of the original design—an elevated walkway across Bloor—was never built. The forecourt’s unique concrete zig zagging staircase, leading to the second floor of retail, Shawn Micallef observes in Stroll (Coach House Books, 2010), was “the only one ever built without a central support.”
Photo of the Colonnade by St-Even from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Calling it “[t]he conversation-piece of Toronto,” one newspaper ad boasted that the Colonnade had “been talked about, written about, photographed, enthused over, anticipated” and that it would “be the newest, most exciting addition to Toronto.” Despite the ad’s optimism and the fact that, as the Globe and Mail put it, the city had a good number of “cosmopolitan inhabitants, some of them able to pay large amounts for housing,” the Colonnade’s success was by no means assured. Luxury apartments would be a hard sell in Toronto. Metro already had the highest rents in Canada. And apartment buildings also had high vacancy rates across the entire urban and suburban region.
At the Colonnade, studio apartments were $120 per month, while a 1,386 square foot unit cost $350 per month, and 2,174 square feet was $620 per month. The custom designed penthouses—some with swimming pools and terraces overlooking the greenery of Victoria University—were an astounding $1200 per month. Nevertheless, the building became a highly desirable address.
When a spokesman for the property management, Alex Siegel, explained the Colonnade’s appeal to the Star in July 1963, he could’ve been giving a sales pitch for any downtown condo today. He said, “People who are tired of sitting in their cars half an hour each morning and more each evening to get home are coming to us where we have a city within a city and can offer them all the ingredients of a self-contained community.”
Early residents included a fashion designer from Europe, a mining magnate, a television producer from New York City, the head of the Royal Conservatory of Music, a concert pianist, a CBC announcer, and a Justice of the Ontario Superior Court. “In a sense,” Siegel added, “we are spearheading in Metro the return from the suburbs to sophisticated apartment house living.”
Although construction wasn’t quite completed, scores of pedestrians poured in through the forecourt or up the staircase for the official opening on October 16, 1963. Mayor Donald D. Summerville praised the Colonnade as “[a] creative and imaginative answer to the pressing problem of urban renewal” in a speech to kick off a day of cultural festivities. There were performances by the National Ballet Guild, which operated a stationery shop in the building, as well as displays of art and handicrafts, and demonstrations of Japanese origami.
Ad from the Globe and Mail, May 25, 1964.
The retail concourse ensured the Colonnade’s early popularity as a vibrant neighbourhood hub. Harridge’s, the womenswear retailer, dominated the street level. Higher end shops included Minou (“The Couturier for Little Girls”), Colonnade Coiffeurs, and a furrier. There was also a live theatre, farmer’s market, bank branch, and stereo store. In the spring of 1964, federal Industry Minister C.H. Drury opened a National Design Centre to showcase the country’s best industrial designs. Restaurants behind the podium’s glass curtain walls—like the Jack ‘n’ Jill coffee shop—were popular venues to gaze out at the street life strolling by.
The initial investors and Robinson’s clients were the developers Burns, Webber, and Arthur Minden. “The inspiration came from Burns, the respectability from [Webber], and the money from Minden,” Robinson recalled in 1986. Shortly after the project got underway, Minden sold his fifty percent ownership stake to Alex J. Rubin’s Rubin Corp (which later became Revenue Properties Company).
Rubin, who had degrees in engineering and mathematics, shared the others’ opinion—as the Star quoted him on January 12, 1963—that “many North American cities needed quality re-injected into their downtown areas.” But there was acrimony among the ownership group. After a short time, Burns and Webber pulled out and Revenue Properties assumed full control.
After the Colonnade, Robinson’s architectural career included the Holy Trinity Church project that was incorporated into the Eaton Centre, the Church of St. George the Martyr, and some retirement developments. He received a lifetime achievement award from the Ontario Association of Architects in 2000 and now teaches liturgical design at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Divinity.
With time and changing trends in real estate, the Colonnade’s lustre dulled. By the early 1980s, when it was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, it was “downtrodden and dilapidated” in Freeman’s estimation. At around the same time, it took the intervention of city council to prevent the Colonnade’s tenants—many of them original—from being evicted to make way for the building’s planned twenty million dollar conversion to a luxury hotel. The interior was nevertheless renovated in the mid-1980s, leaving it—in McHugh’s words—”a poor man’s Trump Tower overdone with marble, brass, splashing water, marquee lights, and white draperied curtains.”
The apartment units have continued to be renovated to the present. In addition to the cosmetic improvements of granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, Robinson’s structural grid design has allowed substantive interior renovations. As Philip Evans notes in Michael McClelland and Graeme Stewart’s Concrete Toronto (Coach House Books, 2007), it’s been possible to make “floor-to-floor connections and openings through demising walls between units” to increase the size of the units.
As a sum of its parts—retail, office, and residential uses, as well as its sensitive connection to the street—the Colonnade continues to act “as an essay on how to respond to the many challenges of integrated communities that still face architects and urban planners to this day.”
Other sources consulted: Mark Osbaldeston, Unbuilt Toronto (Dundurn Press, 2008); Toronto Society of Architects, TSA Guide Map: Toronto Architecture 1953–2003 (2003); and the vertical files at the Toronto Reference Library.