A Brief History of Heritage Up In Flames
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A Brief History of Heritage Up In Flames

Site of the former Empress Hotel at 335 Yonge Street, after the fire that destroyed it. Photo by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.

Last month, the polite term for the cause of the fire that razed Toronto’s Empress Hotel was “demolition by neglect.” Last Monday, Toronto police confirmed what many people were really thinking: the fire was arson.
The story has all the makings of a fantastic mystery, but to those familiar with Toronto’s urban history, it’s a familiar tale. A look back at the city’s urban development over the past thirty years reveals that history does sometimes seem to repeat itself. As the three-year anniversary of the neighbourhood-changing fire on Queen West approaches, we profile that and three other heritage-levelling blazes.

The Duncan House and the Sheppard-Carruthers House

In 1987 lightning struck twice in North York. Two historic buildings were lost to fire within one month of each other. The Duncan House was 158 years old and was the district’s second-oldest house. At the time, its owner—who had won approval from city council to have it demolished—was locked in a battle with the North York Historical Society, who were campaigning to save it. In June of that year, the house was temporarily moved to Duncan Creek Park, where the house met its match: drunken high school kids with matches.

A month later, arsonists also burned down the historic Sheppard-Carruthers House, an inn built in 1836 near the corner of Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue. The inn served as a residential home until a development company purchased it in 1974. The building was left vacant and was later boarded up, in 1985, after two young boys were found starting a small fire inside.

A few months before the 1987 fire that destroyed it, a development company and the North York Historical Board reached a deal to save the heritage building. Developers agreed to pay $150,000 to move and restore the building in exchange for city council’s permission to develop two twenty-three-story office towers. The Nestle building at 25 Sheppard Avenue West now stands in its place.

No connection was made between the two fires, and shortly after the Sheppard-Carruthers House fire North York’s former Historical Board administrator David Falconer said he believed their proximity was just a coincidence.

St. Paul’s United Church

In 1995 Yorkville witnessed a fire that destroyed the historic St. Paul’s United Church at Avenue Road and Bloor Street. Fire officials said it was a clear case of arson. Further suspicion arose when former Toronto councillor John Adams said it was unclear who controlled the property.

According to the Toronto Historical Board, the central ceiling in the church had great artistic and historic importance. At its height, the church’s parish members included Eaton’s founder and multi-millionaire Timothy Eaton. It gained a different kind of street cred in the 1960s, when hippies started sleeping in its basement.
The Victorian Gothic–style building was declared a heritage site in 1979. A year later, it was sold to developers. Over the next decade, the new owners fought the City for permission to demolish the church and to redevelop the land. Their efforts were blocked and it was leased to Toronto artist George Bartello. The last of the Yorkville Bohemians, he lived and ran a small gallery of his work in the church. Sadly, the fire destroyed his collection.
Two years after the fire, city council repealed the site’s heritage designation and in 2000 the seven-floor retirement home Hazelton Place took its place.

Queen Street West

Photo by Miles Storey/Torontoist.

Freshest in all our memories is the February 2008 fire that ravaged part of Queen Street West near Bathurst Street, destroying six historic buildings. Ten months after the blaze, fire investigation manager Chris Williams said the cause of the fire couldn’t be determined, leaving ample room for speculation.

In 2005, city council identified the Queen Street area between University Avenue and Bathurst Street as a Heritage Conservation District. At the beginning of this year, the National Post ran through some of the issues with the current regulations for heritage buildings under the Ontario Heritage Act. One major concern for the heritage community is that the brunt of preservation costs is borne by property owners. Upkeep is expensive and Catherine Nasmith, past president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, points out that current financial incentives do not come close to the costs of repair and maintenance. Because of this, many owners wait for the building to fall down and then sell the land to developers—the distressing “demolition by neglect” approach. One solution: provide some relief to property owners in the form of heritage grants.

After the fire, angry rumours appeared online—including in our own comments—pointing a finger at a group of developers and big-box retailers who had purchased a nearby site. They were planning a mixed-use development, which would include a condominium and retail space, with one of the main tenants being Home Depot; many locals weren’t pleased with the idea. In January 2009, for unknown reasons, Home Depot paid to terminate its lease for a retail space in the building. No evidence has surfaced linking the Portland and Queen streets development to the fire. Despite the fact it was apparently baseless, the speculation about the fire’s cause shows that—when heritage sites, fires, and money are involved—suspicion can quickly turn to paranoia. The site of the fire remains vacant.

CORRECTION: February 18, 2011, 4:30 PM The wording of the final paragraph has been changed for clarification purposes. The intent was to recognize the existence of rumours surrounding the 2008 Queen West fire, not to suggest they had any base in fact, nor that the fire occurred before the nearby development was planned. Thanks to reader Stevie Peters for alerting us to the ambiguity.