As we learned earlier this week, the 4,300 square foot mural on the Front Street side of the Toronto Sun building has been taken down. A landmark for locals and regular stop for tour guides, that mural, titled History as Theatre, offered up a visual record of Toronto’s past, an account of the last 200 years. Last weekend the mural joined the bygone days that were painted across its bricks, a casualty of building renovations being made to accommodate incoming stores.
Though the building bears the Toronto Sun‘s name, it is no longer theirs: the Sun sold it to developer First Gulf Corporation in 2010. And to First Gulf the mural seems not much more than an afterthought, its demolition a “necessary part of the construction” according to John MacNeil, president and chief operating officer. The company is proceeding with a massive refit and renovation, reshaping the area for an LCBO, a Dollarama, a No Frills, some offices, and a school space.
When we spoke with him yesterday MacNeil was quick to mention how far First Gulf is moving from the building’s roots. “We anticipate there will be more jobs in that project than when the Sun was at its peak,” he said, commenting on planned benefits to the area and efforts to turn around a building he found was “75 per cent vacant.” MacNeil pointed to the company’s work sercuring City approvals for the project, and was not aware of any efforts to contact him about the mural from the artist, John Hood, or the Toronto Sun itself.
It’s a curious silence that neither party disputes, especially considering the mural’s origins.
Back in 1991, the Toronto Sun was looking to commemorate both Toronto’s upcoming bicentennial and what would soon be two decades in operation for a news organization that still viewed itself as “the Little Paper that Grew.” John Hood, who was commissioned to paint the mural after a competitive search, recalls how “they wanted something where every time you looked at it, there was something you hadn’t seen before.”
His ex-wife suggested making the backdrop like a stage set that would let him stack elements, and with that inspiration, Hood hit the ground running, or the wall anyway. Two years of research and hard work followed, with the assistance of his younger sister, Alexandra Hood. What Hood calls “far and away the largest artwork I had ever executed” was unveiled to fanfare in 1993.
The mural was commemorated by the Sun in a series of articles as recently as 2008—but with the process of selling their old building beginning that very year, it might have been more of a last hurrah.
“They couldn’t necessarily promise it was going to last forever,” Hood told us, recalling the last official word he received about the mural around that time from the Sun, as they mentioned the prospect of new owners to him. There were already hints that the mural’s future was in question, and he credits the Sun for being honest with him about that. “They did right by me all along,” Hood said.
The recent demolition still managed to surprise him: “There was no consultation with this chickenhawk.”
Hood found the lack of a phone call from First Gulf disappointing, but remains philosophical about the entire affair. “I don’t blame the new owners, that’s their right. To put a positive spin on this, it lasted 20 years. That’s a good lifespan for a mural”—though he added that it made him glad some Torontonians cared enough to be upset by the demolition. “Knocking down buildings is public sport number one in Toronto, though,” he joked, commenting on what he believed to be the inevitability of such events here.
Hood himself hasn’t worked as a professional artist for years, holding down a job these days as a building controller. “After 25 years I made my peace with it, I was ready to leave it aside,” he went on, no longer feeling the drive or challenge in mural art.
As for the Sun, publisher Mike Power told us that “it would have been nice if it stayed, but it would have been difficult to ensure it did,” pointing to prohibitive costs attached to folding any sort of preservation agreement in with the sale of the building. “We lost control of what happened to the mural.” Don’t expect the Sun to sponsor a new project to replace it though. “That was a different time,” said Power.
Photos courtesy of torontohistory.org.