Rendering of proposed tower for 100 Adelaide Street West, with facade of Concourse Building incorporated into southeast corner.
For over a decade, the Concourse Building has been on borrowed time. The art deco office building, whose unique features include mosaics designed by Group of Seven artist J.E.H. MacDonald, has waited while its owner, Oxford Properties, decided how to place a new tower on the site. The latest design for 100 Adelaide Street West might be a lovely building on its own—the top of its glass tower vaguely resembles the originally promised design of the ROM crystal—but, at first glance, the inclusion of the facade of a gutted Concourse Building resembles a pasted-on afterthought. If realized, the tower would join the long list of examples of facadism found around Toronto’s core.
Advertisements, (left) the Toronto Star, February 2, 1929, (centre), the Globe, March 15, 1929, (right) the Globe, March 23, 1929.
When it opened in 1929, the Concourse was considered a colourful, vital addition to the city’s core, one that other builders could draw inspiration from. “Ornament is not artificially applied,” noted Construction magazine. “The building is arresting and striking, because the qualities belonging to a skyscraper are not hidden, but emphasized. It should not be assumed that the materials were casually chosen; on the contrary a glance reveals that none but materials most appropriate to the design have been selected to produce the resulting effect.” The Globe praised the developers for giving “bold and enduring recognition to Canadian creative artists in two mediums in erecting a Toronto skyscraper.”
Besides the mosaics the building is known for, the interior included quotations from eight poems. “Big business,” noted the Globe, “has bowed to creative art, mind’s power over matter is acknowledged, and those whose poetry is expressed in the creation of castles and the building of railways pay homage to those whose music is found in the written word.”
Source: the Telegram, February 26, 1929.
One of the chosen poets, Charles G.D. Roberts, praised the building’s beauty in the Telegram:
The Concourse calls attention to itself first of all by proclaiming its faith in beauty not only of line but of colour, and by paying unequivocal tribute to Canadian art and Canadian poetry. When from the southeast corner of Bay and Adelaide one catches the gold-and-scarlet radiance of those slender pinnacles delicately sharp against the sky, one feels that here the old drabness has been challenged, not by a defiance of tradition, but by a most persuasive call, to an older and fearless tradition of beauty.
Advertisement, the Toronto Star, June 16, 1999.
Oxford bought the Concourse Building in 1998 and quickly applied for permission to demolish it as part of its plan to reshape the block it now owned. The original proposal maintained only the bottom three floors amid a 41-storey tower. There were no guarantees that all of the original art and detailing, some of which had been covered up during renovation attempts over the years, would be preserved. The plans aroused the wrath of architectural and heritage advocates, and irritated developers who had successfully renovated historic buildings. As Robert Fulford noted in the National Post, “the building may be worn and ill-used, but it could at a reasonable cost be brought back to vibrant life by one of those sensitive developers who have been reviving downtown structures ranging from warehouses to tall buildings from the same era as the Concourse.” An attempt by Margie Zeidler (who had just redeveloped 401 Richmond) and Michael Tippin (who owned the Flatiron Building) to buy the Concourse from Oxford failed. Zeidler’s bitterness was evident in an interview with the Globe and Mail: “You will be sure the developer will demolish the Concourse as fast as they can. When it’s down, who’s going to argue about it?”
The demolition request was considered by city council in May 2000 and passed by a 38-12 vote. The result prompted Globe and Mail columnist Lisa Rochon to lash out at the mindset behind the half-hearted preservation effort:
Toronto’s city council has ignored the counsel of countless historic agencies and art experts, preferring ignoble genuflection at the feet of a developer. Why advocate for the complexity of a metropolis when the experience can be so wonderfully dumbed down? Bye-bye, building. Time to kick out your brick walls. Sixteen stories of sheer vertical amounting to not very high. Built in 1928—what a dump! Gonna bust it down. But save those tile pictures of Canadian wheat and running salmon and the sunburst framing the front door. We’re so sophisticated we’ll keep those. Have you ever heard of the Group of Seven? Don’t be stupid. J.E.H. MacDonald was one of them. He made the mosaics. Pretty, aren’t they? We’ll glue them onto the new 41-storey tower.
But the Concourse earned a stay of execution. As city council voted, Oxford announced that they would commence construction when the economic conditions were right to do so. Activists continued to fight to save the building from becoming another example of facadism. Unlike the original proposal, the current design for 100 Adelaide West doesn’t remove any of the Concourse’s floors, but maintains little of its interior. It bears a passing resemblance to the integration of the National Building into the 51-storey Bay Adelaide Centre. Oxford’s pitch reel to prospective tenants promises an airy, sterile working environment within 615,000 square feet of available space.
As architectural advocate Adam Sobolak notes, while it might be better to keep the Concourse Building and operate it along the lines of thriving nearby office towers of similar vintage like the Sterling Tower and build the new complex north of the Concourse in place of an existing parking garage or atop the Federal Building, optics may be playing a role in Oxford’s moves. “They’re less ‘choice’ locations,” says Sobolak, “whether due to the tight awkwardness of side-street locations or the bleakness of Richmond relative to Adelaide, plus the fact that the Federal Building currently contains high-security banking operations that are more difficult to dislodge than the common office tenants of the Concourse.”
Ground-level rendering of 100 Adelaide Street West.
While there are characterless older buildings whose passing would be little mourned, the Concourse has enough going for it that merits more than just incorporating it into a dissimilar tower. In different hands, it might have become a lovely renovated little building that would have garnered high rental income for its owners from tenants interested in operating out of a cool heritage site. Despite that the Concourse is one of the last prime examples of art deco office architecture in Toronto, the sketches of the interior of the proposed 41-storey tower draw no inspiration from that era. The remnants of the Concourse may end up as little more than a passing curio for downtown office workers to blink at as they head to their cubicles in the Richmond Adelaide Centre.
Additional material from the May 1929 issue of Construction and the following newspapers: the April 6, 1929 edition of the Globe; the March 3, 2000, March 23, 2000, and May 17, 2000 editions of the Globe and Mail; the May 8, 2000 edition of the National Post; the May 10, 2000 edition of the Toronto Star; and the March 26, 1929 edition of the Telegram.