Forty Years of Heritage Preservation Wins and Losses
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Forty Years of Heritage Preservation Wins and Losses

A look at the historical buildings we've preserved and the architectural icons we didn't save.

What is the historical value of a building—does it lie in its architectural style, or in the historical events that have taken place within its walls, or merely in the sentiment it inspires? How we answer those questions may determine how successfully we’re able to preserve Toronto’s past—a recurring notion at Wednesday night’s panel discussion on heritage preservation, presented by Heritage Toronto at the Toronto Reference Library.

While preservation wins and losses over the past 40 years provided the framework for the discussion, the panelists also delved into broader issues that affect how we preserve buildings. Among them was one that heritage watchers love debating: partial retention (or, as it’s more commonly known, facadism). Simply grafting a fragment of an old building onto a new structure can result in the loss of the former’s historical context. Architect George Baird pointed to the practice of dismantling sections of historic buildings and then reassembling them to the point where they look so new their age value disappears. Cathy Nasmith, president of the Toronto chapter of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, noted that the value of a building lies as much in what has happened inside—and in its historical patterns of usage—as in the physical structure itself.

The sense of life unfolding within a building, as well as the sense of losing familiar architectural icons, may explain why certain losses or heritage threats hit us harder than others. Consider the anger that erupted over the demolition by neglect and subsequent fire at the Empress Hotel, or the passion behind the campaign to save the Sam the Record Man sign.

Developers and residents are now gaining respect for works of architecture beyond standard business and government buildings. Harold Madi, the City’s director of urban design, pointed to a recent increased appreciation for industrial heritage properties. Though it wasn’t mentioned, one can look to projects such as the Longo’s in Leaside, a former locomotive repair shop that honours its past life.

Inspired by the discussion, our gallery includes a sampling of Toronto’s heritage preservation wins and losses since the 1960s.

Additional material from Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1993); Toronto Observed by William Dendy and William Kilbourn (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1986); Unbuilt Toronto by Mark Osbaldeston (Toronto: Dundurn, 2008); the September 16, 1965, March 17, 1966, and November 11, 1977, editions of the Globe and Mail; and the April 25, 1960, June 8, 1960, and January 8, 1976, editions of the Toronto Star.