This weekend's hasty demolition of the century-old menswear store at Bloor and Yonge raises issues about heritage preservation in the city.
There’s a good chance Frank Stollery wouldn’t have been impressed by what happened to his building this past weekend.
During his 70-plus years in the garment trade, Stollery made it a point not to cut corners. As a young foreman cutter in Montreal, he questioned management’s insistence on using inferior materials when the cloth he required for a necktie order was unavailable. That experience helped motivate Stollery to launch his own menswear business in 1901. Over time, he developed a reputation for quality work, refusing to trust the advice of salesmen and carefully examining the cut and strength of cloth with a large magnifying glass.
But the cutting of corners, or at least the exploiting of existing laws, was on display at the southwest corner of Bloor and Yonge this past Saturday. Workmen armed with crowbars chipped away at the façade of Stollerys. Art Deco stone carvings dating from a 1920s expansion vanished from the streetscape. Work was completed so hastily that little to no sidewalk protection was erected.
The building’s swift demise—which occurred one day after Mizrahi Developments received its demolition permit from the City—raises a number of issues regarding Toronto’s handling of heritage preservation.
Even if you have doubts about the building’s historical merits, it’s hard to deny that the undertaking involved a certain amount of arrogance. As Star architecture critic Christopher Hume observed, “To send in the wrecking crews on a weekend—before the hoardings are even up—is as succinct a way as possible to give the city the middle finger.”
“We don’t feel there is any heritage value to it and neither did anyone else for the last 100 years,” developer Sam Mizrahi told the Star over the weekend. Yet Stollerys was one of the first businesses to make a name for itself in Yorkville. When Stollerys opened its doors in what was then considered a semi-suburban area, pessimists believed its proprietor would starve to death within a year. But the business prospered, as did Stollery, who was active in the local business association and served a one-year term as a city councillor. After renting the property for years, Stollery purchased the site in 1928 for $400,000 and transformed his store into the building currently fading away.
The store was praised by Advertising Age magazine during the 1950s for its straightforward sales pitches. “The copy doesn’t do much of a job of whetting desire, but it does an excellent job of carrying conviction,” columnist Clyde Bedell observed. “The advertising is successful because it fully, sincerely, honestly, warmly, effectively served the public in connection with what it offers.”
Frank Stollery sold the business in 1968, but continued to work there full time until his death three years later at the age of 91. The ensuing years saw renovations, a third-floor addition, family feuds, and a growing sense that time was passing the store by. While it carried high-end English labels, the presentation grew tired. “The windows look a lot like those of Honest Ed’s,” Karen von Hahn wrote in the Star in 2014, “except that Honest Ed’s sells jackets for $14.99, not two-ply cashmeres for hundreds of dollars.”
Like Honest Ed’s, Stollerys sat on prime real estate. Mizrahi, who bought the property in October 2014, is promising to build a retail and residential complex—complete with underground TTC access—that will complement the intersection’s other towers. British architect Norman Foster (whose work includes U of T’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, Berlin’s Reichstag, and London’s City Hall) is reportedly attached to the project, currently called “The One.”
Details about Mizrahi’s plans have yet to be divulged, and a building application has yet to be submitted. This concerns Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre – Rosedale), whose ward has already witnessed heritage demolition fiascos such as the one involving 81 Wellesley Street East. Wong-Tam made a motion for the building’s heritage designation at the January 13 session of the Toronto and East York Community Council, less than a week after Mizrahi applied for a demolition permit. While residential developers must submit replacement building plans before a permit is issued, commercial developers are under no such obligation. “One hundred and ten percent, I want to see that done for commercial properties,” Wong-Tam said Monday. “We want to prevent properties from being randomly demolished across the city.”
A key issue affecting Stollerys, and sites like it, is that the City’s building department is required to grant a demolition permit if all requirements have been met. Provincial stop orders can be issued to prevent hasty action when it comes to potential heritage sites, but that hasn’t happened since 2009, when 7 Austin Terrace was saved.
The fact that the process of identifying potential heritage buildings is such a slow one concerns advocates like Catherine Nasmith, president of the Toronto branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario. “It takes the city ages to put any of this stuff into place,” she told the CBC. “Once [a building] is damaged and torn down, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Nasmith also observed that developers dislike heritage designations because of the limits they place on reshaping properties. This sentiment was echoed by the City’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, who tweeted earlier this week that Mizrahi had “acted rashly” because he worried the building would indeed be deemed to have heritage value.
So what could Toronto do to avoid more hasty demolitions such as the one that took down Stollerys? In general, it needs to put in place more people (paid or volunteer), who could improve the flow of designations by identifying potential heritage sites. Building a heritage impact assessment into the demolition permit process could also have a real impact—and encourage the City and developers to arrive at constructive solutions. Adding extra time to the process might also provide more opportunities to come up with imaginative ways to readapt heritage properties or to integrate them into new structures. And if it’s ultimately determined that a building can be demolished, it’s possible that elements deemed to be of historic merit could be archived, saved for future museum display, or even given to the descendants of those who worked on its construction.
It’s probably too late to salvage pieces of Stollery’s. Of concern now is whether the site will become a lingering eyesore. If Mizrahi’s construction plans end up being delayed, he could, of course, build goodwill by allowing temporary public use of the site via a park or plaza. “All we can hope for now,” Christopher Hume concludes, “is that city hall suddenly lurches back to life and does what it can to ensure that what replaces Stollerys isn’t as tacky as its builder’s behaviour.”
Additional material from the May 1, 1951, June 18, 1954, May 14, 1957, and January 4, 1971 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the July 21, 1928, January 4, 1971, January 5, 1971, April 23, 2014, January 18, 2015, and January 19, 2015 editions of the Toronto Star.