From theological college to architectural school, the revitalized site has survived a lot of near-visits by the wrecking ball.
But driving or walking uptown, one never loses sight of the landmark that crowns the avenue: a pious neo-Gothic etude on a great green circle just north of College Street, its roofline punctuated by graceful spires and peaks and points…Old Knox College would survive several near-misses of the wrecker’s ball in the decades to come, but it has survived them nobly; and Toronto urbanism is richer for that endurance.
– John Bentley Mays, the Globe and Mail, March 1, 1995.
Since it was built 140 years ago, One Spadina Crescent has had many close calls with the wrecking ball. That it is around to undergo revamping by the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design is miraculous given threats ranging from proposed sporting venues to the Spadina Expressway. The site’s recognition as a gateway to the university is a long-overdue honour.
One Spadina’s church-like presence was no accident. Architect James Avon Smith specialized in religious structures, including Church of the Redeemer at Bloor and Avenue and at least 90 other churches across Ontario. For Knox College, the building marked the Presbyterian theological school’s fifth location in 30 years. When the building opened in October 1875, the Globe praised it as “an ornament to the city,” well-positioned to allow Knox students to enjoy a stronger intellectual grounding through exposure to courses at nearby U of T (which Knox didn’t formally join for another decade).
Within a decade there were public calls to knock the building down. Some neighbours felt that Spadina Crescent should have been used as earlier landowner Robert Baldwin had once envisioned it: a public park with a magnificent view south along Spadina Avenue. While some felt Knox was all but squatting on the property, documents proved land deals between the college and a Baldwin heir were perfectly legal.
This didn’t prevent decades of dreamers who felt the site should have been a green oasis in the middle of an increasingly busy road. The city investigated expropriating the land after Knox College’s decision in 1906 to move onto the main U of T campus. One report indicated that an unnamed English department store was interested in the site.
After Knox moved out for good in 1915, the First World War brought new purpose to the site. Reopened as Spadina Military Hospital in October 1916, the site relieved nearby facilities designed for wounded soldiers. The hospital hired instructors to teach valuable post-war business skills such as bookkeeping and telegraphy. The Globe’s women’s page writer was impressed by the site’s transformation. “Knox College was sombre and dingy; the new home is bright and airy,” they wrote. “In old Knox the halls were dark; in the home the sunlight gets into every portion of the building.”
Among the nurses who worked at One Spadina was a young American volunteer named Amelia Earhart. She was well-received by patients, especially after persuading the dietician to add more variety to the daily bill of fare of parsnips and turnips. During her time off, she often visited the Armour Heights airfield, foreshadowing her later fame as a pioneering aviator.
Following the war, the building was gradually converted to civilian uses, including offices leased by the provincial government. Periodically the city proposed running Spadina Avenue straight through the circle, or revived calls for a park.
In January 1931, an investor group proposed a $1.5-million circular arena on the site to rival recently built athletic complexes like Chicago Stadium and Madison Square Garden. Sportswriters suspected the proposal tied into expansion plans by the American Hockey League (no relation to the later minor league), which threatened to become a rival to the NHL. Decades later, Building magazine described the arena rendering as “probably a 30-minute sketch, more suitable for the wastebasket than Spadina Circle.” The city was soon presented with two mega-arena plans to approve: the Spadina complex, and the Maple Leafs’ proposal for a new home at Carlton and Church. While preliminary approval was given to the Spadina plan by the Civic Property Committee, council ultimately gave Maple Leaf Gardens the go-ahead, as it had stronger financial footing. Protests from the backers of the Spadina plan were ignored.
The building’s next significant use came when Connaught Laboratories installed a lab to produce penicillin in 1943. Three years later, the lab was chosen by the United Nations to train scientists and lab techs from Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Yugoslavia how to produce the antibiotic. The site was also used to conduct polio research which assisted the creation of the Salk vaccine.
Having survived a proposed demolition to make way for the never-completed Spadina Expressway, One Spadina served a variety of uses for the university from the 1970s onward. Among its tenants were the fine arts and sociology departments, a student newspaper, an eye bank, a low-level radioactive waste storage facility, and the campus parking office.
The current revitalization effort was unveiled in June 2013, as the Daniels Faculty outgrew its home at 230 College. The design by NADAAA, along with preservation work by ERA Architects, strives to remake the site into a more accessible, flexible location allowing a wide range of educational facilities. When completed sometime in 2017, it will include labs, studios, an amphitheatre, a gallery, a multi-purpose public hall. Beyond landscaping using green principles, the site will better integrate into its surroundings through elements such as a walkway which effectively acts as a continuation of Russell Street. The restoration of the original building makes it feel brighter, which will be effective for office use. A press conference held Monday announced further details for the project, including naming the library in honour of local architectural icon Eb Zeidler. Overall, the faculty hopes that One Spadina will act as a centre where, according to a news release, “students, scholars, artists, and urbanists throughout the city and around the world can convene to discuss and debate the most pressing design issues and creative challenges facing society today.”
While those driving north along Spadina will see the refreshed front of the original building, those driving south will see the glass addition, through which the public will see students burning the midnight oil. Combined, these provide the landmark entry this end of campus has long needed—the nameplate sticking out from the Graduate House lacks the gravity, not to mention the imposing presence One Spadina provides from either direction along Spadina Avenue. The site looks as if it will blend old and new in ways that may inspire its future alumni to perform similar blendings elsewhere that revitalize older buildings without resorting to token facadism.
Additional material from the October-November 2004 edition of Building; the October 7, 1875, May 1, 1889, October 2, 1908, October 5, 1916, May 18, 1918, January 15, 1931, and March 10, 1931 editions of the Globe; the January 25 1946 and March 1, 1995 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the October 28, 1978, November 6, 1993, and April 17, 2005 editions of the Toronto Star.