In the mid-1990s, a Vancouver developer transformed the strikingly Modernist 1957 B.C. Electric building into “The Electra” condominiums. A few years later, Torontonians watched as the equally striking 1958 Union Carbide building on Eglinton Avenue East was stuck down by a wrecker's ball.
Victorian warehouses, meanwhile, were being converted left and right.
In 2010, however, at least one Toronto developer got some mid-century modern religion: Currently, the 1957 Imperial Oil building on St. Clair Avenue West – complete with abstract painter R. York Wilson's lobby mural intact – is undergoing a sensitive makeover into a residential tower.
Are we finally coming around to a West Coast sensibility with our ample stock of Mad Men-era architecture? Or will we fall back into thinking our minimalism needs Styrofoam keystones and quoins to make some coin?
The real test, I think, will be when this city's smaller Modernist gems start to empty out. In a year or so, Coca-Cola will abandon its immaculate 1963 headquarters on Overlea Avenue for downtown digs. Will a smaller developer see opportunity bubbling up, or pass it up?
We are running out of Victorian warehouses.
I do not have a crystal ball, but I can, hopefully, get the wheels in developers' heads turning. Consider this: not only does mid-century modern imagery dominate television shows, commercials and online design blogs, the generation currently obsessed with Don Draper's sexy (and new for this season) sunken-living-roomed apartment isn't going anywhere. Some of us don't blink at the $700,000 price tags attached to modest 1,500-square-foot homes in Don Mills; if we opt for downtown instead, it's unlikely we'll settle for a 500-square-foot shoebox-in-the-sky.
So here are some suggestions for developers to consider. No, I don't know if the tenants in these commercial buildings are leaving, I just know that they're the types of places I'd gladly hang my hat. All of them, I should add, are in neighbourhoods that would command premium prices.
Location: 10 Price St., Rosedale.
Distinguishing feature(s): With the first and fourth storeys tucked in, the two middle storeys – wrapped in a gorgeous turquoise curtain wall – are allowed to pop. Windows on the fourth storey are massive.
Remarks: Interestingly, besides the Beer Store, this building is home to Woodcliffe Corp., which under the late Paul Oberman gained a reputation for saving heritage buildings around the city. Unfortunately, in 2005, the company didn't think turquoise spandrel panels heritage-worthy, since the demolition of all buildings behind the “Five Thieves” in favour of a 38-storey condo tower was proposed (ultimately rejected by the city). This, however, is a jewel of a building in a fantastic neighbourhood – “The Aqua Lofts” would sell out quickly.
Location: 34-36 King St. East, downtown.
Distinguishing feature(s): Enormous, muntin-free windows; keen observers will notice a dark frame around the curtain wall that projects, ever-so-slightly, past the roofline to float the curtain wall off the building face.
Remarks: Currently occupied by The Canadian Press, this eight-storey beauty would boast commanding views of its elderly neighbour, the King Edward Hotel, across the street. I can already see the stainless steel Neutraface letters (from House Industries) over the entrance reading: “The Modernist Residence.”
Location: 218 Merton St., midtown.
Distinguishing feature(s): It's Christmas year round with this jolly red-and-green curtain wall. To the right, the solid brick façade (over the front door) is punctuated by evenly spaced projecting bricks that create interesting shadow play.
Remarks: While it looks small from the sidewalk, this building reaches far back on its lot, which would allow for many units if skylights were added. Residential developers have attacked the formerly industrial street for 15 years now: It's too bad none saw value in the many mid-century properties along here, including the 1970s beauty at No. 170. If I owned No. 218, I'd name it “Lyric Holiday.” Why? Because it sounds snazzy.
Location: 636 King St. West, downtown/theatre district.
Distinguishing feature(s): Behind that massive red banner for home builder Context and the digital print shop's vinyl window stickers hides another series of jaunty turquoise spandrel panels (can you tell I have a thing for turquoise?). To the left, a long, recessed rectangle containing the stairwell is framed by gorgeous glazed black brick; look up and see black mosaic tile and triple cone fixtures on the soffit.
Remarks: At 3,000 square feet per floor, a developer could easily turn this gem into six condominiums; christen it “The Downtowner” in a cursive, glowing neon script and you'd have a hit on your hands.
I won't accept that “economies of scale” will rain on my little fantasy-parade: I've seen too many developers purchase large single family homes and then demolish them to put up two or three townhouses that make them a tidy profit.
If someone committed fully to restoring a Modernist building like the ones I've described above – meaning glazing, spandrels, stairwells, mosaic tile and terrazzo – and then added a few items to enhance that aesthetic, such as an era-specific name, lobby furniture by Torontonian Russell Spanner or American Charles Eames, and reproduction light fixtures from Rejuvenation's “Satellite” line, the right buyers would come forward.
Because I can't be the only one who loves curtain walls.