Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

The Valhalla Inn, c. 1965 (Courtesy Toronto Archives)
The Valhalla Inn, c. 1965 (Courtesy Toronto Archives)

Architecture

Keeping a piece of old Valhalla alive Add to ...

As a member of the heritage community, a hard lesson I've learned is that not everything can be saved. In the ever-expanding GTA, tastes change and so do property values. While I may lament the loss of a popular hamburger stand, a tiki bar (yes, Toronto had a few of these) or a hotel, I know that it would be unrealistic to ask developers to hang on to a money-losing business for the sake of the architecture.

More related to this story

There are times, of course, when a developer goes too far, as was the case with the auto dealership that razed the best part of architect Peter Dickinson's Inn on the Park a few years ago. In my mind, that star-shaped portion could have - and should have - been saved and repurposed.

Sometimes, in the cutthroat world of hotels we hope for rebirth - the rotting Jetsonian ruin that is the Regal Constellation and the once-magnificent Guild Inn come to mind - and other times we say goodbye because we know the time has come.

If we're lucky, we get a little of both.

Edilcan, the company preparing the old Valhalla Inn site for three condominium towers and a townhouse complex, assures me that drivers will continue to see the familiar hat-like Oast house roofs as they cruise Highway 427. "Unfortunately we couldn't fit them all in a row," says vice-president G.P. Di Rocco as we sit in the sleek, 1960s-inspired condo sales office with a view of that highway. Instead, drivers will see two of the replica roofs on a fourth-floor outdoor space nestled between two of the towers, with the third tucked in behind.

Since preservation is more art than science, Edilcan relied on a City of Toronto Heritage Preservation Services report (prepared before they purchased the site) to inform their decisions as to what interior items were worth retaining. They brought in heritage heavyweights E.R.A. Architects to comment on those items and prepare a Conservation Plan, and interior design superstars Munge Leung were given a walkabout so they, too, could be part of that conversation.

All were in agreement that the Valhalla was an iconic place. Inspired by a family trip to Scandinavia, the motor inn was built by housing developer Edmund Peachey in 1963 (Mr. Peachey was profiled here in July, 2006) to plans prepared by modernist architect George Robb (1923-1991), the architect responsible for another once-iconic Toronto structure, the glass-and-steel Shell/Bulova Tower at the CNE.

Like Issy Sharp's east-end Inn on the Park (also built in 1963) the award-winning Valhalla, for a time, was the happening place to be. Not only did live deer frolic in the inner courtyard, swimming mermaids populated the behind-the-glass world of the subterranean Mermaid Lounge (really just nice gals in fishtail costumes), and libations could be quaffed at a bar shaped like a Viking ship in the Nordic Lounge. It was silly but, like the escapism of Polynesian tiki bars of the same era, it was good, clean fun that was successful enough to sprout a tower addition to the hotel and a few more locations (the Thunder Bay Valhalla is still in operation).

In short, it was a place near and dear to the hearts of many west-enders, so how, then, to do something respectful? Mr. Di Rocco says it was important not to "discredit" or "make light" of the artifacts.

"What are we doing this for?" he asks. "Are we going through the motions just simply to satisfy Heritage [Preservation Services]or are we doing something that's meaningful? And is it going to appear kitschy if we use this stuff or are we going to use it in the right context?"

The best context, all parties decided, was the party room of the first tower, since there'd be far greater impact if the items were grouped in one space. "We thought if we spread them out they're going to lose their flavour, they're going to be too diluted and it'd be almost a token [gesture]" Mr. Di Rocco explains.

So, condo owners and guests will open the Valhalla's original front doors to enter the amenities space, which will be lit by some of Mr. Robb's fixtures and then, perhaps, belly-up to the Viking ship bar for a drink. An art glass piece from the Mermaid Lounge will hang on the wall, and some of the lounge's metal screens will act as room dividers. Outside, wooden screens from the Terrace Café will be repurposed in the landscape plan (these screens, Mr. Di Rocco adds, have provided design inspiration for new elements).

Although it wasn't identified by HPS, also rescued from the grounds was a lovely, large abstract metal sculpture that's been reinstalled at the entrance to the sales office; when the office comes down it will be given a new home elsewhere.

No, none of the actual building will survive, and that's a shame, since the broad stone piers, wide carport and cedar cladding gave it a distinctive look that spoke of its era. But heritage is not an all or nothing situation; there are often many shades of gray. Says E.R.A.'s Andrew Pruss: "This isn't a museum, it's a private site.

"We're in a situation now where we're expanding our understanding of heritage, and it doesn't always mean public institutions and publicly accessible buildings, there are circumstances now where heritage features are in private buildings, and so it's not incompatible with the fact that we're recognizing that there's heritage value."

So, farewell, Valhalla Inn, a runestone has been laid in your memory.

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories