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During its glory days, the Eaton Auditorium was an architectural jewel that played host to the greatest names in classical music, including Glenn Gould. For years, it has been left to gather dust, the victim of neglect, greed and bureaucratic buck-passing. Scandalously, some of its unique furnishings have been stripped and sold off. In many ways, the sad decline of this once-proud landmark is a perfect symbol of Toronto's greater cultural malaise.

Every time Jim Reid drives by Toronto's College Park building he looks up and prays its historic Eaton Auditorium and Round Room restaurant are still there.

"My heart just sinks when I think more plaster could be falling," says Reid, an interior decorator who was involved in Friends of the Eaton Auditorium, a group of private citizens who campaigned to save the premises from being turned into office space in the early 1980s.

The seventh floor of Eaton's College Street -- a prominent venue between 1931 and 1976 -- has been closed to the public for the past 24 years. After the Eaton Centre was built in 1977, the company sold College Street to College Park Developments, headed by project manager Gordon Bacque. The developers vowed the seventh floor would be restored to its former glory, but never made good on the promise. Instead, after some cursory demolition, the floor was abandoned.

Once upon a time, the Eaton family envisioned the College Street venue as its flagship and there were plans in the 1920s to build a skyscraper there resembling Manhattan's Empire State Building (plans for the Empire building were drawn up in the 1920s but construction occurred only in 1930-31). But the Depression put a damper on that, and only one-fifth of the scheme got built, with the art-deco auditorium and restaurant as its crowning glory.

In its heyday, the auditorium played host to a glittering array of international stars that included Sergei Rachmaninoff, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Lily Pons, Vladamir Horowitz and the Juilliard String Quartet. Glenn Gould loved the room's acoustics and made 35 of his recordings there.

Reid describes the auditorium and Round Room as the best examples of art deco in North America next to the Rainbow Room at the top of Rockefeller Center in New York.

The streamlined style, decorative glass, inlaid, bird's-eye maple panels, Monel metal trim, art-deco furnishings and Lalique chandelier and fountain were modelled on the great oceanliners of the 1920s and 30s. Every detail from the china down to the uniforms was controlled by architect and French designer Jacques Carlu. His wife, Natacha, painted the curved murals in the Round Room and artist Denis Gelin sculpted four statuettes, one for each of the seasons.

"You have to recall the most elegant of the 1930s' movies in your mind and the place will come alive in your imagination," says Janis Barlow, a Toronto theatre consultant.

But the imagination is where the auditorium has been left to moulder for almost a quarter of a century. Bare bulbs now hang from cords stretched lengthwise across the auditorium. There is a musty smell and the plaster is falling. Dusty concrete and wood supporting beams are all that remain of the floor in the lobby, which was ripped up long ago after years of neglect. The leather half-moon seats, once sprinkled throughout the lobby, are covered in dust and abandoned in what was once the Round Room's kitchen.

Greg Gatenby, artistic director of the Harbourfront Reading Series, says the delapidation is the result of apathy -- a lack of respect for our history.

"People love oranges, they just don't believe oranges grow here," says Gatenby. "It's the same with history, people love history, it's just not here. Until that changes, people won't care."

As for the heritage regulations that were supposed to protect the Eaton Auditorium, Gatenby says they're a joke: "There are no balls behind it. Anyone can go out and knock down a building."

Eleanor Koldofsky, who headed up the Friends committee, agrees. "Pick up the newspaper and count the number of buildings being ripped down," she says. "People destroy things without thinking."

Although a heritage bylaw in 1975 covered the building, it failed to protect the auditorium's valuable historic contents. "Anything not screwed to the walls could have been sold or put in storage. I bet a lot was pinched," says Richard Gerrard, the registrar for the City of Toronto's culture division.

Some of the orginal auditorium chairs are in the Eaton's collection and some were sold to the Unitarian Congregation of Toronto. The culture division also has some of the chairs and a few pieces of the original china from the Round Room. Gerrard says the price of the chairs was remarkably low for art deco, at about $100 each.

The furnishings, bronze grates, statues and Lalique fountain were supposed to be preserved in storage, but Brian Forsyth, another Friends committee member, has his doubts. In fact, he recalls how, in the early eighties, Reid noticed a bronze grill, designed for the corridor by Carlu, for sale at an auction in Yorkville. "He didn't want to alert the owners so he just bought it and we have it in our collection," Forsyth says.

The Gelin statuettes, estimated to be worth more than $100,000 each, haven't been seen since 1976, he adds. The Lalique black granite and glass fountain from the Round Room is also missing. A mass-produced Lalique grasshopper vase would be worth about $12,000 to $15,000 today. The fountain was one of a kind and would be priceless.

"There is a huge interest in Eaton's material in Toronto," notes Gerrard. "I haven't seen any of it on the market here but it could have gone to New York."

When Eaton's bailed out of the College Park building, the cultural community waited for the new owners to reopen the doors. In a 1977 agreement, the developer had promised three things: to maintain and restore the building's exterior; to maintain the main floor; and restore and renovate the seventh-floor auditorium, Round Room and foyer. In 1980, the developer declared the third promise economically unfeasible and applied for a demolition permit to turn the seventh floor into office space.

But there were no tenants who could afford the space. "No one was in a position to pay a rate of $8 a square foot in the 1970s," Barlow says. Not even new rental space in Toronto was that expensive.

The developers also suggested there was no market for another auditorium in Toronto.

Forsyth balks at that idea. The Friends had about five to six typed pages of users who were interested in the space. Half of the theatre seats in Toronto were built over the next decade, Forsyth adds.

At first the city was going to grant the demolition permit, but Patricia Zolf, a city planner on the project, stepped in. She realized the developers were being let off the hook, even though they had already collected a density bonus (allowance of additional square footage), which they used to build the adjoining Maclean Hunter building.

Risking dismissal, she began making calls to people in the cultural community who cared about the space. That's how the Friends of the Eaton Auditorium came about. Initially headed by Koldofsky and the late arts patron Arthur Gelber, the group came up with a compromise plan, approved by City Council, that would have transferred the responsibility for leasing the floor to the Friends committee. In addition, the Friends secured a commitment from the provincial government to cover one-third of the capital cost of the restoration, and there was an indication that Ottawa would also kick in some money.

Bacque, however, nixed the whole package. "He was totally obstinate," Zolf says. He went all the way to the Supreme Court over the demolition permit, but lost. The court upheld the initial agreement requiring the developer to retain and restore the floor.

The interest in the Eaton Auditorium seemed to dissolve at the end of the 1980s and hardly a peep has been heard about it over the past decade.

Rita Davies, manager of the city's culture division, suspects the trail went cold due when the process of amalgamating the city got under way.

"The whole issue wasn't at the top of the city's agenda, new systems were coming together and there were people with no memory of the initiative," Davies says.

Not everyone has forgotten. Kyle Rae, city councillor for the College Park area, says he still gets a least a call a year from people wondering what's happened to the floor.

Three years ago, GWL Realty Co. bought out London Life, one of the owners of College Park, and inherited the seventh-floor dilemma. Rae met with the new owners last year. He was accompanied by an entrepreneur who wanted to turn it into a small conference centre and use the Round Room as a restaurant. "The owners said no. They had just picked up the property and didn't have the foggiest idea what to do with it," Rae says.

Paul Finkbeiner, executive vice-president of GWL Realty Advisors, says that until the retail picture improves at College and Yonge, he's in no rush to sell off the floor to just anyone. GWL has had a hard time making retail work in the building, let alone worrying about the auditorium. Some of the concepts he has heard bandied about include holding the Juno Awards there, building a multiplex, a high-end dinner theatre or a House of Blues.

"Perhaps [Mel]Lastman will want to use it as part of the Olympic bid," Finkbeiner says. "Whoever's the next mayor might change his mind about the building."

Finkbeiner believes College Park could be a landmark again but he would prefer to sell the building as a package with a mixed-use concept.

Reid shudders at the thought of condos going in there. He has a simple solution for the poor retail in College Park -- make the auditorium the anchor. He points to places like the Rainbow Room as an example of what the Round Room could be -- high-end dining and dancing. As for the auditorium, both Forsyth and Reid insist there is a dire shortage of mid-sized venues in the city that can properly seat 1,200 people.

Reid predicts the Eaton Auditorium could be renovated for about $9-million. "The bones are still there. The work would mainly be cosmetic," Reid says.

Koldofsky is optimistic the right backer can be found. "Someone could get this hall and stick their name on it and I could assure them they would be known in this city and on this continent for the rest of their life."

But Gatenby's not sure it's that simple. "[Ed]Mirvish and [Joey]Tanenbaum are already doing something for the city. Where the hell are all the other people? In New York, people can buy their immortality by buying a building. But there are no individuals here who will step forward to pick up where government funding to the arts left off."

"If Sony had a conscience they'd be in there," he added. "That was Gould's recording place and they are still making money off his recordings."

Meanwhile, the Eaton Auditorium is suspended in time. Some seats on the upper level of the hall remain down, as if left that way since the last performance, waiting for someone to sit in them again. In the Round Room, baskets are filled to the brim with dishes, cups and sundae bowls. A pair of usher's pants rests over an old music stand. A message scrawled in the dust of a mirror beckons hello.

"Here we have a hall with perfect sound, waiting to be used," Koldofsky says. "It was beautiful once, it can be beautiful again."