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book review

Opened in 1948 by Ed Mirvish, Honest Eds occupied a site at Bloor Street and Bathurst Street in Toronto. The site has been sold and is being redeveloped.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

  • Title: 305 Lost Buildings of Canada
  • Author: Raymond Biesinger and Alex Bozikovic
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Publisher: Goose Lane Editions
  • Pages: 200

You can tell as much about a city by the buildings it tears down as you can by the ones it puts up.

Take Paris, which today is widely regarded as a museum city, preserved in Gallic amber. Since Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s massive civic redesign of the 19th century, however, it has actually been quite brazen about urban change, open to dramatic interventions.

For its part, New York City has been equally unafraid to raze its past in pursuit of the future, especially under the gleefully destructive planner Robert Moses, who almost put a freeway through Greenwich Village. But in 1963, the demolition of the original Pennsylvania Station was considered a step too far by many New Yorkers; it ignited a preservation movement that was influential there and elsewhere.

305 Lost Buildings of Canada, Raymond Biesinger and Alex Bozikovic, Goose LaneHandout

In Canada, just about every urban centre holds its share of (often stunning) disappeared structures, as Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic and illustrator Raymond Biesinger reveal in 305 Lost Buildings of Canada, their delightful if slightly melancholic guide to architecture-no-longer-with-us.

Some of these buildings, the pair point out, were famous and are still mourned – see the Montreal Forum (gutted in 1996 and now a movie theatre/event complex) or Vancouver’s Pantages Theatre (demolished only 11 years ago). Many “went down without notice,” while still others are unlikely to be missed at all (the Regina Indian Industrial School, which saw the deaths of some 100 First Nations and Métis children, is an example of the latter).

In Toronto, where I live, a demolished building that haunts me personally is a late-19th-century behemoth known as the Armouries, which once stood on University Avenue a few blocks from my apartment. Now recalled largely through grainy photographs (and on page 116 of 305 Lost Buildings), the turreted cross between a grand Victorian market hall and a Scottish castle was targeted for destruction in the early 1960s, when provincial officials deemed the site more suitable for a new courthouse. What is now Hospital Row is considerably less magical because of it.

In some instances, the demise of a structure can be attributed to a disaster, such as a fire or the Halifax Explosion, although most of Canada’s vanished buildings came to be so through short-sighted political decisions. Corporate ones, too.

Indeed, many of the subjects in the book were erected by brands as increasingly forgotten as the buildings themselves (Eaton’s, Woolworth, Bank of Hamilton, Imperial Bank). Others served as temples to once-great institutions significantly diminished by modernity: think post offices, railway stations and small-city theatres, plus a disconcerting number of newspaper buildings from Ottawa (an Edwardian jewel that once housed the Citizen) to Edmonton (RIP Journal Building).

Occasionally in Canada, demolished structures have been replaced by ones just as worthy, as was the case with Toronto’s Bata Building, an important modernist office complex that, despite its sublimity, gave way in 2007 to the very different but also lovely Aga Khan Museum. These, however, are exceptions. On the whole, what has supplanted many of the country’s disappeared buildings, as Bozikovic’s updates on what sits on those sites today suggest, are pretty much inferior to their precursors.

What’s especially sad is the large number of grand edifices, from Winnipeg’s Manitoba College to London, Ont.’s Victoria Building, that were knocked down for nothing more than – cue Joni Mitchell – parking lots.

In their introduction to 305 Lost Buildings, which also contains a handy back-of-book glossary of architectural terms, the authors note that their list is neither definitive nor exhaustive. While that may be so, they ultimately pull off a neat trick, which is an evocation of the country’s architectural breadth not by exploring what is, but by illuminating what no longer exists.

“Think of this book as an impossible architectural walking tour,” Bozikovic writes, even though he and Biesinger have made it possible to a great degree. Through the former’s pithily informative short descriptions and the latter’s handsomely detailed black-and-white drawings, Canada’s ghostly buildings-that-were have effectively been resurrected.

And, as Bozikovic notes, they “still have something to say.”

Toronto writer Danny Sinopoli is the former editor-in-chief of Azure magazine.

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