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A visit to two landmark Toronto residential towers

She might have been humming along to Won't You Charleston With Me? Then again, since she was a young royal, Perfect Young Ladies from The Boy Friend – one of her favourite musicals – might have been the one that really got her toes tapping. The apartment, certainly, was crammed with dozens of perfect, young Torontonians that cool October night in 1967.

Regardless of which show tunes singer Dinah Christie chose for Princess Margaret and the 40 other assembled guests (many, such as Lord Snowdon, seated on the floor), by all accounts a fine time was had at Mrs. Egmont Frankel's Tower Hill apartment.

That royalty would grace the newly minted Modernist tower isn't surprising: The two Tower Hill buildings at Spadina Road and St. Clair Avenue West have always stood for elegance and grace in the minds of many in this city.

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"They were always landmark buildings," said Tom Schwartz, president and CEO of CAPREIT, the owner of 355 St. Clair Ave. W. "I grew up in Toronto and I remember driving by them. They were always beautiful buildings, just a great example of residential International [Style] architecture from the sixties."

"I think everyone has gravitated to those buildings over the years because of their location and their views," agreed Russell Masters, vice-president of First Ontario Realty Corp., owner of 330 Spadina Rd.

Only a few weeks ago, as a matter of fact, a pair of architects in the boardroom of WZMH Architects, the firm responsible for designing both buildings, gravitated toward some pencil drawings of 330 Spadina, the first one to go up in 1966. Unrolling large, brittle sheets of vellum stamped May, 1965, the two men (who were just boys back then), affixed a few to the wall and took a long, hard look.

"This is not really your typical concrete vocabulary having something so thin and slender" said WZMH principal Carl Blanchaer of the grid-like latticework covering the building. "It's something you'd expect to see in steel."

It's true. To passersby who take the time to examine them, the precast concrete panels seem to be something important, as if they form an exoskeleton that holds the buildings up. In reality, they're nothing more than cladding.

"If it were structural it would have to be much heavier," said Brian Andrew, another WZMH principal, adding that it does, however, offer "real depth" to the façade. "Nowadays we get so many glass curtain walls where it's a very skin-tight expression. On a bright, sunny day, [the concrete] is brilliant white and then you get the deep shadow."

Tower Hill East and West were the brainchild of prominent Toronto developer Reuben Dennis, who, by the end of 1964, boasted ownership of 5,000 apartment units – including the five-building Brentwood Towers complex on Lascelles Boulevard – which made him "Toronto's biggest landlord" according to a January, 1965 Globe and Mail profile.

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He started in the early 1920s building houses with his father, Morris, and the pair was erecting apartments "before they captured the public's fancy" just a few years later.

By the 1940s, a 12-storey rental apartment building – then Toronto's highest according to the unnamed author – went up near Lawrence Park on Yonge St.

After Morris Dennis died in 1946, son Reuben took the reins to "build bigger and costlier and more elaborate homes in the sky." Tower Hill would become a big part of that portfolio, but it wouldn't end there. Reuben's son, David, a lawyer, became involved and the family embarked on their first hotel project, Sutton Place, which opened in the summer of 1967 (with partners the Tanenbaum family of York Steel Construction) and the Thomson Building across from City Hall.

In March, 1969, the second Tower Hill building was tenant-ready, with "very homelike" three-bedroom units, "large Spanish kitchens," "exquisitely appointed bathrooms" and "walk-in cupboards [that] would be any woman's dream" boasted the Globe's Mary Walpole in her Around the Town advertorial.

The building would remain a dream for women (and men) for a few decades. However, the bloom would be off the rose by the late-1990s, when CAPREIT's Mr. Schwartz first toured Tower Hill West.

"When we bought it, it was actually in distress … the tenants were unhappy," he recalled. Run by a receiver, capital projects were non-existent and the building staff didn't fit with the Tower Hill legacy. "I saw this as a great opportunity … it should be a top-end luxury building and we brought it back to the glory that it deserved."

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A recent walkabout of 355 St. Clair West bears this out. The lobby, which faces the ravine rather than the busy street, is still dressed in one of Modernist master Mies van der Rohe's favourite garments, travertine; overhead, the original concrete waffle ceiling makes a proud statement. Units are crisp, clean and much larger than the average 2013 condo. Original steel-sash, floor-to-ceiling windows frame an unobstructed view so tenants can watch weather systems sweep from Erin Mills to Don Mills, or delight in the city's distant, expanding skyline, with the stone anchor of Casa Loma in the foreground. In some of the three-bedroom units, there are windows on three sides.

"People live here for the architecture," said CAPREIT's vice-president of sales and marketing, Trish MacPherson.

Tower Hill East at 330 Spadina Rd., on the other hand, has never left Dennis family hands. Reuben Dennis's grandson Russell Masters said his grandfather "really did change a lot of the landscape in the city" by building rental apartments that "made a statement."

A vice-president of the 14-year-old Tower Hill Development Corp., Mr. Masters made his own architectural statement in 2009 by adding a new curved condominium tower, Churchill Park, to the Tower Hill composition.

While Modernist aficionados lamented that the strict geometry of the original pair wasn't carried over to that design, Mr. Masters explained the site was too small, and residents "would have been looking into each other's bedrooms."

But the Tower Hill look, which architect Brian Andrew said was "way ahead of its time," has influenced at least one other project. Lamb Development's "The Brant Park" by architectsAlliance, soon to rise on Adelaide Street West between Spadina and Bathurst, is a dead-ringer.

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About the Author

Dave LeBlanc was born in Toronto and wouldn't have it any other way. At age 8, he remembers jumping for joy when both the CN Tower opened and Toronto finally snatched Montreal's crown to become the biggest city in Canada; he's been an architecture lover and Toronto advocate ever since.He attended Ryerson for Radio-Television Arts and York University for English. More


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