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The Globe and Mail

Uncovering the beauty under bird poop on Toronto's Yonge Street

Call him Mr. Yonge Street.

Well, right now, call him Mr. Cautious: "Feel this floor right here," says Gary Switzer of MOD Developments as he probes a section of warped, decaying floor with the toe of his shoe, "that feels like you could go right through."

Illuminated by a sliver of sunlight pushing past dirty double-hung windows, Mr. Switzer stands proudly (and somewhat precariously) on the third floor of his company's newest purchase, Darling & Pearson's 1905 Bank of Commerce at 197-199 Yonge St.

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In a few months, the bird-pooped but beautiful Beaux-Arts building – abandoned since 1987 – will become the sales office for the striking Massey Tower condominium. Once the proposed 60-storey tower is complete, a concierge will greet residents on the first floor of the bank, the second floor might house soundproof rehearsal rooms, and the ceiling between the third and fourth floors may come down to join the two, since the gloomy fourth is lit only by skylights.

But about that "Mr. Yonge Street" thing. While it may be too early to crown Mr. Switzer – Sam Sniderman, the current title holder, has only been in retirement for a little over a decade, after all – in three short years MOD is making an impact on the city's most storied thoroughfare. Up the street at Yonge and St. Joseph, the company's first project, FIVE, is under way with partner Graywood Developments. There, a row of heritage storefronts and a warehouse built by Rawlinson Cartage is being saved, put to good use as the retail component of a residential complex, and, not surprisingly, winning awards.

The Yonge and Queen site, while also a massive exercise in heritage restoration, is completely different; Mr. Switzer compares the insertion of a tall tower into the cramped space behind the bank to "micro-surgery." Boxed in by the other heritage bank's long rear end (an unoccupied E.J. Lennox building), the loading docks of the old Heintzman Piano building (HomeSense) and Elgin/Winter Garden theatres to the south, and Massey Hall to the north-east, this is no exaggeration: "This is going to cost an absolute fortune," he laughs. "This is a lot more complicated than saving a façade or five Victorian stores; this is on the level of the Summerhill train station."

Luckily, the features identified by the city as retention-worthy make sense to Mr. Switzer, who switches easily between his developer's hardhat and the graduation cap he received from the University of Toronto's school of architecture. Besides the ruins of a once-proud fireplace and a few partition walls, there isn't much to consider on the third floor. Descending to the second, we find there isn't much left in these old offices either – a neat 1950s mint-green sink a long-ago dentist washed up in, a few bare-bulbed wall sconces, and "creepy in a Blair Witch kind of way" peeling walls covered with graffiti – so it's down one more flight to the first floor.

This is more like it! From floor to ceiling, there is much to savour. First, there's the staircase that deposited us here: pink marble treads and risers are flanked by a sculpted metal baluster and carved wooden handrail. In the foyer under a small domed ceiling is a gorgeous mosaic tile floor medallion underneath multiple layers of brittle vinyl tile that Mr. Switzer chipped away one weekend until the old glue resisted: "I couldn't stop," he laughs. Behind that, there are the big original front doors and the massive Ionic columns outside. "To walk into a building through these columns, that's what really makes this whole thing so amazing," he says.

To the right of the foyer over a cluster of small offices, an ornate plaster ceiling sporting a recessed ellipse framed by egg-and-dart moulding and rhythmic modillions awaits repair (ERA Architects are on the case); the showstopper, however, is a rounded wooden pediment supported by two wooden Ionic columns that anchors a span of dentil moulding running the width of the building. Somehow, it has remained pristine.

Beyond the carved wood, however, there is nothing worth saving. At some point in time, the high-ceilinged, one-storey room was completely gutted, leaving only a tiny vintage water fountain and a locked safe.

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This is good, since Mr. Switzer can have a clear conscience when this is razed for the Hariri Pontarini-designed condo tower. Had he purchased the bank next door (which wasn't for sale anyway) he never could have done this, since its interior was fully restored by the city in 1992.

What will keep him up at nights, however, is the responsibility associated with this much heritage: "It's a bit daunting, you know," he says quietly. Brushing some dust off his coat, he reassures himself with the memory that, even at the tender age of 16 in 1970, he watched with disgust as the 1895 Temple Building came down. Our collective lack of enthusiasm for the city's built heritage has bugged him ever since.

"What does it say about our city to have a building like this empty right on the main street?"

If this project is as successful as FIVE – and there's every reason to suggest it will be – perhaps Mr. Switzer will turn yet another neglected piece of Yonge's past into our future…and, along the way, earn the right to call himself Mr. Yonge Street.

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