When death came for Toronto real-estate entrepreneur Paul Oberman, 53, in a remote Maine forest on March 7, Canada's architectural inheritance lost one of its most devoted friends and defenders.
His love for historical architecture informed the successful business model by which Woodcliffe Landmark Properties Ltd., the development company he founded and headed, has operated since shortly after its creation in 1981. The notable Toronto structures that Woodcliffe purchased, transformed into commercially viable facilities and managed under Oberman's leadership include the "flatiron" Gooderham Building (1891-1892) at the acute intersection of Wellington Street East and Front Street East, and the former Canadian Pacific railway station at Summerhill (a graceful Italianate edifice from 1916 by the office of Darling and Pearson), now a liquor store.
One of Oberman's most admired projects was the award-winning restoration of a Victorian commercial streetscape, now known as King James Place, by the firm of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg (KPMB). It was while doing this renovation and infill (1985-1992) that Oberman became fascinated with the historic fabric of the city, and first saw the role that development could play in its maintenance. In addition to its Toronto contributions, Woodcliffe subsequently overhauled and updated the Westmount railway station (1907) in Montreal and The Chambers (1891), a prestigious business address in Ottawa.
But Oberman's commitment to architecture went beyond his own hands-on renovation efforts. He was a personal and financial backer of Heritage Toronto, the city agency that oversees the conservation of the built environment. He had been actively engaged in efforts by the Canadian Air & Space Museum, at Downsview Park, to spare Second World War-era hangars at the former military base, and, at the time of his death, he was working with the museum on a plan to refurbish and repurpose historic industrial facilities on the site. He collaborated closely with the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, whose president, Lloyd Alter, said: "Urbanism, design and heritage activists have lost a great supporter and practitioner, and I have lost a friend and hero."
Oberman was born in Toronto into a middle-class family with no involvement in real-estate development. When he was 17, his high school teachers went out on strike and, to fill up the hours, he took a brokerage course. The prospect of a life in the real-estate industry immediately struck fire with him. His career as a real-estate agent began at age 18, when he was at last old enough to get a licence. Oberman later apprenticed with several seasoned Toronto professionals, including realtor Harvey Adelman.
An enthusiastic amateur pilot, Oberman was killed when the single-engine plane in which he was a passenger crashed near the Canadian-U.S. border during a snowstorm. The aircraft was in transit between Halifax and Quebec City at the time of the accident. The plane's pilot, Ryan Isaac, 31, was taken to a Quebec City hospital with a broken arm.
Oberman is survived by his wife, Eve Lewis, founder and president of Marketvision Real Estate Corp., which handles the planning and marketing of condominium projects. The couple met during their pursuit of shared business interests. Their marriage, the second for each, created a blended family of six small children, with three coming from each previous marriage.
The children lived and grew up together in the Rosedale Georgian Revival house that the couple purchased in 1995 and later meticulously restored to its original magnificence. The mansion was designed in the 1920s by the firm of George Moorhouse & King, which specialized in homes for Toronto's elite, but had fallen into disrepair by the time Oberman and Lewis bought it.
"They were a wonderfully close-knit family of high achievers," recalled Bonnie Hillman, a Toronto public relations executive and family friend. "Paul was a wonderful combination of refinement and big vision. He believed in the possibility of the greatness of the city. He was a big, wonderful spirit, a good listener, a very astute businessperson, and a patient person. While he wanted things to happen - he was a very active, high-energy person - he understood that it took time for stakeholders to buy into it."
Hillman said Oberman was a cyclist and an "avid reader" - "a passionate guy, with healthy curiosity about other people and what they thought."
It is as a preservationist, however, that Oberman will best be remembered by the architecturally interested public. In a recent edition of an anthology entitled Design is Intelligence Made Visible and published by the design firm Teknion, Oberman wrote what amounts to a personal manifesto: "Historic buildings integrating old and new are, for me, the lifeblood of a city. If we don't care about renewing our historic buildings, if we don't care about preserving them by finding new uses for them, what will we care about? How will we create a vibrant urban environment consisting of exciting and remarkable built forms if we turn our backs on the great achievements - and even the mere survivals - of our past? If we don't value our heritage, how will we create anything of value in the future? A desirable future, I submit, is tied to our past."
"I am shocked, because he was the only developer I can think of whose key focus was heritage," Toronto architect Michael McClelland said shortly after hearing of Oberman's death. In a city where developers give lip-service to architectural preservation but do little to advance the cause, Oberman "was someone to whom you could turn to represent the development community in relation to heritage. … He was a very admirable guy, young and energetic, really interested in new ideas for old buildings, always pushing forward on things."
While he always had strong friends in the heritage community, Oberman's business activities occasionally got him into trouble with the public at large. In 2006, he proposed putting up a 38-storey condominium tower on a site Woodcliffe owned near the Summerhill CP railway station, on the edge of posh Rosedale. The well-heeled neighbours rose up en masse to oppose the high-rise scheme, and it never got built. But the episode showed that Oberman was no foe of urban density where it made sound economic sense. His enemy, rather, was the reckless destruction of old buildings that, with sufficient financial investment, patience and smart architectural input, could be turned into profitable enterprises.
His overall business strategy, according to the Ontario Architectural Conservancy's Lloyd Alter, demonstrated that the interests of the development industry and the heritage people need not be starkly opposed. "He would spend whatever it cost to do it right," Alter said. "When you'd ask him about [the business model] he would say the more money you put into it, the more money you can get out of it in rent. He was convinced that, if you do it right, you attract the right kind of audience, the right kind of tenants."
Alter has especially high praise for King James Place, which he considers Oberman's finest accomplishment in Toronto. KPMB "took a pile of existing buildings and knitted these fabulous new buildings together with them," Alter said. "It's a complete whole. Other people would have said there were too many missing pieces, you can't fix this, or let's do something not as good - some hack glass thing put in between the buildings. But they did a beautiful, sensitive job of mixing the old and the new."
Not all of Oberman's forays into the field of preservation met with such success. His recent crusade to save the old hangars in Downsview failed to capture the imagination of their owners at the Ministry of National Defence, and the buildings were demolished. Ian A. McDougall, a Toronto aviation executive and chairman of the Canadian Air & Space Museum, who worked with Oberman on the bid to rescue the hangars, concedes that the salvation of modern industrial structures is not likely to garner wide public applause.
"But the buildings had substantial merit that most people could be forgiven for not identifying," McDougall said. "They were very robust, and it wouldn't have taken that much to bring them up to modern specifications. … Paul had figured out how to do it. A lot of people outside our field viewed the whole thing as wildly quixotic. But it had real merit."
Nor had Oberman's proposals for new commercial uses of the aviation factory at the former Canadian Forces base, in progress before his death, come to anything. Despite frustrations, however, Oberman never stopped trying to fashion new stories for antique buildings. In doing so, he set a good example (too rarely followed) for his industry and safeguarded significant bits of evidence for Canada's urban history.
Responding to the news of Oberman's untimely death, McDougall said: "If people are going to feel bad, the best thing they can do is to do something positive. The best way to celebrate Paul's memory is to make sure that projects like the ones he inspired, including some of the ones he was working on, keep going. He was more than a good businessman. He was using business to accomplish things of really durable value."