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Preservation of iconic signs is admirable, but not at the expense of common sense

Is Toronto betraying its heritage by letting Ryerson University wiggle out of a deal to remount the Sam the Record Man sign? That is one way of looking at it. Critics note that when Ryerson made plans to build a new Learning Centre on the Sam's site, it assured city hall it would keep and display the sign, with its famous spinning neon records.

Well, easier said than done. A neon sign is not a painting. You cannot simply take it down and hang it somewhere else. The sign has been dismantled and put in storage. Experts hired by the university point to all sorts of problems with rehanging it, from possible mercury spillage to structural issues to high future maintenance costs. The architect for the Learning Centre found that the sign simply did not fit with the design for the building, with its dramatic glass facade facing Yonge Street.

Should the university have known all this in the first place? In an ideal world, yes. Ryerson alumnus Sean Boulton told a city council committee on Tuesday that if council wants developers to live up to their heritage commitments, "this a precedent you cannot afford to set. … We had a deal."

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But forcing the university to bolt an aging, possibly unstable sign to its modern glass building just to make a point does not make much sense. The university and the city have put together a plan to commemorate Sam's in other ways: a plaque and display in the sidewalk, a Web site about the landmark record store's role in the Canadian music scene.

The Sam's sign was not built to last forever. When Honest Ed's closes, should its giant, flashing neon sign be preserved, too?

Sam's is gone, along with A&A records and host of other stores and clubs from another era. Yonge Street is changing, with the construction of the Learning Centre and the towering Aura condo up the street.

Ryerson is not some cutthroat developer. It has been a leading force in reviving its once-shabby downtown neighbourhood. The local councillor, Kristyn Wong-Tam, notes that Ryerson led the drive to save Maple Leaf Gardens, refashioning it as a supermarket and athletic centre. She is hardly a pushover, and she supports cutting Ryerson some slack.

So does the city's heritage department. "While heritage staff are disappointed that Ryerson has been unable to find a feasible way to restore the original iconic signs to their historic context, we are now satisfied that the university has given serious consideration to the matter, obtained expert advice and has developed a commemorative strategy that will include a vibrant reinterpretation of the iconic frontage in its original location," they say in a report.

Ryerson president Sheldon Levy says the university is still trying to find a way to save the sign itself, possibly in another location. One option is Yonge-Dundas Square just down the street. The sign would fit right in with the brilliant display of neon there.

"If I was determined then, I am more determined now," Mr. Levy told The Globe and Mail's Elizabeth Church. He admits Ryerson did not do "a great job of communicating," but says that preserving and displaying the sign "is a very big problem. Living up to the agreement the way it is written is not in the best interest of the university or the city."

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Rather than pillory Mr. Levy and make Ryerson stick to an impractical plan, the city should work with the university to find a fitting and realistic way to remember Sam the Record Man.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More


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