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The 1957 former headquarters of Traders Financial in Toronto.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

What can we learn from the past? This is a central theme of heritage preservation. But we’re always selective about which pasts we choose to recall and which we choose to ignore.

Lately I’ve been interested in an overlooked chapter of Toronto architectural history: The moment when the city, then culturally conservative in the extreme, began to embrace modernism. Starting in the 1950s, the city’s establishment began inching into the future.

Nobody did this better than Marani & Morris. Between 1950 and 1970, they took the Georgian and neoclassical styles of the previous generation, making them sleeker and smoother. Now some of their Toronto buildings are under threat from new, dense development. These buildings deserve to be saved. They embodied a sort of quiet professional competence that is almost gone – and we could learn from them.

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The firm was founded in 1912 by Ferdinand Marani, the son of a University of Toronto engineering professor. In a letter a decade later he articulated his philosophy: “If we wish beautiful buildings,” he wrote, “we must plan them efficiently and rely on simplicity of line, proportion and colour for our effects and not on tawdry adornments and a display of reckless spending.” The firm combined this WASP minimalism with solid design training, largely in the neo-classical tradition of the École des Beaux-Arts.

I recently read an unpublished history of the firm, written by magazine journalist Arnold Edinborough in 1969. “Their model was simple, uncluttered, conservative, but attractive,” he writes. This meant a slow, incremental change when modernism swept through the continent. The Marani work was quickly recast as stuffy and irrelevant by younger architects who were chasing radical ideas and progressive politics. But the blending of past and future – this was very specific to Upper Canada.

Look at the 1929 Medical Arts Building at Bloor and St. George streets, which still stands; it’s a brick-clad tower capped with a Roman balustrade and not much else. A block away at 246 Bloor St. W., the headquarters for Texaco Canada – completed a quarter-century later – reads like a slightly stripped-down sequel, with a penthouse that resembles a Greek temple and slabs of limestone with abstract carvings.

Mr. Marani, and later partners including Robert Schofield (Bill) Morris, ran the business and drank cherry with potential clients. They did well. The firm designed many corporate headquarters; an annex to the Canadian embassy in Washington; Peterborough City Hall; many university, college and school buildings. And they were recognized. Morris won an important international award from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1958.

But the design brains here were relatively unsung. According to the Edinborough book, the firm’s chief designer in the 1950s was Ray Winegar. Raised in Michigan, he was a graduate of the University of Michigan who won a travel scholarship to France in the 1930s. Mr. Winegar is almost totally absent from the historical record.

Yet, he designed the Bank of Canada headquarters at 250 University Ave.: a steel-boned office building with a cladding of green and black granite, aluminum windows, and some rounded corners up top. An approved redevelopment would put a tower on top. That’s one of about 10 buildings the firm designed along University Avenue, under Mr. Winegar and then the British designer Ron Dick (1920-2000).

The United Building development will incorporate the shell of the former headquarters of Maclean-Hunter Publishing.

Davpart

Several survive. One is the former headquarters of Maclean-Hunter Publishing. It’s now being gutted, its shell incorporated into a development dubbed United Building. Heritage architects ERA are overseeing the partial conservation of the building’s limestone facades, including two bas-relief carvings by the artist Elizabeth Wyn Wood. This is a partial victory for heritage.

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The lobby of The United Building.

DAVPART INC.

Maybe less lucky: the 1957 former headquarters of Traders Financial, at 625 Church St. near Bloor. This is one of a dozen buildings the Marani firm designed for insurance companies in this area (including 120 and 333 Bloor, along with later additions on both).

The Traders Building is faced with red brick.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

The Traders Building is faced with red brick. On the front and back, square windows set in a grid are surrounded on four sides by thin stone slabs (a trademark detail). On the sides, the façade ripples out in a set of engaged columns. Conservative but attractive.

On the sides of the Traders Building, the facade ripples out in a set of engaged columns.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Now its current owner, Manulife, wants to reduce that building to a shell of a high-rise apartment tower, preserving only the front façade and wrecking almost all of the building. This seems like “reckless spending.” Why should a six-storey office building, 87,000 square feet of concrete construction in excellent condition, be torn down? It’s a reflection of Toronto’s perverse planning policies at the moment; they protect a lot of small (and undistinguished) buildings, and leave this unprotected.

Manufacturers' Life headquarters in Toronto, 1953.

Panda Associates

But that aside: the new architecture simply won’t measure up. RAW Design is proposing a largely glass-clad tower that, while aiming for simplicity, will surely be less refined than what it replaces. The Traders Building delivers “simplicity of line, proportion and colour," through the eyes and hands of architects with compositional skill and a deep understanding of detail.

Today’s Toronto apartment-building architects couldn’t do that if they tried. Brick and stone are expensive; but more importantly, the design culture is lacking. Today’s architects work quickly, for low fees, for clients who won’t tolerate extra expense, or risk, or any extra time spent.

Contemporary architecture can be beautiful, and it can be precise – but that takes profound dedication, a tradition of excellence, enough money, and enough modesty. No less, and no more. In the Marani office, Toronto had that once. It would be beautiful to have it again.

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