It’s curious: in my 20 years of writing about architecture for Globe Real Estate, I don’t recall ever dreaming about a building. Sure, getting lost or missing an exam at York University, or my childhood home, but those don’t count.
However, a few nights ago I had a long and involved dream about 50 Park Rd., that modernist, steel-and-glass jewel box that has stood sentry over the sloping, lush greenery of Lawren Harris Park since 1954.
That’s how important 50 Park is … in my mind at least; years before Viljo Revell’s City Hall shouted to the world that Toronto had awoken from its provincial slumber to become a progressive, immigrant-rich city, the Ontario Association of Architects said it just as loudly with their new headquarters. And they said it as early as March, 1951, when the winning design was chosen. In July, 1950, a competition among OAA members was announced, and the John C. Parkin design (of John B. Parkin Associates, John B. was not related to John C.) was selected from 36 entries.
The jury, which consisted of University of Toronto architecture professor Eric Arthur and architects Murray Brown and Ferdinand Marani (of Marani & Morris) was quoted in The Globe as saying the building had to possess “the character which one might expect in the headquarters of a society of professional men engaged in the art of architecture.” They also praised the winning design’s “economical handling of space” and “use of land in relation to the view.” The article concluded by reporting that work would commence only when “steel and other critical materials, now short because of defence needs, can be obtained.” This probably explains the delay from the 1951 announcement to the actual “housewarming” as reported by The Globe on Oct. 7, 1954.
Almost 69 years to the day, I stood on the front steps and admired the timeless design, which has changed very, very little. Joining me was realtor Kevin Gillen – the building was just put on the market for $7,995,000 – architect Megan Torza, a partner at DTAH (du Toit Allsopp Hillier architects and landscape architects have occupied the building since 1992), Sheila du Toit, sole owner of the building and a widow since 2015, when Roger du Toit died from injuries suffered in a bicycling accident, and Ms. du Toit’s son Rob.
“There’s so much tied to the building,” Ms. du Toit said. “My other son, Andre, met his husband here. On Pride Day, Roger and I used to have parties here.”
While our little group was in a less-than-partying mood due to the sale, I couldn’t help but get excited as we opened the big glass doors and walked inside. While the original – and very distinctive – exhibition area/ramp is long gone (removed by the OAA in a 1982 renovation), connection to the outdoors was reinstated by DTAH, says Ms. Torza.
“Over time, [the OAA’s] membership numbers increased exponentially, so the building became less of an exhibition space and more of an office/administrative centre, so all of the social aspects and those generous areas became more and more broken up. … In 2009 we took a partition wall out and re-established that straight shot view [to the park] which was part of the original design.”
DTAH has done more than that; in a brochure the firm hands out every year during Toronto’s Doors Open Festival, the original 1954 floor plan is compared to that of 1982′s, when many, many partitions did indeed rule the day. And while the 2009 plan is filled with architect’s stations, it does much to correct those transgressions to honour Mr. Parkin’s vision.
Walking through, I noted the original terrazzo underfoot and how the dark brick on the exterior’s west façade (which can read as aubergine or brown depending on the light) creates a long, dividing wall on the interior; on the lower level, the same brick clads the enormous, original fireplace (where 1950s members no doubt sipped brandy). As we wonder how DTAH employees can get any work done with that sumptuous view of greenery, Ms. Torza shows me the low-tech solution for welcoming fresh air into the building: wooden panels positioned under each window have a 1950s window lock: turn it and the panel drops open to reveal a bug screen over metal louvers.
“It’s actually a really sophisticated approach, I think, to ventilation that we still use today,” she said, “and every single window bay has it.”
Other original details: the original safe, rich wood panelling and muslin-coated walls of the lower level.
There’s so much that’s original, in fact, it wouldn’t take much to restore 50 Park back to 1954 if the new owner wanted to do so. This begs the question: who would want a heritage-designated building (designated in 1991) on a piece of land where expansion is impossible? A building with the weight of being designed by, arguably, the most important Canadian modernist of the 1950s and 60s? An architect, I should add, who learned his craft at Harvard under the wing of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.
To my mind, there is but one: Phyllis Lambert, architect, philanthropist, and founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. The CCA could use a Toronto satellite office where architectural research and gallery shows could co-exist. Heck, there is even room for a little gift shop.
“It’s very interesting you should mention her,” finishes Ms. du Toit. “When we bought the building, she wrote to Roger and said ‘for goodness sake, don’t change it.’”