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The former General Accident Assurance Building at 357 Bay St., seen here in 1923, was built in 1922.

Toronto Public Library

When Dream Unlimited Corp. vice-president of construction Harvey Barth thrust a essay titled Antiquated Structural Systems – written by a guy with more letters after his name than a can of alphabet soup – into my hands just before he began his PowerPoint presentation, I knew this would be a good story.

Mr. Barth wanted to show examples of late-19th- early-20th-century floor systems made with a combination of hollow clay tiles (aka “speed tile”) and concrete formed into a segmental arch between steel beams (author D. Matthew Stuart writes “the arches were typically covered with a concrete topping and often had plaster applied directly to the soffit of the exposed tiles”), and the flat version of this method, which, strangely, employed keystones and oddly-shaped “Side-Construction Skews” that wrapped around the I-beams. Both of these systems, one could glean from the illustrations, made for a very, very thick floor.

At 357 Bay St., the former General Accident Assurance Building – built in 1922 and where last week’s presentation was held – the flat arch version was used, and in place of concrete, Mr. Barth and his demolition team (Broccolini) found eight inches of a “weak mortar mix.

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“So the floor is held in place essentially by the friction of this mass sitting on the flanges of the beams,” he said in summation. “This preceded general-use reinforced concrete; so this building had no concrete and no reinforced concrete.”

The former General Accident Assurance Building today.

Dream Unlimited Corp.

Note the past tense: Today, only a few pieces of this antiquated system remain. One, a section of clay tile, sits on the table beside Mr. Barth’s briefcase. When tours come through 357 Bay St., he shows it off and asks folks to image hanging heavy, modern HVAC equipment from it and then pulls out long, slender sticks to represent the building’s steel columns. Yes, there are lots of columns, but on the upper floors of this handsome English Renaissance-style, 11-storey building – designed by Canadian architect Francis Spence Baker (1867-1926) who worked briefly in New York and London – they are thinner. With no concrete elevator core to provide stability, floor removal would most certainly have caused the steel to bow or twist, which Mr. Barth illustrates by pushing down on his long Popsicle stick.

The engineering lesson over (whew!), the slides show crews in hazmat suits (there was asbestos in the plaster) filling a zillion bags of the toxic stuff and, after numerous air quality tests, non-suited demolition crews hacking away at all of that terracotta tile to expose the steel skeleton.

Non-suited demolition crews hacked away at the terracotta tile to expose the steel skeleton.

Dream Unlimited Corp.

Did I mention that Dream did all of this while former tenants were still in the building? And, therefore, that it all had to be done at night? “Three thousand tonnes of material came out in wheelbarrows,” said Mr. Barth, shaking his head at the recent memory. “That’s about 60,000 loads of a wheelbarrow.”

Why go to all of that trouble, one might ask, when right across the street at the southeast corner of Bay and Temperance streets, the Bay-Adelaide Centre got away with pasting two sides of the former National Building (1926, Chapman & Oxley) onto a new glass tower?

Around 60,000 wheelbarrows of material was removed from the building in the course of restoration.

Dream Unlimited Corp.

“A lot of the new buildings are big and shiny, but there are still a lot of companies that are not the huge banks and the law firms, but they still need that Bay Street address,” Dream vice-president of innovation and development Brad Keast says. “If we restore the charm and character that existed in these, then they’ll be drawn to them.”

Mr. Keast says “these” because developer Dream is creating something of a heritage district in the area, with the recent acquisition of Nos. 330, 350, 360 and 366 on the west side of Bay below Richmond Street West, No. 357 on the east side, No. 56 Temperance St. a stone’s throw away, and, on Richmond, Nos. 67, 69 and 80.

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A developer of a different colour, you might say, since there isn’t a façadectomy in the bunch.

The lobby's emerald-green terrazzo floors are being maintained in the renovation.

Dream Unlimited Corp.

Working with avant-garde architects Partisans – known for their wild imagination as much as their built work – and heritage superheroes ERA, Dream is also preserving much of 357’s vintage charm on the ground floor. The lobby’s emerald-green terrazzo floors, veined marble, wood paneling and bronze Canada Post box will shine again, as will the salvaged doors from the old art deco Toronto Star building that once stood at 80 King St. W. (these were installed at 357 Bay in 1991).

On the second floor, the Dream team is recreating the 20-foot high ceilings that once housed the main offices of the General Accident Assurance Co. And while a typical floor’s ceilings won’t be that lofty, with the antiquated 16-inch floors slimmed down to four inches and the T-bar drop ceiling removed – which was blocking the tops of the windows! – they’ll be plenty high enough for WeWork when it moves in later this year.

The art deco doors were salvaged from the former Toronto Star building at 80 King St. W.

Dream Unlimited Corp.

One odd thing the team found during the demolition/reconstruction: The building’s foundation is tucked back from the sidewalk’s edge and the exterior wall sits, cantilevered, on steel beams. This was done, apparently, because the city was contemplating a Bay Street subway at the time.

Later this year, promises Mr. Barth, a lighting scheme by Burlington’s Lightstudio that will properly illuminate the restored limestone, brickwork and deep cornices of 357, as well as Dream’s other buildings in the area that they’ve now dubbed “Bay Street Village.” The day I visited, workers were dangling off of No. 350, repairing the Toronto-red façade brick-by-brick to prepare it for its spotlight.

And, once those lights are on, if you look close enough, you’ll see something else: dignity.

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“No one’s building buildings like these anymore,” Mr. Keast says. “They’re really unique, they’re really special, and so how do we improve them and restore the charm and character that they had before?”

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