It all started off, I suppose, like the grand plans one might have for a dinner party. It was going to be big. Like the movie Big Night, even, with an orgiastic, six-course meal punctuated by the beautiful/ridiculous Il Timpano. One for the ages.
And, like the best laid plans, because of logistics and budget, it ended up as a pretty good spaghetti dinner followed by cannoli from the Italian bakery.
I’m referring, of course, to my recent ordeal in purchasing a residential/commercial building in the crazy Toronto market.
While the main reason for this life-change was so my wife, Shauntelle, could re-open her mid-century modern (MCM) furniture store, Ethel-20th Century Living, I had my own motivations. If I was going to move away from our comfortable condo – within spitting distance of St. Lawrence Market and an 18-minute walk to work – it was going to have to be big. And I don’t mean size: I wanted an original 1960s curtain wall, a floating terrazzo staircase and any other period-appropriate details my architecture-addled brain could conjure up.
Our commercial agent, Brian Pennington of Re/Max, humoured my early e-mails (filled with example of buildings I could never possibly afford) and said he’d give it his best, but even I knew, deep down, that this was a needle-in-a-haystack proposition; the older, walkable high streets we need to be on were built from the 1880s to the 1930s, where MCM architecture appears only rarely, and as infill.
We did find a few needles, but both weren’t on the market. The Association of United Ukrainian Canadians (AUUC) Cultural Centre at 1604 Bloor St. W., and the home of the Elite Music Academy at 2007 Danforth Ave., to be exact. The nice Ukrainian man we met (under the guise of wanting to rent his banquet hall) told us that if his building ever did hit the market, it would be listed for more than $2-million; the owners of the Danforth building told us, basically, to buzz off. So I began to reorganize my wish list and told the good-natured Mr. Pennington that we’d take something else, with the proviso that quirky was better.
After viewing a number of buildings over spring and summer, some as far-flung as the Junction (Ethel has always been an East End gal) and considering options such as Mimico or the Scarborough Bluffs, we came upon Helen’s Variety, on the Danforth between Coxwell and Woodbine.
While Helen’s certainly ticked all of the retail and income potential boxes – it has a 20-foot frontage, large windows, a high-and-dry basement, two-car parking and two apartments above – I secretly shed a tear that there was nothing architecturally interesting to preserve and showcase.
Until I started playing with Google Street View’s archived imagery. Before the jaunty yellow-and-white stripes were painted on the facade, Helen’s was adorned in faded blue paint. And, in some of those photos (in this case they went back to 2007), the peeling paint revealed something shiny and black underneath.
Could it be?
The era was right. In the 1920s, when the newly constructed Prince Edward Viaduct created a construction frenzy along the Danforth all the way to Main Street, Vitrolite was the hottest material around. Also known as Carrera glass, pigmented structural glass was invented in 1900 in Indianapolis by the Marrietta Manufacturing Co. While early uses included the interiors of refrigerators, laboratories and hospitals (the glossy, non-porous material was advertised as being highly sanitary), by the 1920s, this harder-than-marble material was the sexiest thing in storefronts.
So, while I couldn’t arm myself with a paint scraper and prop a ladder against the building to confirm its existence, I did the next best thing: I took an Architour of the Danforth between Woodbine and Greenwood to determine if enough Vitrolite remained to employ the law of averages.
Starting from Helen’s Variety, I walked east. And, behold, less than a block away, Hastings Barbershop appeared. While most of it was covered under black paint, I could tell by the sharp, glass-like cracks in the surface and the painted-over sandblasted lettering (it read: “Silverthorn’s Hardware,” which must’ve been the original tenant) that Vitrolite was lurking underneath; an examination of the side, near the barber-pole, confirmed it.
At 2001 Danforth, a vacant store showed off its shiny tiles without a paint coverup, complete with a white stripe along the top; and, directly across the street, Avonlea Kitchen + Bathroom Concepts displayed telltale peeling beige paint with shiny-black deliciousness underneath, plus what might have been twin, inset mirrors on either side.
Just over the bird-poop-covered awning above the Subway sign at the corner of Danforth and Coxwell, some more Vitrolite, and, at No. 1442, a building so preserved and symmetrical it could star in a lonely Edward Hopper painting. Two doors over, at VII Designs + Gifts, more of the black stuff framed the shop windows, just like it’s been doing for the past nine decades.
To close out my Architour, I noted the simulated Vitrolite at the restored Allenby Theatre at Greenwood, which serves to remind us that not all pigmented structural glass was black.
So, as I sit here, typing this missive from the Danforth on my wife’s laptop (my computer has not been unpacked), drowning in a sea of beige boxes, I dream of what may or may not adorn my walls outside. If it’s what I suspect, it’s going to be big. Big letters spelling out ‘E t h e l’ in glowing, retro neon, that is, which I’ll report on in the new year … unless it’s spaghetti again on the menu.
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