It had just stopped raining, but, like much of this spring, the temperature was about half of what it should’ve been.
This was making me grumpy as I walked the deep site hard against the Don Valley to survey the City Adult Learning Centre at 1 Danforth Avenue, Toronto.
Since moving to the Danforth in November, I’ve driven past this complex of Googie buildings almost every day. And almost every day I think about what might happen if the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) attempts to justify that these, too, no longer meet programmatic requirements and, due to deferred maintenance, should be demolished, as happened at the Davisville Junior Public School/Spectrum Alternative Senior School on Millwood Road back in January.
Of similar eras – the Danforth school opened in September, 1963 and the Davisville school the year before – and designed by the same team of architects, recent budget cuts by the provincial government make this a real possibility; a possibility highlighted back in November, 2018 at “Toronto School Buildings at RISK! A Symposium” presented by the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario in the auditorium of 1 Danforth, which featured speakers such as city Councillor Josh Matlow, the Globe’s Alex Bozikovic, Modernist historian Robert Moffatt, architect Carol Kleinfeldt and representatives from the TDSB.
While I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the discovery of many private homes and retail buildings that display expressive Modernism during my 15 years as a columnist in these pages, finding public/institutional buildings of the same ilk are like architectural hen’s teeth … with the exception of the work done under the watchful eye of TDSB chief architect Frederick Etherington (retired 1965), his deputy Gordon Frittenberg and design architect Peter Pennington, a transplanted Brit.
From the fanciful crown-shaped Lord Lansdowne Jr. Public (with its candy cane smokestack) on downtown Robert Street and the jaunty diamond-shaped windows at Glen Ames Sr. Public in the Beaches, to the checkerboard of tiny glazed squares that decorate the façade of École élémentaire Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau on Grace Street, these are buildings that, Mr. Pennington said at the time, “attempted to take some of the ordinary elements of a school and make them extraordinary.”
And at great cost, Mr. Moffatt said during the November symposium: “These schools were all built to a very high standard … this building and others of its era, they were built with a cost per square foot that was roughly equivalent to a major downtown office tower at the time, so they were not built on the cheap.”
While it might be a stretch to apply the term Googie – which refers to the futuristic and Jetsons-esque coffee shops and bowling alleys of California in the mid-century period – to these schools, my grumpy walkabout of the City Learning Centre catalogued a great many items that could apply.
To wit, facing the Danforth, the two-storey building sports both an undulating brise-soleil of concrete circles below arched clerestories as well as two “ears” on either side: swooping ramps held aloft by Brasilia-like sculpted pilotis.
These ramps weren’t just fanciful: Built originally as Parkway Vocational School, the ramps once brought automobiles up and inside the auto body shop so “potential dropouts” could learn valuable skills (as reported by The Globe in September, 1963). Other trades taught here were bricklaying, plastering, carpentry, painting and decorating, barbering, sheet metal, shoe repair, tailoring, printing, business machine operation, food processing, drafting and warehousing.
And speaking of warehousing, Pennington was mindful of the school’s different functions. From the two-storey portion at the north end of the site, students and staff walked along a bridge – peppered with tiny square windows similar to those at the Grace Street French school – to enter a concrete finned, accordion-shaped six-storey tower that contained conventional classrooms (as reported by the Toronto Star in May, 1962, this was the first TDSB property to require elevators). Attached to the east side of this brown-brick tower was a floating patio sheltered by an expressive concrete roof held aloft by enormous concrete boomerangs. At the south end of the site, and practically pushing into the trees of the Don Valley, was the hulking gymnasium/auditorium/pool building, made less imposing by changeups in the cladding such as glossy black brick, glossy white brick, colourful glass block, roof-height changes and the elegant march of white-painted concrete columns.
Referring to the 1951 Festival of Britain style of architecture, Mr. Moffat pointed to the “very fine, delicate detailing rather than big chunky expressions of things” that one would have seen in schools built before the 1950s and the “over all sense of fun and whimsy and optimism.” It’s a hallmark of the era: With babies booming, suburbs sprouting and a tailfinned car in every carport, it was time to build the future, and where better to start than with the places citizens of the future would learn the Three R’s?
As I walked and noted peeling paint everywhere, missing fibreglass fins on a decorative wall surrounding an entranceway (their butter-yellow colour matched that of spandrel panels nearby), rusting fences and window frames, construction jacks holding up portions of wall and spalling brick and concrete in many areas, I worried for the future of this once-optimistic building and others like it.
The TDSB is the largest school board in Canada. Billions of dollars are needed to repair its stable of almost 550 buildings, Modernist or otherwise. We can do better.
“It is unacceptable that we are faced with a choice in this city, in this province, between preserving our architectural heritage and ensuring that we have school capacity to accommodate growing populations,” Mr. Matlow said.
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