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the architourist
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Jerome Markson in 1976, with drawings of the David B Archer Co-operative, part of the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood, then under construction in downtown Toronto.Toronto Public Library

After two decades of writing for the Globe’s real estate section, it’s time I admit something: I never studied architecture. Not formally, anyway. I am an art school kid – Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts – who abandoned fine art for English lit at university. But I was always at the library, borrowing books on Toronto architecture. It’s how I was able to point out the TD Centre to teenage friends and say: “Famous German architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, did that.”

By my early 20s, I had educated myself about our homegrown architects. I’d started with Don Mills’ Macklin Hancock (an urban planner) and Douglas Lee. And then: John C. Parkin, Peter Dickinson, Eberhard Zeidler, Irving Grossman, Raymond Moriyama and Jerome Markson.

So, when preparing my second-ever piece for the Globe in 2003 about a 1955 home and in need of some context (its architect died while I was in high school), I hit the Internet to find someone who had been practising back then.

“You’re calling me because I’m one of the few guys left alive?” I remember Jerome Markson saying with a laugh after I’d introduced myself. In 2003, Mr. Markson was celebrating 50 years since graduation and Markson Borooah Architects was based inside a swanky, eight-storey, modernist office building at 161 Eglinton Ave. E. (demolished in 2016).

While we only spoke on the phone that day, his willingness to share memories about the spirit of that time, and his palpable enthusiasm for architecture in general, made a big impression on me. So, a few months later I visited him at the office – and he insisted on taking me to lunch – to ask about the split-level he’d done at 32 Park Lane Circle. Already demolished at that time, it was a beautiful brick house from the early-1960s that I was researching for a feature on the vanishing, smaller houses in the Bridle Path neighbourhood.

That led to a column on his residential work for developer Jack Grant in Seneca Heights, which prompted Jerry – I’d like to refer to him that way since he was a friend – to invite me and my wife, Shauntelle, to “the Shack,” the quirky country house he and wife, Mayta, then still working as a potter, had built for themselves and their two children in 1969.

  • Jerome Markson at Archer Co-Op, Dec. 11 2019.Alex Bozikovic/The Globe and Mail

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I remember his silly, handwritten and hand-illustrated directions to the house near Uxbridge, Ont., struck Shauntelle as odd, so I explained that not only was Jerry an incredibly talented architect, he would’ve made one heck of a Borscht Belt comedian. He had a way with one-liners and zingers, he was brutally honest, and his observations were incredibly sapient: “Look at that,” he said while gazing at clouds of gnats from inside the Shack’s screened porch, “everything out there is either eating something or being eaten by something.” And then we sat down to our lox and bagels.

He loved humanity. I remember at a restaurant once he shook his head at all the people looking down at their cellphones. “Look out the window,” he said under his breath I knew he wished he could shout it out loud. “That person walking by – you’ll never see that face again!”

He didn’t suffer fools gladly: when I was still in the market for a house and told him, “I’d live anywhere for good architecture,” he tilted his head, narrowed his eyes, and asked: “Are you a real person?”

Over the next decade or so, while I’d write about Jerry again and again, he would just as often deflect my journalistic advances and introduce me to other architects he thought deserving of the spotlight. And when we would talk about his architecture, we’d often get sidetracked and talk about life.

Born in 1929, Jerome Markson grew up across the street from the Art Gallery of Ontario over his father’s medical practice (Dr. Charles Markson). He attended the University of Toronto in the heady years immediately following the Second World War, when architects truly believed that good, logical architecture could make life better. One year, he summered at the Cranbrook Academy of Art north of Detroit, where he met his future wife, Mayta Silver from Winnipeg.

After they married, the young couple travelled overseas to see European modernism, especially Alvar Aalto’s work in Finland. And because Scandinavian furniture was nowhere to be found in Canadian stores in 1953, they sent a shipping container back home so they could set up house.

Jerry’s early architectural commissions were intensely bold and confident. The 1955 Goldblatt residence, done for his aunt and uncle, or the 1959-60 Moses residence, both in Hamilton, could stand as equals beside anything by Mies; his later houses, such as the 1962 Posluns residence on The Bridle Path, were less Miesian and more Nordic; of the Posluns residence, Robert Moffatt wrote that it “integrated Aalto’s principals into a sculptural and expressive residence.”

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Laura J. Miller's 2020 monograph Toronto’s Inclusive Modernity: The Architecture of Jerome Markson.Laura Miller/Handout

And, because Jerry felt a deep social responsibility, he didn’t do very many more residences for the well-heeled; the 1960s, 70s, and 80s found him designing social housing. And, when the recession hit and work of any kind dried up, he designed McDonald’s restaurants to keep food on his and his employee’s tables.

Unfortunately, I cannot discuss a lifetime of work here; besides, Laura J. Miller did a far better job with her 2020 monograph Toronto’s Inclusive Modernity: The Architecture of Jerome Markson (Figure 1 Publishing). I can tell you that, despite my relative youth and late entry into this life, Jerry made me feel like I was one of his top five best buddies – and my guess is that there were 500 other people who all felt the exact same way. That’s how Jerry treated people.

Without his stories, guidance, wit and Job-like patience when dealing with my sometimes naïve questions, I don’t think this column, “The Architourist,” would have been as informative for you, the reader. Whether he knew it or not, Jerry was my gentle teacher and my formal education in architecture.

So, safe passage, teacher; Toronto is better because of you.

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Jerome Markson died on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023.

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