The simple brick house Mr. Stan Peedluby built at 14 Laxton Ave. in Toronto was not an award-winner or head-turner. In fact, strolling by today, the 1948 home manages to blend easily among its more elderly neighbours.
But look closer and it’s evident the two-storey home is modern – but with a small ‘m’: windows are larger, the hipped roof lacks the old fashioned dormer window, lines are crisper and the angel brick under the bay window would’ve been au courant in the postwar period. That’s because Mr. Peedluby’s architect, Toronto-born Wilfred Shulman, then 29 years old and home just two years after serving in Europe and the Mediterranean, was a quiet Modernist with an appreciation for historical styles.
“Dad loved historical buildings, and was a big conservationist,” confirms his youngest daughter, Martha Hale. “He loved to see them being saved.”
“He took us to Mexico – you were just a baby,” interjects oldest daughter Mimi Shulman, looking over at her sister. “He took us to different countries to photograph the architecture.”
Much of Mr. Shulman’s architecture is worth photographing also. His small apartment houses, for instance: Taking the Modernists' love of floor-to-ceiling glass to new heights, he hung a curtain wall on the east face of Sherwood Towers (built 1956 at 206 St. George St.) that stretches from the second to the eleventh floor. Three streets over, at 74 Spadina Rd. – a 1957 ad suggested Casa Loma Towers’ “42 homes” were “Ideal for University Professors – Doctors” – an average façade was enlivened by sculpted pilotis dressed in khaki-and-mushroom-coloured tiles. This, Ms. Hale says, was her father’s “signature."
“He loved mosaic; he used tiles on the fronts of buildings a lot … and he loved what he called ‘muddy colours,’ which would be burnt orange [or] olive green.”
In photographs of Mr. Shulman’s blue-and-white medical building at 99 Avenue Rd. – built in 1959, it was perhaps his tour de force and where he would locate his practice – one can make out the speckling of mosaics on the horizontal band between the airy first, and glassy second, storeys (the building was demolished in 2000).
And speaking of glassy, Mr. Shulman’s design for 6A Beaumont Rd. (now altered), built for Mr. Vladimir Kavan in 1957, shows the architect’s mastery of Marcel Breuer-type forms – Hungarian-born Breuer was a Bauhaus instructor and a shaper of the International Style in the 1920s and ’30s – with its heavier, boxy second storey, asymmetrical window placement, and thin balcony metalwork on the street façade, and then, at rear, so much glass the building seemed to defy the laws of engineering.
Even his utilitarian apartment blocks had niceties. For instance, the trio of red-brick buildings at 2 Phin Ave. have little awnings over the front doors, larger-than-average windows, and day-lit stairwells. Even the generous space around the 1958 City of Toronto buildings indicate there was attention given to children at play.
There were fantastical projects also. Opened in 1962 at 1536 The Queensway, Queensway Cathedral was a dome-shaped, Pentecostal showpiece that, according to a Toronto Daily Star report, was “supported by 16 laminated beams finished in natural wood. Each beam is 87 feet long and weighs more than three tons.” Unfortunately, the 1600-seat sanctuary was demolished in 1984, when the congregation expanded yet again. Helping out on weekends making mimeographs, Ms. Shulman remembers asking her father if he would ever build the “beautiful” drawings on the office walls. “And he would say: ‘Nobody’s interested, it’s too expensive.’ And I felt bad because I could see that he had these great ideas, but they weren’t what the developers wanted … so they were framed pictures.”
Clearly, Wilfred Shulman was a prolific architect. By the early 1960s, when daughter Martha became old enough to remember, he was running an office with three or four draftsman who were cranking out shopping malls, hotels (the firm did Regency Towers Hotel at 89 Avenue Rd.), housing developments, tall T-shaped point towers and slab towers, such as 4000 Yonge St., done with John Daniels.
But, like many of his generation, his name has become obscured in the mists of time.
So who was Mr. Shulman? Well, besides a Life Master at bridge, stamp collector, and an avid sailor, he was a survivor. Born on Nov. 3, 1918 to 16-year-old Susie Dlugash and Morris Dvoretsky, an alcoholic, he was raised by Mr. Dvoretsky’s parents, who didn’t permit contact between mother and child – “She used to come to the schoolyard just to look at him,” says Mimi Shulman – until she married Percy Shulman, a father of two, in 1929, whereupon young Wilfred had his surname legally changed.
Interested in art, he attended Central Technical School and, in the evenings, packed groceries at Loblaws. In 1941, while still an engineering/architecture student (back then, architects studied engineering also), he married Rhea Epstein, who had also been raised by her grandparents. During the war, Lieutenant Shulman designed bridges that would collapse when the enemy would cross, and he took shrapnel in the lower stomach. When he returned to start his family, he and Rhea lived in his parents' big Victorian home at 128 Lauder Ave. In a few years, he’d move the family to an early Modernist development at Bayview and Moore Avenues (now called Bennington Heights), to No. 3 Garden Circle. Since the home had already been designed by Toronto architect James A. Murray, Mr. Shulman consoled himself with upgrades such as built-in speakers, radiant floors, a wet bar and central air-conditioning.
“You could hang meat in the house,” Ms. Hale quips.
“Everyone,” Mimi Shulman adds, “was Jewish.” She adds that her babysitter, Margaret Atwood, did puppet shows for the neighbourhood kids.
After designing hundreds of projects, the baby boom construction boom went bust in the 1970s, so Mr. Shulman designed prisons for the government; as a backup, he obtained his real estate license, which, daughter Mimi says, was never put into use. By the early 1980s, she adds, his Pick’s Syndrome – a form of dementia that can affect judgment – was getting worse, as was his marriage, so he purchased a house with her and the two moved in together. He died in July, 1997, at the age of 79.
“He taught us how to have an eye, I think,” says Ms. Hale, who proudly displays her father’s artwork in her condo foyer.
Mimi Shulman nods, then remembers something their other sister, Debbie (not interviewed for this article), remarked when asked what lessons she could remember. Dad told her that “if something is ugly,” one mustn’t blame the architect, since “you have to design what the client wants.”
From what I’ve seen of Mr. Shulman’s work, it’s clear that he had some very beautiful clients.
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