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Toronto Real Estate The century-long legacy of Toronto architecture firm RDHA

Architect Ferdie Marani's Better Living Centre, built in 1962 on the CNE Grounds in Toronto.

For those who count themselves amongst the aficionados of the postwar period of Toronto architecture and city building, there are names that come up so often they seem like old friends: John C. Parkin, Ron Thom, Peter Dickinson, Uno Prii … I could go on.

Vancouver-born, Toronto-based Ferdinand (Ferdie) Marani (1893 – 1971) is one of those, and he founded a firm that evolved into RDHA, which celebrates its 100th birthday in July. And while Mr. Marani’s portfolio bursts with projects that define who we were in those years – the award-winning CNE Grandstand (1947, demolished); the stately Bank of Canada (1958, 250 University Ave.); the corporate office for Shell Oil (1958/1966, 505 University Ave.); the swoopy and futuristic Better Living Centre (1962, CNE grounds); and groovy Sheridan College in Oakville (1969) – it all started at Bloor Street’s Diet Kitchen Tea Room in 1919.

And while it’s not clear what was on the menu other than calorie-conscious sandwiches and tea, 72 Bloor St. W., was a place where disgruntled young architects, many back from the First World War, would congregate almost daily to complain, plot and dream of a better city. Here, the young, outspoken Mr. Marani rubbed elbows with John M. Lyle (Union Station), Alvan Mathers and Eric Haldenby (too many projects to list), and, a few years later, New Zealand-born Eric Arthur (who would change the University of Toronto’s architecture program from Beaux-Arts to Modernism) and would work for or in association with many of them. There were so many they cheekily christened themselves “The Diet Kitchen School of Architecture.” For Mr. Marani’s first major work, he partnered with James Paisley (1890 – 1955) on the Medical Arts Building at St. George and Bloor streets.

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And what a work it is: Broad-shouldered, dressed in buff brick from its stepped top to its limestone-clad base, the handsome 10-storey building would not have looked out of place in the (then) more sophisticated city of Chicago when it opened in 1929.

While another early project for the firm was the Fort York Armoury (1935, 660 Fleet St.), on a recent walkabout with two of the four current principals at the firm today, Bob Goyeche and Tyler Sharp, our starting point was a building built before the firm existed.

Standing proudly beside the handsome Bloor Gladstone library (1913, Chapman & McGiffin) is the multiple-award winning addition RDHA designed more than a decade ago. While at a quick glance it reads as just a glass box, it’s much more than that, Mr. Sharp says.

“It does represent a lot of firsts,” began the bespectacled architect as he squinted up at his baby. “It was the first project of the new generation of RDHA … and then the first to start winning significant recognition, including the Governor-General’s Award, and it also represents a new design language.”

That language is a sympathetic one. The new building doesn’t overpower the old one, like, say, what happened at the Royal Ontario Museum. And, if one looks closely, the quiet moves that pay tribute become evident, such as the overall height; the five arched windows on the old building that are represented via five sections of glazing on the new; and the “lines of decoration” on the old building that are echoed by the new building’s opaque bottom, frit patterns in the glass, and placement of mullions.

“I’ve had people say to me that there is something about the architecture, which feels like it’s in harmony with the existing building, and they don’t quite know why,” Mr. Sharp says.

The Shell Oil corporate office, constructed in the 1950s on Toronto's University Avenue.

Saying goodbye to Mr. Sharp, Mr. Goyeche and I drove to University Avenue, a hotbed of the firm’s mid-century modern work. The firm was known as Marani & Morris until 1958 and Marani, Morris & Allan from 1959-64. Today’s name, RDHA, comes from another partner-shuffle: From 1964 to 1980, the firm operated as Marani, (Fred) Rounthwaite & (Ron) Dick, and then as Rounthwaite, Dick and (Glen) Hadley (the A stands for Architects). When Mr. Goyeche started with the firm in the late-1980s, Mr. Dick still came into the office “to read the paper and help out, here and there,” he laughed.

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We parked across from the Shell Building and discussed how, after eight years, the firm was asked to almost double the height and add the jaunty, floating roof.

Battling the wind, we next encountered Mr. Dick’s New Courthouse (1966), which balances its Queenston limestone formalism with a spaceship-like, open passageway to the south. “The office folklore,” Mr. Goyeche told me, “is that this is a reflection of the last [days] of the old age of architecture, in which the mayor phones up Ferdie or Ron Dick and says: ‘We need a courthouse, University Avenue, OAA fees [Ontario Association of Architects], okay, good, click.’ That era changed … it became cut-throat.”

After looking at the Bank of Canada building (1958) further south and the Crown Life Insurance building up at Bloor and Church streets, we discussed the “cut-throat” 1980s and the crippling recession of the early 1990s, when many firms, including RDHA, struggled to keep their doors open. What was it like having the weight of such an old firm on his shoulders, I asked Mr. Goyeche.

“There are a lot of firms an individual starts and it dies with them,” the 59-year-old said slowly, choosing his words. “When I joined, the firm was 70 years on,” he says with a laugh. “And we’re at 100 now, and I remember in the dog days and pseudo-depression of the nineties, Rob [Boyko, a former partner] and Glen [Hadley] going ‘Oh my God.’ When they survived it all, … [Glen] was just so glad that it didn’t go down on his watch.

“And there is something in that … I didn’t want to be the one that took it to 97 1/2 [years].”

The firm's more recent work includes the Hamilton Central Library, above, and the Idea Exchange Old Post Office in Cambridge, Ont.

Tom Arban

With a change in focus to a “concept-driven, elite design firm” – easily confirmed by a look at the striking Idea Exchange Old Post Office in Cambridge, Ont., or Hamilton’s Central Library – it’s clear RDHA will be around for another century and become old friends to a whole new generation of aficionados.

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