No one sets out to build something dated-looking. And when one’s building is meant to attract retail tenants, who, in turn, need to attract shoppers, being “retro” isn’t desirable; retro might appeal to a small number of authenticity-seeking hipsters or urban archaeologists, but it doesn’t pay the bills.
That’s why shopping mall owners – the larger ones at least – require tenants to update their store frontages and signage frequently, and they, in turn, promise to carry out major renovations every decade or so.
And that’s why Dufferin Galleria, a one-storey, 215,000 square foot, trapped-in-amber mall on the northwestern edge of Toronto’s downtown core, is such a curiosity. So curious, in fact, artist and writer Shari Kasman self-published an entire book, Galleria: The Mall That Time Forgot, after learning the city had approved a massive redevelopment of the site in the summer of 2018.
Even in her introduction, Ms. Kasman nails the reason Galleria owners never renovated away its dark-brown, green and gold charms: In its almost 50-year lifespan, the quirky, barrel-vaulted mall proved so useful to the ethnic neighbourhoods it served – Wallace-Emerson, Junction Triangle, Corso Italia, Bloorcourt Village – that there was little need for flashiness.
She writes: “Aside from visiting for the purpose of preserving the memories of this mall, I’ve headed there to purchase items such as stereo cables, canned beans and shampoo, and also to have a sandwich at the food kiosk.”
The design by Montreal firm Mayers, Girvan, Wellen & Berns was, in a way, the minivan of malls. Not beautiful, but it got the job done. Odd and cave-like, yes, but it hosted a mix of retailers that provided workaday goods for a working-class population. (As an aside, this is not entirely true, as the 1972 mall was struggling enough in the early-1980s that the owners, then in their 70s, hired an interior designer to come up with a freshening plan, but nothing came of it, and there were a few failed attempts to add housing to the site after that).
As an Architourist who delights in spying vintage typography and feeling well worn, yet sturdy tile underfoot, I’d dined at the Galleria’s food kiosk also, but only infrequently, since I’m not a local like Ms. Kasman. That’s why I was shocked when, on a recent walkabout with her and ELAD Canada’s vice-president of marketing, Dror Duchovny, the little lunch counter, El Amigo (which strangely never offered Mexican food), had vanished; indeed, the wide corridor it occupied was closed off behind a construction wall.
That’s because, Mr. Duchovny explains, demolition of the Galleria is being done “in stages.” Parts of the mall still look much as they did five, or even 25, years ago, especially around the grocery store and the drug store – benches still fill with older Portuguese and Italian men who whittle away hours with coffees and conversation – while others are barren, showcasing yawning, empty storefronts, and still others have been stripped down to the metal studs.
“It’s about honouring what happened here, and what should happen here to continue fitting in the community,” he says. “It’s not about jamming something in the face and not caring about anything else … we’ll maintain the existing mall, parts of it, for as long as we can.”
That’s important. Rip down a neighbourhood landmark immediately, as Cadillac-Fairview did at Don Mills Centre in 2006, and you risk alienating valuable customers.
“When we went into this, we didn’t know how it would unfold,” Mr. Duchovny continues. “Because, eventually, the message is ‘It’s going away for a while,’ but these community consultations gave us the confidence that we are listening, we are implementing.”
If things go as planned, this “implementation” means major tenants will come back to inhabit the bottoms of ELAD’s multiple condo towers (in partnership with Freed Developments), and the three-hectare park behind the mall will get a lot more action since it’ll be accessible via a new, diagonal street that will cut across the site.
Framed by the intersection of Dufferin and Dupont streets, the site has an interesting history. On display at an on-site information centre is a timeline of what came before: A market garden in Victorian times; an aviation factory during the First World War; home to the Columbia Gramophone Co.; and from 1924 to 1929, a factory for the Dodge Brothers to build cars and trucks.
Of course, well into the next decade and perhaps even into the 2030s, most Torontonians who pass by will think of the squat, dark-brick shopping mall that time forgot. Those who shopped there regularly might even miss the strange quality of lighting – the result of its arched, skylight-free ceilings, canned lighting and odd materials palette – which Ms. Kasman describes as a “particular shade of green” that makes things “appear to be a little out of this world.”
A strange, green planet in 2019, perhaps, but in 1972 when new, the Galleria must’ve been fresh and exciting. This, remember, was when glass-and-steel Modernism was being run out of town on a rail, when cozy, dark spaces under mansard roofs (filled with ferns and macramé) were all the rage, and when restaurants looked similar to wine cellars. And, truth be told, I’ve always gotten a cozy, wine cellar vibe from Dufferin Galleria.
And if these descriptions don’t cause your aesthetic alarm to reach DEFCON 1, there is still time to enjoy Dufferin Galleria’s charms as a shopper … and as an art patron, as a celebration of the mall will take place during this year’s Contact Photography Festival, where Ms. Kasman will offer an abridged version of her book.
From May 3-5, Shari Kasman’s Memories of Galleria Mall will be on display nearby at Geary Lane, 360 Geary Ave., as part of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival. For more info visit scotiabankcontactphoto.com
Your house is your most valuable asset. We have a weekly Real Estate newsletter to help you stay on top of news on the housing market, mortgages, the latest closings and more. Sign up today.