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the architourist

The building at 95 St. Joseph St., known as the Cardinal Flahiff Basilian Centre.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Matter and antimatter cannot exist together in the same place.

And, similarly, a City of Toronto notice proclaiming that “a change is proposed for this site” with graphics indicating a 39-storey tower and parking for 159 cars should not be able to exist when a 79-page Heritage Designation report has just been approved for the same site.

Yet, here we are at 95 St. Joseph St., where something has got to give. Will it be the Basilian Fathers of Toronto (in partnership with Daniels HR Corp.), who own the building, or will it be the city?

The building in question is a four-storey, handsome, buff brick building known as the Cardinal Flahiff Basilian Centre. Designed in 1949-50 by Montreal-based architect-engineer Ernest Cormier, it forms part of a mini-campus along the leafy, low-rise street with another Cormier building, the turreted Carr Hall (also commissioned by the Basilian Fathers), the brutalist John M. Kelly Library, and two red brick heritage homes, St. Michael’s College’s Founders House and McCorkell House along “Marshall McLuhan Way.”

Cormier, it should be noted, has been billed as “the great Canadian architect of the 20th Century” by Phyllis Lambert, founding director emeritus of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal (some know her also as the force of nature who brought Mies van der Rohe to both Montreal and Toronto in the 1960s), and the two buildings on St. Joseph Street as “prime examples” of his ecclesiastical architecture.

Development notice outside 95 St. Joseph St., Toronto.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

As she notes in a letter to the City of Toronto in support of heritage designation, combined with St. Michael’s College School at 1515 Bathurst St., these are the only buildings Ernest Cormier (1885-1980) ever saw rise in Toronto. In Montreal, he is responsible for the Roger Gaudry Building at the Université de Montréal, his own art deco house, which Pierre Elliot Trudeau purchased in 1979, and the Supreme Court of Canada building in Ottawa.

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So, should the Fathers be successful in chopping away most of 95 St. Joseph to leave only a façade – and this is what is proposed – it will not only demonstrate that heritage designation has no teeth, it will also show that we, as a city, are unable to consider buildings as part of a collection, a landscape, or a cultural corridor.

And that’s something that bothers Ms. Lambert, who reviewed the development proposal as recently as February, 2022, and found that “[n]o amount of ‘sculpting’ of the tall tower,” or the shadows it will create, or that retained stained glass windows that will be encased “within the [new] structure” that would “no longer receive natural light” achieves anything close to being satisfactory. The heritage report states: “the site is part of a cultural heritage landscape.”

The Cardinal Flahiff Basilian Centre was designed in 1949-50 by Montreal-based architect-engineer Ernest Cormier.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

While Ms. Lambert was unavailable to meet with me, I did walk down St. Joseph Street with Professor Lynne DiStefano, who once headed the Architectural Conservation Programmes at the University of Hong Kong and currently teaches at the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts in Queenston, Ont. Because this block already contains a tall tower at No. 57, which fronts onto Bay Street, she worries that a precedent has already been set.

“You can just anticipate what might happen,” she says, thinking of the low-rise buildings falling like dominos. “That proposed secondary plan is supposed to prevent spot-zoning; this is an example of spot rezoning, if you will, which is not good planning.”

What the good professor means is that, should the city permit the Basilian Fathers to create more (and very tall) density at 95 St. Joseph, or should the next door Kelly Library apply for some, or the owners of Muzzo Family Alumni Hall, say, heights should step down from the 32-storey condominium at the corner and not increase, since the street terminates at Queen’s Park at its western edge, and the Queen’s trees cannot compete with a line of concrete-and-glass behemoths.

“I can see something mid-rise going in here,” Prof. DiStefano says.

Kelly Library.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

So, is there a way to redevelop the site without performing a façadectomy on Mr. Cormier’s work? Walk along St. Basil Lane and look at the rear elevation of No. 95 and it’s clear there are plenty of voids that could be filled, sensitively, since the building is E-shaped, and there’s also a parking lot that could be sacrificed. Or, asks Prof. DiStefano, what about hovering something new over top, like was done at OCAD-U or over the old Weston bakery at Queen Richmond Centre West?

“I would rather see something like that explored,” she offers.

Carr Hall.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

One thing that must be explored is how, with one hand the City of Toronto can write a glowing heritage report on Mr. Cormier’s building, calling its interior spaces and courtyards a “fine blend of … classical modernism” and the buff brick and stone exterior as “calm” and “careful” and “an excellent example” of its type (with the exception, perhaps, of the projecting 1979 brutalist fourth-floor addition by John J. Farrugia) while the other hand is ready to lead the building to the slaughterhouse.

The building, while perhaps not a stunner like its block-mate, the stone-clad Carr Hall across the street, does check seven of the nine boxes that categorize criteria for inclusion into the city’s Inventory of Heritage Properties. And, to those of us who care about postwar architecture and want to see it preserved, these things matter.

But there is still the issue of that antimatter on No. 95′s front lawn; the one that proclaims a 39-storey tower wants to live here instead. In the coming months, we should all prepare ourselves for an explosion.

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