Doors Open 2006– Toronto’s Architectural Festival Sure Has Become Popular….
Judging by the line-ups of architecture buffs on the streets, Toronto’s free architecture festival, Doors Open, is a resounding success. Since 2000 Doors Open has been providing free access to architecturally or culturally significant buildings that would normally be closed to the public or charge an entrance fee.
This year more than 140 locations participated and included buildings dating back to the War of 1812, the Victorian era, early 20th century skyscrapers, places of worship as well as environmentally progressive “green” buildings. More than one million people have explored Toronto’s architectural heritage since the inception of this festival.
Being an avowed architecture fan myself, I made my way downtown around 10 am this morning to partake of the annual architectural delights. I linked up with my friend Shauna, who shares my passion, and our first destination was One King West, the former Dominion Bank Building, built in 1914, that has now been turned into a hotel / condominium development. This building was new on the Doors Open list and even at 11 am there was a lineup that took a solid half hour to get into the building.
Original design elements of this building include a sweeping Art Nouveau staircase and the magnificent former Banking Hall which includes gold-leaf stenciling featuring the nine provinces that made up Canada at that time. The former Banking Hall dazzles with 30 foot ceilings (covering 3 floors), marble floors and pillars and imposing cathedral windows. Today it is part of the Dominion Club, a private social and dining club that is part of the hotel and is only available to members, suite owners and hotel guests.
We moved on to the basement where we had an opportunity to admire and walk into the original bank vault. The round vault door is 4 feet thick, weighs 40 tonnes and can actually be moved with one finger. In 1913, it took 18 horses to bring it up along Yonge Street from the harbour, and the street was damaged in the process. At the present time the vault is empty but the hotel plans to turn it into private dining facilities.
Just a few steps west, at 25 King West is Commerce Court North, originally called the Canadian Bank of Commerce Building, and today still the head office of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. This 34-story office tower, built in the classic Art Deco skyscraper style, was opened in 1931 and remained the highest building in the British Commonwealth until 1962. Commerce Court North is part of a complex of 4 office towers that also include retail space.
The banking hall is gigantic and features a visually stunning ornamental coffered ceiling. A giant window faces eastwards and oversize bronze chandeliers are suspended from the ceiling. The 32nd floor used to hold an observatory but this was closed when Commerce Court West was built. The limestone walls feature intricate carvings. We also had a chance to see the vault in the basement, weighing in at an astounding 52 tons, protected by a huge square door. The vault is now empty and also features the oversize broker’s safety deposit boxes, also unused now, which used to hold important documents.
After our exposure to banking architecture, we switched genres and discovered revitalized industrial architecture at 401 Richmond Street West. This large building used to be the Macdonald Manufacturing Company, tin lithographers who applied decorative paintings on tin cans. After having being in an extended state of disrepair, this building was transformed by Margie Zeidler, daughter of the famous architect Eberhard Zeidler who had designed Toronto’s Eaton Centre and Ontario Place.
We were right in time for a guided tour at 1 pm and started in the renovated lobby of this former industrial building. The character of the original building including uncovered brickwork is intact. The factory was constructed in 4 stages between 1899 and 1923. In one of the hallways downstairs original tin sheets showing some ornamental designs were used as ceiling tiles. In between the building there is a courtyard that provides air, light and plant life to this urban environment. A playground in the corner announces that there is a day-care centre in the building.
An one storey structure (including a vault holding tin sheets as raw material) were removed to make space for this courtyard which is now also adorned with two big wire sculptures that feature colourful textile designs and masks, making them appear like ballet dancers.
Our guide took us up to the roof garden: 6500 square feet of urban sanctuary featuring flowers, vines and bushes against the background of Toronto’s skyline, all created by the dedicated efforts of Mike Moody, the Property Manager at 401 Richmond. After a walk over the renovated Skywalk, a lovingly restored 2nd and 3rd floor walkway connecting the two sides of the building, Mike gave us an introduction to window restoration.
One of the key features of 401 Richmond are its over 800 grand double-hung windows, consisting of wooden cross bars with small window panes in between. These windows had been in a very poor state of repair and rather than discarding them, a conscious decision was made to restore them.
Mike demonstrated this painstaking process, from taking the windows out of the wall, removing the old glass, heat stripping of several layers of old paint and putty, to replacing the rotted wooden cross bars, reglazing, puttying, painting and weather stripping. This process originally used to take 3 hours per window sash, but now Mike and his crew are able to completely restore one of these windows in 45 minutes. Of the 800 windows, about 80% are restored now. I was just marveling at the painstaking nature of this process and the dedication of the people involved to retaining and refurbishing the original architectural features.
Today the complex at 401 Richmond houses around 150 tenants, many of them from the arts and social innovation communities and the owner, Urbanspace Property Group, has made a commitment to keeping the rents below market to give these small entrepreneurs and organizations some assistance.
Just a few minutes up Spadina Avenue was our next stop on our architectural tour: the Anshei Minsk Synagogue is located at 10 St. Andrews Street, just 2 streets north of the Dundas and Spadina intersection, Toronto’s largest Chinatown area. This area adjoins the Kensington area which used to be Toronto’s original Jewish area. Most of the original Jewish residents have relocated over the past few decades to suburban areas north of the city. Opened in 1930, the Anshei Minsk Synagogue was one of about 30 synagogues in the downtown core when there were still about 30 synagogues in this area. Today there is only one with daily prayer service.
Rabbi Shmuel Spero talked to the crowd, telling them about Toronto’s Jewish history and the transformation of the historic Kensington area. Nowadays more Jewish people moving back downtown.
The Minsk has the feel of a traditional eastern European synagogue of the 1930s. The main and upper floors are made of hardwood and stained glass windows feature the Star of David. An ornate chandelier, hanging from the ceiling, also features Jewish symbols. I wish we had had more time to sit down and listen to Rabbi Spero, but we had to get going to make it to our 3 pm tour at the Gladstone Hotel. When we got there about 40 or 50 people were already waiting for the tour, testimony to the fact that Doors Open in general and the Gladstone Hotel specifically were a key destination for many Torontonians this Sunday afternoon.
The historic Gladstone Hotel is another heritage property owned by Urban Space Properties. Another member of the prominent Zeidler family, Christina Zeidler, was responsible for reinventing this historic property. Ground for the original hotel was broken in 1889 and the original owner, Susanna Robinson, was a widow who operated and lived at the hotel with 13 children. This hotel was originally located right opposite 3 major train stations: the Grand Trunk Railway, the CPR and the CNR. None of the train stations are in existence any longer, and the Gladstone is no longer the last place to get liquor before reaching Hamilton as it once was.
The Gladstone is the oldest continuously operating hotel in Toronto, built in the Richardsonian Romanesque Style which was so popular during Victorian times. Two restored pillars in the hotel’s Melody Bar are unique in Toronto for their faux marble finish, using a true European fresco technique.
The Gladstone’s elevator is one of the last hand-operated elevators in Toronto and the common areas on the second, third and fourth floors are used for photo exhibitions. The second floor provides ten adjoining rooms for meetings, workshops or exhibitions. During our visit there were a number of different artists on display, one piece of art in particular caught my attention: a large framed photo montage with many small photos depicting “Things I Left In The Fridge Too Long”. I thought this was a particularly humorous and relevant piece of art and I think I even recognized some of the items shown on the pictures from my own failed refrigeration experiments….
We had a chance to see 2 of the 37 hotel rooms, all of which are unique and designed by different artists. The hotel also features two special suites: the two-story Tower Suite, also known as the “Rock Star Suite”, and the luxurious third floor Corner Suite, both of which provide magnificent views of the city. Unfortunately we weren’t able to catch a glimpse of these special rooms, something that would have interested me greatly.
After our tour it was close to 4 pm and Doors Open 2006 had officially come to an end. We took the opportunity to sit down in the Ballroom Café, located right next to the beautifully restored 250 seat Ballroom at the Gladstone Hotel. We snuck in our brunch order just before brunch was finished. I savoured a Grilled Vegetable Mufuletta Sandwich with a tasty side salad of mixed greens in a balsamic vinaigrette while Shauna partook of the Eggs Florentine with salmon. The food was delicious and well-deserved after a whole day of explorations, celebrating Toronto’s architectural heritage and social history.
Final lesson: Toronto’s architectural treasures are all about the people and the communities that they serve and Doors Open is a great teaching tool to learn about Toronto’s social history.