Ignite Culture: Pretty Old Buildings

I presented last week at Ignite Culture and it was pretty awesome.

If you’re not familiar with Ignite talks, think of a micro-conference. Presenters get 5 minutes and 20 slides to dazzle the audience with the topic of their choice. Jenn Nelson’s got a great run-down on how it went.

The sold-out event was terrific, and ING Cafe was once again a perfect host.  The presentations were brilliant. Folks talked about their passions – coffee, DJing, lost mittens, Tweed Ride (which I’ve blogged about before), and museums.  We even got coverage from my two favourite daily reads Torontoist and BlogTO!

As you may have gleaned from previous posts I am quite in to heritage.  So naturally I used by 5 minutes and 20 slides to gush about one of my favourite buildings and share my thoughts about Toronto’s relationship with its own built heritage.

So in case you missed it, here’s what I had to say:

When I was at school for art history, I was so jealous. I’d see these pictures of cathedrals, palaces, and pretty old buildings and think:

Why don’t I live there? Why do I live here? Toronto doesn’t have anything that even comes close!

Now since then I have come around. I know now that Toronto has beautiful and important architectural heritage, and you don’t even have to look far to find it.

Take 205 Yonge Street, for example. If you haven’t seen it before, I strongly encourage you to pop by after tonight. And if you are familiar with it, I’m sure you’re curious about it. So here we go.

It was built in 1905 by Edward James Lennox. You might remember him from such buildings as Casa Loma, Old City Hall, half of Queen’s Park and a bunch of other buildings around the city.

Now he was a bit of a badass. When city councillors refused to let him include his name as the architect of Old City Hall he hid the words “EJ Lennox, Architect, 1898” in amongst the carvings and even based some of the gargoyles on those councillors.

He was less rebellious with 205 Yonge Street. He based it on a Greco-Roman temple, which was the style for banks at the time. Banks wanted to look strong and long-lasting, just like those empires were. Before they totally collapsed, anyway.

Using a Greco-Roman temple as the inspiration not only made the bank look strong and long-lasting, but it tied Toronto to an architectural heritage with examples found across the centuries and around the world. It’s like we were part of this worldwide heritage club.

Now the building has been empty for some time now. It used to belong to the city and province’s heritage organizations. Their posters are still on the walls inside. Afterwards it belonged to a charming Irish gentleman, which explains the flag over the front door. Toronto does not have an Irish embassy, unless you count the bars by the same name. Word on the street is they’re still looking for someone to lease it, so save up your pennies.

So we’ve established Toronto has at least one pretty old building, and I hope I don’t need to convince you that it has countless others.

And there used to be a lot more.

Here are some of Toronto’s old heritage buildings. None survive.

Now of course a city has to develop to modernize. Technologies change. Populations grow. And sometimes and older building has to make way for a new one.

But it doesn’t always. The concept of adaptively reusing an old building, incorporating the original structure in to the new design is not common enough. There is a disconcerting sense that old buildings are bad for a city, that they are a drag on resources. They cost too much to maintain. They’re not eco-friendly enough.

When study after study shows that adaptively reusing an old building is most cost-effective, more eco-friendly, and can create as many or more jobs than knocking it down and starting from scratch.

And the policies we have in place to protect existing heritage buildings from being knocked down don’t pack enough punch.

In November of last year, Councillor Wong-Tam submitted an application to protect 81 Wellesley Street East. In December, a developper submitted an application to demolish it. And by January, the building was gone. Condos to come soon.

So what do I want you to do with this information? It doesn’t have to be much. Find out about your local heritage preservation group. Most neighbourhoods have one. Find out your councillor’s opinion on heritage and let them know you think it matters. If you’re on twitter, you’re in luck. There are plenty of great people and hashtags to follow. Seriously. Tweet a picture of an old building to. There’s even a #builtheritage chat once a month. Other good organization to follow are @heritagetoronto, @TOhistoricsites, and @arconserve or use #TOheritage#TOhistory, and #builtheritage and you’ll be happy to see all the folks who are eager to share in your curiosity.

And at the very least, I hope the next time you’re walking down these mean streets of Toronto, I hope you look at our pretty old buildings a little differently.

So there we go. My first Ignite presentation! Do you have a favourite pretty old building in your city? Any building you like but have no clue about it details?


3 thoughts on “Ignite Culture: Pretty Old Buildings

  1. I couldn’t get a ticket to this sold-out event, but it looks so cool to share your passions. I think visual images are important to share about historic buildings, like you have, it helps us slow down and actually ‘see’. Perhaps even ignite to action! My husband and I are building a Greene & Greene inspired home in near Lake Ontario in Mississauga. It’s been difficult and fascinating to creates a turn-of-the-century home in a modern world. I wouldn’t call it pretty, but I am looking forward to using ‘klinker’ brick as one of the exterior finishes. I’ve seen some examples of peanut brickle around parts of Toronto and still keeping an eye open for examples of red, browns, purples in klinker.

    • That sounds great! Have you been around to Cabbagetown in Toronto? I often cut through the area on my way to/from work and the houses there just do such a great job of maintaining their heritage feel. Lovely use of coloured brick too. Good luck with the building – would love to know how it goes!

  2. Pingback: {Video Post} Ignite Culture: Pretty Old Buildings | emmajenkin

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