THE PANDEMIC HAS MADE ME THINK MORE ABOUT MY HOMETOWN THAN I HAVE IN YEARS. Toronto is not a pretty town; I’ve said before that growing up here has made me really look for worthwhile subjects, and probably nudged (deformed?) my particular aesthetic toward the pursuit of “ugly beauty.” One thing I can say with certainty, however, is that the closest this city got to lovely was probably in the waning years of the 1940s, before the tidal wave of postwar demolition and subsequent skyscraper construction began, and just after the high tide of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne architecture had receded, leaving choice deposits on the streetscape.
The story of Art Deco Toronto has pretty much been captured by writer and Deco enthusiast Tim Morawetz, and his lavisly illustrated books Art Deco Architecture Across Canada and especially Art Deco Architecture in Toronto: A guide to the buildings from the Roaring Twenties and the Depression (sadly out of print, but available though the Toronto Public Library) have been priceless guides in my own hunt for the remains of the Deco/Moderne city that has caught my eye since I was a boy. I’ve wanted to try to document this place – the Toronto of my fantasies – for years, but travel bans and forced idleness were ultimately the inspiration I needed. This is just the first in a series of posts I’ll be putting up as I take more photos and organize the results into (somewhat) coherent essays on the architecture, the city where it was built, and the fleeting vision it provides – for me, at least – of a much more elegant place to live.
I’m not an architectural photographer, so pristine, perspective-corrected documents of whole buildings aren’t really in my wheelhouse. What I wanted to capture, however, were the street-level flashes of Deco style that inevitably catch my eye wherever I wander, either here or in towns and cities with their own (sometimes far superior) examples of Deco and Streamline architecture. Because Art Deco left vivid traces wherever it found favour, from the bands of bricks wrapping around the corners of apartment buildings to the pyramidical massing on skyscrapers and public buildings, to the ziggurat shapes – upright and inverted – that show up on shopfronts and unlikely places, like the copper lamps by the entrance to a Roman Catholic church in uptown Toronto.
The greatest motif of Streamline Moderne is the curve – a shape that was understood at the time to be the sign of modernity, evocative of aerodynamic design and ever-increasing speed, borrowed from ocean liners and automobiles and used to shape balconies, eaves and overhangs on much more static apartment buildings and police stations. The sight of one curved balcony alerts me to the likely presence of an Art Deco district – a neighbourhood of developments from the mid-20s to the late-30s, likely to share the same vernacular style up and down a few adjacent streets.
Toronto isn’t a city of Deco masterpieces – that title probably goes to Montreal here in Canada, and places like New York, Shanghai, Paris, Mumbai, Melbourne and Miami. We do (or too often, did) have some little gems, like the old Stock Exchange building on Bay Street south of King. It became the home of the Design Exchange a few years ago, is currently reconsidering its direction after closing its design museum, and was shrouded in scaffolding this summer. So I was only able to get close to its doors with my camera, with their sequence of stainless steel medallions depicting industry and trade in high-Deco stylization, all heroic workers, technicians and capitalists thrusting forward into a better future.
These motifs are a recurring theme on Deco and Streamline office towers and public buildings. In Canada they often depict workers in the resource sector – miners and lumberjacks, surveyors, floatplane pilots and fishermen. A set of carved stone panels can be found at Queen Street subway station – they were installed when the People’s Optical Building was demolished to make way for the Maritime Life Tower, and these panels were installed in a new stairwell. I’m not sure if they’re from the People’s Optical building – of which no photographic trace exists, apparently – or a Maritime Life building, but they’re a pretty great example of Deco/Moderne decorative style, Canadian division. (UPDATE – they are, in fact, from the exterior of the People’s Optical Building, and there are photos.)
Another fine example of Canadian Deco style are the stylized totem poles at the entrance to the Runnymede Public Library building. Doorways are actually great indicators of a Deco district, though sometimes they’re the only obviously Deco/Moderne element on a more basic, humble building. I make a point of trying to capture them wherever I am, from the Hollywood glamorous entrance to an apartment building by the Humber River to a utilitarian service entrance on the side of the Horse Palace at the CNE – an undersung Art Deco Toronto gem that I’ll be returning to in future posts.