Art Deco Toronto 2

170 Strathearn Road, Toronto, Dec. 2020

THE PANDEMIC HAS KEPT US LOCKED DOWN FOR LONGER THAN EXPECTED. Canada – and Ontario in particular – has set a worldwide trend for length and severity of lockdown (an achievement of dubious distinction.) The end is in sight, however, which will hopefully mean more new work to talk about. In the meantime, here’s more of one of my lockdown projects, the first installment of which I posted late last year.

Once again I have to acknowledge the work Tim Morawetz has done documenting Art Deco architecture both in my hometown and across the country. (Please pick up his book Art Deco Architecture Across Canada or look for Art Deco Architecture in Toronto: A guide to the buildings from the Roaring Twenties and the Depression in your library.) I had a lot to choose from when putting this post together. Toronto is not the most spectacular city for Deco or Streamline Moderne buildings in the world; it was/is a very conservative town, perhaps less so socially and politically, but still very much culturally and aesthetically. There are far more office towers and public buildings in the style than residences, but there are enough for a single post devoted to Deco dwellings.

There are no districts full of Deco homes and apartment buildings in Toronto, just pockets – a few streets where developers decided it was a style that might appeal to prospective residents, who would respond to its futuristic message of efficiency and modernity. To find them you need to wander through Midtown and areas that were being developed/redeveloped between the wars. You’ll know you’re warm when you come across buildings with names that evoke luxury, high society, or more glamourous climates.

The Fleetwood, 64 St. Clair Ave. W., June 2020
Maplewood Apartments, 172 Vaughan Rd. Toronto, Dec. 2020
The Crofton, 717 Eglinton Ave. W., Toronto, June 2020
The Everglades, 110 Tyndall Ave., Toronto, June 2021

Toronto is a city of Victorian red brick, but yellow brick became the material of choice for Deco and early Midcentury Modern apartments. In Toronto Deco announces itself with bands of brickwork underneath or running parallel with windows that are often set into the corners of buildings.

Roycroft Apartments, 707 Eglinton Ave. W., June 2020
Apartment detail, Bathurst St., Toronto, June 2020
790 Eglinton Ave. West, Toronto June 2020
Apartment detail, Bathurst St., Toronto, June 2020

As ever, look out for curves – in balconies and awnings and deep turrets. The curve was Deco’s shape of choice – evocative of machines and streamlined ships and railway engines, but a testament to the skills of bricklayers who will charge a premium for a curved wall today, if they’ll even be able to rise to the challenge.

The Crofton, 717 Eglinton Ave. W., Toronto, June 2020
790 Eglinton Ave. West, Toronto June 2020
Apartment entrances, Avenue Road, Toronto June 2020
2559 Bloor St. West, Toronto, July 2020

Finally there’s the octagonal window – usually set into a bathroom or a hallway in the efficiency apartments that are usually contained within most Deco apartment buildings in this city. The octagon is rational and symmetrical while breaking up the right angles of a building – and another shape that challenges the unskilled craftsman.

Du Maurier Apartments, Du Maurier Blvd., Toronto, June 2020
Apartment detail, Eglinton Ave. W., Dec. 2020

Deco in Toronto features many variations, from sedate facades full of classical devices from the early ’20s to courtyards with porthole windows in places like The Dorchester, a Moderne luxury building from 1940. The nearby Mayfair apartment complex is full of sinuous stone details that call back to Art Nouveau, while a pair of apartment buildings in Parkdale present themselves like twin engine houses with porthole windows.

779 Eglinton Ave. West, June 2020
The Dorchester, 150 Farnham Ave., Dec. 2020
Mayfair apartments, 394-398 Avenue Road, Dec. 2020
115 Eglinton Ave. West, Toronto, Dec. 2020
Apartment buildings, Spencer Avenue, Parkdale, Toronto, June 2021

The most perfect Art Deco apartments in the city, however, are in the Garden Court complex on Bayview, with their landscaped courtyards and corner windows and flats that become more modest the further you get from the entrance to the grounds. During the worst summer months of the pandemic the residents were especially vigilant about outsiders in their courtyards, even if they were just appreciative photographers.

Garden Court Apartments, 1477 Bayview Ave., Toronto, June 2020

There are not a lot of private homes in the Deco, Streamline or Moderne style in Toronto. I can count the ones I know on one hand, though there might be a dozen hiding on side streets all over the city. Some are restrained and unassuming, with just a flat roof, a curved wall and an octagonal window; my wife calls this “Methodist Deco.” Others just feature a Deco detail or two, in custom stonework over a door or around a chimney. Rarest of all is a house like 170 Strathearn, with portholes and octagons, a flat roof, curved balconies and decorative stainless steel railings, finished in gleaming white stucco that looks more suitable to Miami or Melbourne than Midtown Toronto.

1707 Bathurst Street, Toronto June 2020
24 College View Ave., Toronto, June 2020
170 Strathearn Road, Toronto, Dec. 2020
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Art Deco Toronto

Concourse Building, Toronto, July 2020

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.

Horse Palace, CNE, July 2020
Roycroft Apartments, 707 Eglinton Ave. W., June 2020
2487 Bloor St. W., July 2020
2780 Yonge St., Sept. 2020
Church of the Blessed Sacrament, Sept. 2020

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.

Fleetwood Apartments, 64 St. Clair Ave. W., June 2020
Park Lane Apartments, 110 St. Clair Ave. W., June 2020
Anne Johnston Health Station (formerly Police Station #12), 2398 Yonge St., Sept. 2020
Roycroft Apartments, 707 Eglinton Ave. W., June 2020

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.

Runnymede Public Library, July 2020
2559 Bloor St. West, Toronto, July 2020
Horse Palace, CNE, July 2020
2010 Bloor St. West, Toronto, July 2020
315 Albany Ave., August 2020
1592 Bathurst St., June 2020
Anne Johnston Health Station (formerly Police Station #12), 2398 Yonge St., Sept. 2020
1205-1211 Bathurst St. August 2020
Pall Mall Apartments, 3110-3112 Yonge. St. August 2020
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