The Concourse: Art Deco worth saving
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, May 8, 2000)

"The Concourse Building is a modern of the moderns. It is frankly a skyscraper, not ... a Doric temple, or a Gothic hall; but a skyscraper exulting in its own inherent characters of strength and height."
-- Construction Magazine, 1929

Architectural amnesia has afflicted Toronto for many years, and unless something surprising happens we will slip still deeper into this comatose state at tomorrow's City Council meeting.

The future of the Concourse Building, at 100 Adelaide St. W., is on the table, and it appears that the councillors have already decided to give Oxford Properties the right to destroy the building while saving remnants of it for decorative and face-saving purposes. Oxford plans a 41-storey tower for the large site it owns at that address and nearby. It will leave in place some elements of the Concourse facade and the first few floors, but the building will effectively be erased and will exist in future only as a ghost of itself.

This is a bad decision. Worse, it promises that more bad decisions will follow, because Oxford will be imitated by others and future councils will proceed with impunity, the precedent well established.

In our ability to respect the civic past and conserve its physical presence, Torontonians have for many years lagged far behind Montrealers and the citizens in most of the historic U.S. cities (Chicago, Boston and San Francisco, to name three among many). We only occasionally show signs of respect for valuable old buildings that can give a city a sense of place and maybe even a feeling that time did not begin for Toronto in 1965.

We have often been more than willing to sacrifice the spirit of the city to the demands of convenience, profit, and a developer's promises of construction jobs and future tax revenues (which, as we know from experience, may or may not actually materialize).

In this case, the sacrifice is unnecessary, even in commercial terms. The building may be worn and ill-used, but it could at a reasonable cost be brought back to vibrant life by one of those sensitive developers who have been reviving downtown structures ranging from warehouses to tall buildings from the same era as the Concourse -- such as the Balfour Building, a few blocks west at Spadina and Adelaide. If that were done, the Oxford tower could go up elsewhere on the land the company already owns, and live alongside a legitimate piece of history. But that solution, it appears, is slightly less convenient than the one now proposed.

It's curious that Scott Mitchell's book, Secret Toronto, describes the Concourse as one of the city's hidden treasures -- but that's not altogether wrong. It's certainly public enough, and has been since it went up in 1928, but on Heritage Toronto architectural walking tours it often excites surprise as well as delight. Many among us don't know it's there, don't understand its place in our history, and therefore don't know why we should protect and cherish it.

I can remember the day I discovered it for myself, more than half a century ago, when I was a copy boy for The Globe and Mail running errands downtown. When I reached 100 Adelaide St. W., I looked up a few feet and found myself staring at a most amazing thing. Within the Romanesque arch there was a semi-circular mosaic, an abstract design dominated by a blazing sun and criss-crossed by a stream filled with fish.

Above that were several more panels, one showing a sailing ship, another showing an aircraft that was (even in the 1940s) quaintly old-fashioned. In the left-hand lower corner of the mosaic were the initials that indicated this was the work of J.E.H. MacDonald, a most distinguished member of the Group of Seven, and a man who enjoyed making decorative art, from book jackets to murals, almost as much as he enjoyed painting nature. His colleague on this job was Thoreau MacDonald, his son, who was becoming a great figure in Canadian graphic art.

On that day or later, I went across the street and looked up high enough to see the bright-tiled parapet glinting in the sunlight, 16 storeys above the street. The Concourse was not like any other building I knew. It was strange, and a little crazy. It was Art Deco.

In 1928, that was the latest thing. Art Deco's name originated at the 1925 Paris Exposition of Decorative Arts. It was a style that depended on vibrant colours and crisp geometric shapes. In the service of a cool and sophisticated sleekness thought suitable for the machine age, it used long, thin forms (look how the lines reach up the Concourse Building's facade).

From the late 1920s till nearly the end of the 1930s, Art Deco was everywhere. It determined the decor of ocean liners and trains, the top of the Chrysler Building in New York, the best jewellery, everybody's toaster, the white movie sets behind Fred Astaire, the way Busby Berkeley arranged his dancers -- and my parents' first radio.

Martin Baldwin, who was then with the firm Baldwin and Greene and was later director of the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario), embraced Art Deco. He expressed it eloquently in that queen of apartment buildings, The Claridge, at Avenue Road and Clarendon Avenue. That was about the same time he designed the Concourse building. Its success as a symbol of its time was endorsed two generations later by the U.S. scholar Patricia McHugh, who (in her Toronto Architecture: A City Guide) called it "Toronto's jazziest Deco skyscraper."

J.E.H. MacDonald wrote that the Concourse demonstrated how architects and their clients were discovering colour and thereby expanding the possibilities of commercial structures: "There seems to be no reason why business and building should not be entertaining as well as efficient."

He predicted the Concourse would lead the way to more attractive downtown streets in the future. The gleaming decoration along the top of the facade suggested to him "a brightly illuminated letter in a fine manuscript, beginning, perhaps, some greater chapter in our future development."

When J.E.H. wrote those words, Toronto was intoxicated by dreams of its own future. Eight months later, the 1929 stock market crash deferred the future indefinitely. But that moment remains a crucial part of our history, and deserves to be remembered by more than a fragment of the Concourse building.

In the 17th century, the English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote admiringly of someone who "bears a lofty spirit in a mean condition." Toronto in the year 2000 appears to be the opposite: our economic condition is lofty but our spirit mean, in the sense of ignoble, provincial and small-minded.

In 1963, Eric Arthur, one of the most public-spirited of our adopted sons, wrote a beautiful book of architectural history called Toronto: No Mean City, borrowing that phrase from St. Paul's proud description of his home town, Tarsus. A generous and forward-thinking spirit, Eric Arthur generously applied that word to a city he had learned to love.

But this week Toronto feels like a very mean city indeed.

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