Wednesday, October 03, 2012

past pieces of toronto: the dominion coal silos

Starting today I am republishing the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column I wrote for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following article, though not officially part of the series, can be considered its pilot. It was originally published on October 11, 2011.

Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3, Item 125
 To some, they were a nostalgic landmark, a throwback to a time when Toronto homes relied on coal as home heating fuel. To others, they were a contemporary eyesore that should have been razed long before condos took their place. Regardless of one’s views, the nine storage silos that operated for 70 years by Dominion Coal and Wood at Merton Street and Mount Pleasant Road were a key visual element of North Toronto. The Dominion silos will be memorialized with a plaque from Heritage Toronto that will be unveiled in a ceremony at the site at 5:30 p.m. on October 11.

Designed by the E.P. Muntz Engineering Company, the concrete coal silos went into operation in 1929 with a storage capacity of 350 tons each. Along with the Milnes Fuel facilities at Yonge Street, Dominion Coal bookended a series of construction and industrial sites bordering the old Belt Line railway along Merton Street that served the growing population of Toronto’s northern edge. Dominion fought for the residential coal business in Toronto against long-established sellers such as Elias Rogers, and over a hundred
other licensed dealers who sold the black mineral by the sack-full. When a steep decline in home coal usage caused many of Dominion’s competitors to cease business during the 1950s, the company survived by latching onto the emerging do-it-yourself home construction market. By the mid-1980s, coal and firewood accounted for only 2 per cent of Dominion Coal’s sales, mostly to rural customers who continued to rely on old-fashioned stoves and furnaces. The company didn’t forget what built its reputation: in the 1990s, it received a merit award from Heritage Toronto for restoring the painted advertising that covered the silos.

A fresh coat of paint didn’t have much of a chance against rising land values and a site with an elevation attractive to condo developers looking to sell future residents on great views of downtown. When Dominion Coal president Bruce Chapman announced in May 1999 that the silos would close, he anticipated little resistance from the city in changing the zoning from commercial to residential as other properties along Merton Street had done. Before the last batch of construction material was sold that September, the site was purchased by Urbancorp, whose intent was replace the silos with two condo towers.
Local heritage agencies worked to preserve them. Already listed by the Toronto Historical Board as having “architectural and historical importance,” the site was granted a heritage designation that delayed redevelopment plans. City councillors debated the merits of salvaging any part of the silos. While local representative Michael Walker argued for discussions with the community about preservation, councillors like Mario Silva saw no redeeming aesthetic qualities in the structures—as he told the North Toronto Town Crier in December 1999, “I hate silos myself.” Silva felt they were “extremely ugly” and believed that “the neighbourhood would be relieved to see these silos finally go.” While Urbancorp argued about the excessive costs to build around the silos (which were considered too small to be converted into condos) and the test soil contamination levels around them, the developer devised several plans that allowed the historic structures to remain.

But none of those plans were enacted. By the time Monarch Construction acquired the site in September 2002, the silos had disappeared from the North Toronto skyline and the way was clear for the residences currently occupying the corner. One of the few reminders of their existence was found a few blocks north along Mount Pleasant Road in the window display at George’s Trains, where models of the silos were incorporated into the backdrop. Unlike George’s, which has moved on, the Heritage Toronto plaque will provide a permanent memorial and a space for people to debate whether creative reuses for the silos could have been implemented, or if they deserved their fate.

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