Wednesday, March 23, 2016

off the grid: ghost city 149 college street

This installment of my "Ghost City" column for The Grid was originally published on October 16, 2012.

149 College during its time as Central Tech, after 1900. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1568, Item 247.
“Amid sounds of revelry and acclaim, amid the seductive calm of soft music, and the inspiring charm of many voices, amid cloud-like strata of fragrant fumes and infectious laughter from countless merry smokers, a temple of muscle and grace was appropriately dedicated to the youths who adorn the terminal years of the 19th century. The glamour of flashing lights and rich furnishings, harmoniously designed, burst dazzlingly upon the army of elated members and prospective members who pressed eagerly through the massive stone portals to assist in the house-warming.” So observed the Toronto Daily Mail during the opening-night festivities at the Toronto Athletic Club on January 22, 1894.

Though demonstrations of athletic prowess and the Richardsonian Romanesque building designed by architect E.J. Lennox (later responsible for Old City Hall and Casa Loma) were praised by the press, the evening wasn’t perfect. A performance by the Toronto Lacrosse Club Minstrels was so inappropriate that the Toronto Star believed “it was to the credit of the athletic club that they were roundly hissed.”

Despite the initial burst of excitement over facilities like gymnasiums, billiard rooms, and one of the city’s first indoor swimming pools, the Toronto Athletic Club quickly ran into financial problems. It didn’t help that club founder (and former Toronto mayor) John Beverley Robinson, who had turned over property he had lived on since 1850 to provide it with a home, died two years after its grand opening. The city’s other social clubs provided little support. When the mortgage was foreclosed on in October 1899, 149 College St. witnessed the first of many tenant changes.

In July 1900, city council purchased the building to provide a new home for the Toronto Technical School. The deal had been tied up for a month due to accusations by alderman Daniel Lamb of “undue influence” placed on his fellow councillors by those who still had a financial stake in the property. Though an inquiry found no proof of wrongdoing, Lamb refused to apologize for his actions. Among the renovations that the school—which evolved into Central Tech—made was to fill the basement pool with concrete and use it for art classes.

149 College as Stewart Building, October 20, 1957. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library, S 1-3861A.
Following the school’s move to its current site at Harbord and Borden in 1915, 149 College St. served as a military headquarters. Another HQ moved in with the onset of the Great Depression: the Toronto Police. The force considered the site, which was renamed the Stewart Building soon after they moved there in 1931, a temporary home while waiting for a new civic building to be built along Queen Street west of Osgoode Hall. A planned seven-year stay stretched out to nearly three decades.

When the newly amalgamated Metropolitan Toronto Police moved their offices to another temporary site in 1960, they retained the building as the home of 52 Division. This was also seen as an interim solution—excess office space and limited parking spots for vehicles made police officials eager to find a new home for the precinct. While the force’s preferred site at the northeast corner of Dundas and Beverley would have wiped out several heritage-designated homes, a committee led by alderman William Kilbourn suggested in late 1973 that the building could be renovated to meet the police’s needs. Though Kilbourn hoped that a presentation by architect Jack Diamond would persuade the police to stay, Metro Council rejected the idea in favour of 52 Division’s current home at Dundas and Simcoe.

Toronto Star. September 29, 1979.
149 College St. was sold to the Ontario College of Art. Instead of cutting a ribbon during the opening ceremony in September 1979, Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Pauline McGibbon made the final brush stroke on a watercolour of the building. The police returned to the site several times to investigate complaints about offensive art and an incident involving students carrying guns that turned out to be replicas for a class project. After the college departed during the late 1990s, the building was used as a French-language school (Coll├Ęge des Grands Lacs) before the Rotman School of Management’s executive-education centre moved in. The business school commissioned 149 College’s umpteenth set of renovations which, according to architect Tania Bortolotto’s website, was intended “to rejuvenate the derelict interiors into a refined atmosphere expressing the client’s branding aims.” In a way, that goal brought the building back to the refinement the Toronto Athletic Club offered over a century earlier.

Additional material from the January 23, 1894 edition of the Toronto Daily Mail, the January 23, 1894, June 19, 1900, and September 29, 1979 editions of the Toronto Star, and the July 31, 1931 edition of the Telegram.

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