Thursday, November 17, 2016

off the grid: ghost city 1 benvenuto place

This story was originally published in the online version of The Grid on May 28, 2013.

Benvenuto, circa 1909. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 328A.
In a sense, Simeon Janes was already king of the hill. Regarded as one of Toronto’s sharpest real estate wheeler-dealers, he built a fortune during the 1880s by subdividing the land that became The Annex. When he decided to build a mansion in 1888, he settled on a property high up on Avenue Road with an expansive view of the growing city below.

Completed in 1891, Benvenuto lived up to English translation of its Italian name—“welcome”—as Janes entertained guests with feasts in its grand dining room and concerts in its conservatory. A contemporary account described the mansion as “a splendid piece of masonry, which puts to shame the flimsy ephemeral edifices, with their stuccoes and veneers, of modern house construction.”

Janes sold Benvenuto to Toronto Railway Company proprietor William Mackenzie in 1897. Reputedly Mackenzie paid for part of the purchase in the pre-TTC streetcar operator’s stock, which was ironic given Janes backed an opposing bid when the city offered the transit contract to private concerns six years earlier. Mackenzie continued Benevenuto’s tradition of entertaining the rich while building a transportation empire which included the Canadian Northern Railway (the company responsible for developing Leaside).

Sir William Mackenzie leaving Benvenuto, circa 1910. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1298.  
Following Mackenzie’s death in 1923, the mansion fell into disuse. Parcels of the property were sold, resulting in the development of Edmund Avenue and Benvenuto Place. Developers who bought the remaining property in 1927 planned to demolish the mansion to make way for a deluxe apartment building. While the mansion was knocked down in 1932, several elements survived. The retaining wall along Avenue Road stayed put, while ornate gates Mackenzie shipped in from Italy moved west to their current location at 38-44 Burton Road.

Plans for an apartment complex remained in limbo until the early 1950s. Architect Peter Dickinson designed a flat-roofed, balcony-and-window-rich concrete structure which became one of Toronto’s first modernist buildings. Opened in stages between 1953 and 1955, 1 Benvenuto Place operated as a luxurious apartment hotel whose residents saw celebrities like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor pass through its lobby. The hotel service lasted through the late 1970s, after which it continued to offer some of the city’s priciest rental apartments.

1 Benvenuto Place, 1955. Canadian Architectural Archives.
While there had been an onsite restaurant from the start, it didn’t make culinary waves until it transformed into Scaramouche in late 1980. Rising chefs Jamie Kennedy and Michael Stadtlander handled the kitchen during its first two years, then Keith Froggett settled in for a run now heading into its 30th year. During the mid-’80s, pastry chef Joanne Yolles accidentally came up with one of the restaurant’s signature dishes after pondering the most blue-collar dessert she could make for a high-end eatery. The result: coconut cream pie. Soon after, a separate pasta bar offering $6 dishes created nightly lineups.

Talk of converting 1 Benvenuto Place into a condominium began in the mid-’80s, upsetting many residents. This may have been among the factors which led to the building’s addition to the city’s inventory of heritage properties in 1989. The conversion process finally went ahead in 2004, at which time monthly apartment rents ranged from $2,000 for a one-bedroom unit to $5,500 for a three-bedroom. Existing tenants had the option of continuing as renters or buying their apartments. For a time it appeared Scaramouche would be replaced with a single condo unit, but an agreement signed in March 2010 allowed the restaurant to continue serving diners.

Additional material from Toronto Old and New by G. Mercer Adam (Toronto: Mail Printing Company, 1891), The Railway King of Canada by R.B. Fleming (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1991), the July 2005 edition of Toronto Life, and the January 18, 1927, November 24, 1982, December 30, 1989, November 6, 2004, September 10, 2007, and March 12, 2010 editions of the Toronto Star.

No comments: