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Reading the narrative of Toronto's mid-century architecture

Mid-century modern architecture, whether private homes or public buildings, is well represented in Toronto, but save for Don Mills or the financial district, much of it is isolated and difficult to find.

Those of us who love this period, which spans 1945 to 1975, have become less and less shy in shouting from the rooftops (with every television commercial that uses the era as backdrop and with Mad Men constantly winning Emmys, our courage is bolstered). The problem is, some of us are isolated and hard to find.

Luckily, Robert Moffatt decided to create a blog.

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On offer at robertmoffatt115.wordpress.com is Toronto Modern, a treasure-trove of over 50 entries covering everything from public buildings, such as the crown-shaped 1961 Lord Lansdowne Public School on Robert Street or the demolished 1957 Lord Simcoe Hotel at King and University (which lasted a mere 22 years) to private homes such as Ron Thom's well known Fraser residence on Old George Place or the little known George Eber gem on Eastview Crescent designed for Angus Critchley-Waring in 1961.

I first met Mr. Moffatt last November at a North York symposium on Modernist architecture and have followed his blog ever since, delighting particularly in his ability to ferret out often overlooked buildings such as the "immaculate" Coca-Cola headquarters on Overlea Boulevard. Even more impressive is that Mr. Moffatt is a Vancouver native.

On a gloriously warm October day, we met for an "architour" in front of Henry Fliess's 1968 Towne Apartments on St. Clair Avenue E. (covered here in 2008), where I learned his appreciation of the genre began in the early 1990s. Eventually, he joined Heritage Vancouver and the B.C. branch of DOCOMOMO (Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement). He conducted research for his monthly column in the Heritage Vancouver newsletter by taking exploratory walks, snapping photos, building a personal library and, at the UBC library, "digging up musty old magazines" such as the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Journal. "By the time I left [Vancouver]I had a banker's box full from one end to the other of photocopies," he said. Since moving here in 2002, he's done much the same thing when not hard at work in the marketing department of Moriyama & Teshima Architects.

As we walk towards Yonge, we discuss how the Deer Park neighbourhood has always been upscale and, as such, boasts a higher quality of building stock. We spot the metal relief panels on Charles Dolphin's 1954 Arthur Meighen building, take in the award-winning 1975 stainless steel Weston octagon by Leslie Rebanks and, further west, the Deco-glorious Fleetwood and Park Lane apartments, both built in 1938.

"It's great they've kept what I guess are the original doors," he says of the Fleetwood. "A lot of them had these custom-made or high-quality doors and door hardware … so often when they're updated that gets tossed out and replaced by some generic catalogue anodized aluminum piece."

We admire the mid-60s Desjardin building by WZMH at 95 St. Clair Ave. W., which also contains WZMH's offices – they "built half of downtown Canada" jokes Mr. Moffatt – and the current condo conversion of the exquisite former Imperial Oil building to pause at the southeast corner of Avenue Road and St. Clair. Now the Ministry of Environment building, Mr. Moffatt informs me the "crisp" black-and-silver Modernist tower was originally designed for General Steel Wares by Bregman and Hamann in 1964.

We look north to admire British-born architect Peter Dickinson's apartment tower at 561 Avenue Rd. "This I think is one of the best angles of any building in Toronto … with the floating roof and these beautiful mature trees all around it and the older house in front," he decides – and then move further west to compare two low-rise residential buildings by Estonian-born Uno Prii. 90 Warren Rd., which is featured in one of Mr. Moffatt's posts, is rather "dour" for this usually buoyant flower-power architect save for the porte-cochere, which resembles "an English toast rack." To find Prii's "playful side" we inspect 265 Russell Hill Rd., and find blue glazed brick, decorative concrete block and concrete arches over the windows.

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After a long discussion on the future of the Crashley residence on Old George Place, which has been "left as a dismembered corpse," we find ourselves on Ardwold Gate considering what may be the city's only fully Brutalist home by another Estonian, Taivo Kapsi, and a more conventional 1960 Modernist home by Gordon Adamson for the president of the Southam newspaper empire. The 1968 Brutalist home has a fascinating history, which includes murder, but I'll leave that to Mr. Moffatt's thoroughly researched and highly readable Toronto Modern to tell (see "A walk along Ardwold Gate").

It's worth a visit, and then another after that, since Mr. Moffatt has promised regular record keeping. "These places transcend just simply a place to live in or a place to work in," he finishes. There's also the constant threat of demolition, which makes documentation even more important: "Demolishing a major work by a major architect, you could probably equate that to somebody throwing a Group of Seven painting into a wood chipper."

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About the Author

Dave LeBlanc was born in Toronto and wouldn't have it any other way. At age 8, he remembers jumping for joy when both the CN Tower opened and Toronto finally snatched Montreal's crown to become the biggest city in Canada; he's been an architecture lover and Toronto advocate ever since.He attended Ryerson for Radio-Television Arts and York University for English. More

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