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Walking Toronto in the footsteps of Ron Thom

I never met British Columbia-born architect Ron Thom (1923-1986), but his love for his adopted city comes through in Exploring Toronto, a lovely little architectural guidebook put out by the Toronto Chapter of Architects in 1972.

Twelve illustrated walks authored by a who's who of Toronto Modernists – Jack Diamond, Barton Myers, Macy DuBois, Eberhard Zeidler and Jerome Markson to name a few – now serve as my own personal time machine.

Back in 2005, I retraced Irving Grossman's footsteps and reported back on what the decades had wrought in Don Vale (a.k.a. Cabbagetown). Today, with a separation of 42 years, I thought I'd let Mr. Thom walk me around a neighbourhood I've called home for only three years: St. Lawrence and Old York.

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To begin, Mr. Thom deposits us in front of St. James Cathedral (1853) at King Street East and Church Street. He tells us about the 20-year lag between the construction of the building and the spire, then prompts us to enter the various "porches" to see the old headstones that have been mounted on the walls – St. James Park was once the church's graveyard – proclaiming them to be "fascinating reading." They still are.

With the bells pealing a quarter past (I love how you can still tell time by the bells!), I head northeast through the park to admire a stretch of three-storey commercial buildings spanning Nos. 61 to 75 Jarvis St. Here, writes Mr. Thom, is evidence that the "demolition-parking lot-new office block cycle" has been broken as pioneering businesses – Grumbles coffee house, Aggregation Gallery (later Wynick/Tuck) and Salmangundi Antiques – opt for "regeneration" instead. Today, it's gelatos, rugs and Indian food.

South to King Street, eyes are directed to the stoic bank on the north-west corner, then, of course, to one of the city's "finest 19th century buildings," St. Lawrence Hall; in particular, Mr. Thom points to the carvings of "feathers, swords and bugles" and the iron balconies. Still a stunner, I think Mr. Thom would applaud the dazzling new lighting scheme the building received in 2009.

After a walk past St. Lawrence Market (to show the portion that was Toronto's first City Hall) and the Gooderham "flatiron" building, he walks me past the St. Lawrence Centre and the O'Keefe Centre (now the Sony Centre). A lifelong patron of the arts, I wonder if Mr. Thom would consider Daniel Libeskind's "L Tower" condominium – now grafted onto the back of the Modernist masterpiece by Peter Dickinson – in exchange for funds to restore and save the 1960 theatre a Faustian bargain?

For the second leg of Mr. Thom's walk, I'm directed toward the corner of King Street East and Berkeley Street, where, even in 1972, one finds "Klaus Nienkamper's store." Of course, in 2014, the walk along King will reveal that the Nienkamper influence means almost every other shop caters to residential design, including such heavy-hitters as bulthaup, Kiosk and EQ3.

Before reaching Berkeley Street, Mr. Thom asks me to sneak onto Sherbourne Street south of King to see B.B. Smith, an old furrier at No. 37. Today, held up by a bright yellow steel frame, the façade awaits new life as the heritage face of a condominium tower.

A hole in the ground punctuated by a tall red crane suggests occupancy is a ways off; although a look in almost any direction reveals a crane or two, it's a good bet an architect from 1972 would feel at home, since Toronto experienced a building boom from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.

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From Nienkamper, Mr. Thom points me north to Firehall No. 4 (1905), home to the Alumnae Theatre since 1972. Strangely, Mr. Thom fails to mention it was his own clever renovation scheme that gave the building new life as a performance space. He directs my gaze across the street to a tidy row of former "workmen's cottages" (1871) that architect Joan Burt transformed into shops and offices in 1969. Today, one can find a lawyer's association, an architect and an interior design firm here.

After a walk past Little Trinity Church, I'm directed to "Toronto's oldest school building," the Enoch Turner schoolhouse at 106 Trinity St. Interestingly, the guidebook photo shows a portion of the roofline crumbling; while the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse Foundation was formed in 1971 to raise funds to restore the building, work clearly hadn't started by press-time.

A walk further south brings us to Gooderham and Worts' 1861 Stone Distillery building. Still producing spirits in 1972, the oldest surviving distillery structure in Canada is now the heart of the pedestrian-friendly arts and design Distillery District (it also received Heritage Canada's Corporate Prize in 2006). While its survival would surely please Mr. Thom, I'm not sure the condominium towers that continue to choke the site would. However, were he standing here to give his opinion today, he could pay his son, Adam Thom, a visit, since he runs a successful architectural practice of his own, Agathom Co., just a stone's throw away.

To end the tour, Mr. Thom warms our hearts with yet another adaptive reuse story: At the bottom of Berkeley Street, a "fine group" of 19th century industrial buildings was saved by Greenspoon Brothers, the wrecking company hired to demolish them in 1971. Today, this impressive complex is home to the Canadian Stage Company.

Those heartwarming stories still exist today. And while cheerleaders such as Ron Thom may have left us, I shall endeavour to bring them to you here.

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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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