This Once-Fabulous Place

How a landlord’s lack of vision led to the destruction of one of Toronto’s great architectural monuments.

July 12, 2001
Photograph by Alfred Holden
Alfred Holden

“Renovations” to 44 Walmer Road this summer.

Are buildings art?

The question is seldom posed. But it’s a legitimate one that raises some potentially important legal and ethical issues, in the light of construction work that’s going on right now at the large apartment house at 44 Walmer Road.

In recent weeks crews have removed the building’s most artful and distinguishing feature—the curvilinear, circle-patterned balcony railings that made 44 Walmer something of an icon. Just this past April, in its “Icons” column, Toronto Life pictured 44 Walmer on a two-page spread. The headline was “FLOWER TOWER”—a nice play on the way that the sensuous design of 44, like the attitude of youth in the nineteen-sixties era during which it was built, went against boxed-in ways of thinking. “Playful whimsy,” is how a new book East/West: A Guide to Where People Live in Downtown Toronto sums up this design by architect Uno Prii. With its “idiosyncratic quality and lightheartedness,” the building brings “an unexpected lightness and joie-de-vivre to sometimes staid Toronto.”

Prii died in November, 2000. The current alteration was undertaken so crews could get at balcony concrete for needed repairs. Nothing wrong with repairs, but the building’s owner, Gaetano D’Addario, has said the old railing design is gone for good. “I did not like it,” he told me point blank over the phone. And, as he put it emphatically, he owns the place.

Legally, perhaps. But does he own it completely? Some readers may remember the case of the Eaton Centre Canada geese, which may offer legal, and certainly moral, inspiration for those concerned about 44 Walmer Road and other buildings of merit. In 1982, as part of a Christmas marketing campaign, the Eaton Centre decided to tie red ribbons around the necks of the flock of fibreglass geese that hang in the south end of the mall’s galleria. The geese are the creation of noted Canadian artist Michael Snow, and he was horrified. Snow took the Eaton Centre to court.

A judge found that under Canadian copyright law artists can sell their work, but retain important residual rights; their artistry isn’t to be distorted or modified in unseemly ways by those who buy it. In December, 1982, the red ribbons flew south.

Typically, buildings are not seen as art. Yet buildings everywhere, from the Parliament Buildings to the Toronto-Dominion Centre to many midtown homes, clearly are art.

Uno Prii was an artist. When I visited he and his wife a couple years ago, I found their Bloor Street condominium filled with paintings, sculptures, and pottery by the architect. Instantly, I knew where his sculptural buildings came from.

In Ontario, various rules and protocols exist for protecting historic and significant structures. But, as Rosie Ferguson, of the Toronto preservation board, admitted when I called her about 44, the system is gutless, toothless. The free-enterprising, freewheeling United States has much tougher rules, and enforceable standards set by the secretary of the interior. Compared to Canada, Margaret Thatcher’s Britain was, and is, draconian. In France, the prosperity of the nation is seen to depend, in part, on strategic, intelligent stewardship of the nation’s remarkable store of landmark architecture.

Is 2001 the time, and 44 Walmer Road the place, for ordinary people to take on the issue by playing hardball under something like the copyright law? The tenants have a law student working on their behalf in what’s become a long-standing battle with their landlord. With the balcony railings already off, it seems too late to do anything about 44— but I’m not so sure. D’Addario, judging from his response to my phone call, is certainly feeling the pressure. “Wait until the decision is made,” he said to me later in the interview, opening the door, at least superficially. “It’s a decision we have to make and I’m going to take my time to make it.”

“He keeps the place up,” tenant David Aylward told me in the lobby on April 30th, “but he’s a bit fancy in his ideas.” Other recent alterations—a marble floor in the foyer and lobby over original terrazzo, a new stucco-over-foam exterior with classical details—reflect a bid to remake modernist 44 into neo-Casa Loma.

It surely is an expensive proposition. Economically, it’s the wrong approach when the tenants—the very people to whom a building is marketed—are telling a landlord he already owns a real designer building, and when newspapers, magazines, and books are giving the property unsolicited praise—the kind of publicity that cannot be bought at any price.

Forty-four Walmer Road “is a highly-sculptural, landmark tower,” said Larry Richards, dean of the faculty of architecture at the University of Toronto, in an April 12th letter to Catherine Nasmith, chair of the Toronto preservation board, “designed by . . . one of Toronto’s important 20th-century modernist architects.” Referring to the railings that define the building, Richards wrote, “This change will drive our city further towards architectural mediocrity.”

In recent years, not enough has been said about botched renovations, and still less done about it. Apartment buildings, so important to the city fabric, are particularly prone—they are treated, by their owners of all people, like worthless old cars, to be patched up with Bondo and souped up with stick-on accessories from Canadian Tire.

So, I urge 44 Walmer’s tenants and their legal advisers to think art, take action, and make theirs a landmark case. They should kick some teeth into worthless laws that right now allow the willy-nilly destruction of art, architecture, and achievement that is of immense value to the future pride and reputation of the city. (July, 2001: Despite the protest from residents, the architect’s family, and this column, the owner of 44 Walmer Road proceeded to replace the building’s railings with clear glass. Aside from residents’ lost privacy and neighbours’ gained—not always pretty—views of material stored on balconies, an important architectural element was lost.)

(Originally published in the May, 2001, issue of the Annex Gleaner.)