Toronto developer, heritage ally killed in plane crash

Brett Gundlock / National Post

Brett Gundlock / National Post

The Summerhill Train station underwent extensive renovation under Mr. Oberman’s watch

Mar 8, 2011 – 1:48 PM ET | Last Updated: Mar 8, 2011 6:54 PM ET

The crash of a small plane in Maine on Monday night took the life of Paul Oberman, chief executive of real estate developers Woodcliffe Corporation.

The loss has left a gaping hole not just in the Oberman family but in the fabric of Toronto itself, which has lost one of its biggest champions for saving and restoring the city’s rich history.

Even the normally quarrelsome debates at Toronto City council came to a halt as councillors observed a moment of silence Tuesday for a man who was a titan of the city’s heritage conservation movement.

On Tuesday, staff at Woodcliffe Corp., fought back tears as they confirmed Oberman’s death. He was 53 and leaves behind his wife Eve Lewis, and their six children.

The company and family referred all calls to Bonnie Hillman, a public relations agent and a family friend. She said Oberman had been flying back from Halifax, where one of his children attends university.

“It’s pretty tragic and horrible as you can imagine,” Hillman said. “They are investigating everything.”

The four-seat aircraft went down in a remote wooded area about 1.7 kilometres across the border on the U.S. side, south of Saint Pamphile, Que., killing Oberman and leaving one man injured.

“He was a really great dad, too,” said Hillman. “He was an incredibly big, generous guy. Very passionate about the greatness of Toronto and what was possible. He was never in a bad mood.”

Catherine Nasmith was among the first to hear the bad news Tuesday, and quickly posted an obituary on the Built Heritage News website.

She described Oberman as a developer who bucked the usual Toronto style of development, to knock stuff down and erect something taller. His masterpiece is the North Toronto Railway Station, which he meticulously restored as a flagship store for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.

“He just loved beautiful things,” said Nasmith. “He took buildings that were in various states of repair and he was very smart. He understood that when buildings were fixed up, their value was increased exponentially.”

Oberman recently had joined the President’s Circle of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario.

Other buildings Woodcliffe restored and owns include the Gooderham Building on Wellington Street, also known as Toronto’s Flatiron building, and King James Place, a strip of 19th-century buildings across from St. James Cathedral. In Montreal, he restored the Westmount Train Station; in Ottawa the firm restored the former home of the Ottawa Evening Journal and the National Press Club.

Oberman also lent his voice to preservation causes; he spoke loudly in January after fire took the neglected and boarded-up Empress Hotel on Yonge Street near Ryerson University in Toronto.

In a recent essay for an anthology published by the design firm Teknion, called Design is Intelligence Made Visible, Oberman wrote: “Historic buildings integrating old and new are, for me, the lifeblood of a city. If we don’t care about renewing our historic buildings, if we don’t care about preserving them by finding new uses for them, what will we care about? How will we create a vibrant urban environment consisting of exciting and remarkable built forms if we turn our backs on the great achievements — and even the mere survivals — of our past? If we don’t value our heritage, how will we create anything of value in the future? A desirable future, I submit, is tied to our past.”

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