‘He just loved beautiful things.’—Heritage architect Catherine Nasmith on developer and preservationist Paul Oberman

The crash of a small plane in Maine on Monday night took the life of Paul Oberman, chief executive of Woodcliffe Corp. 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 normallyquarrelsome debates atToronto city council came to ahalt as councillors observed amoment of silence Tuesday fora man who was a titan of thecity’s heritage conservationmovement.Staff at Woodcliffe Corp.fought back tears at the company’sRosedale office as theyconfirmed Mr. Oberman’sdeath. He was 53 and leavesbehind wife Eve Lewis andtheir six children. No onecould work; staff in the spaciousoffice milled aroundtalking softly; few had muchstomach for the 10 pizzas thathad been delivered for lunch.The company and familyreferred all calls to Bonnie Hillman,a public relations agentand a family friend. She saidMr. Oberman had been flyingback from Halifax, where hischild attends university.“It’s pretty tragic and horrible,as you can imagine,” Ms.Hillman said. “They are investigatingeverything.”Mr. Oberman had flownfrom Quebec to Halifax earlierthat day and was heading backat about 4 p.m. when his plane,a single-engine Diamond DA40, hit a blizzard. The pilot radioedthat the plane was icingup, and he hoped to make anemergency landing on an airstripbefore losing contact,Maine State Police said.Search and rescue teams outof Halifax found the remains ofthe plane several hours later. Ithad crashed into a frozen beaverpond in a heavily woodedarea two kilometres from theCanadian border.They airlifted the 31-yearoldToronto pilot, Ryan Isaac,to a Quebec City hospital witha broken arm. The area wasso remote, more than 10 kilometresfrom the nearest road,that game wardens and policehad trouble getting theirsnowmobiles to the crash siteand had to access it on snowshoesand sleds.“The weather was an issue,”said Geri Grychowski of theJoint Rescue Co-ordinationCentre in Halifax. “When theygot there, there was almost sixfeet of snow and it was hard tomove around in it.”Mr. Oberman’s body wastaken to a funeral home in PresqueIsle, Me., Tuesday afternoon.“He was a really great dad,too,” said Ms. Hillman. “Hewas an incredibly big generousguy. Very passionate aboutthe greatness of Toronto andwhat was possible. He wasnever in a bad mood.”Toronto heritage architectCatherineNasmithwasamongthe first to hear the news Tuesday,and quickly posted anobituary on the Built HeritageNews website.Struggling later for composureduring an interview,she described Mr. Obermanas a developer who bucked theusual Toronto style of development,to knock stuff downand erect something taller.His masterpiece is the NorthToronto Railway Stationnear Yonge and Summerhillstreets, which he meticulouslyrestored as a flagship store forthe Liquor Control Board ofOntario.“He just loved beautifulthings,” said Ms. Nasmith.“He took buildings that werein various states of repair andhe was very smart. He understoodthat when buildingswere fixed up, their value wasincreased exponentially.”After completing the trainstation job, he turned to a lovingrestoration of the shopsthat house Rosedale’s FiveThieves; as the landlord, hewas in some sense the sixththief, though his tenantsdidn’t see it that way.“I’m in shock,” said SilviaBlackwood, owner of PiscesGourment. “He was a very niceman.” She waved to the storefronts,carefully restored withnew double-hung wood windowsand even an iron ringto which patrons can tie theirdogs. “This was his baby.”He restored the undersideof the train bridge that crossesYonge Street at Summerhill,too. “He always had a longtermsense of things,” said Ms.Nasmith. “He had a generalobligation to his city.”Mr. Oberman had recentlyjoined the President’s Circle ofthe Architectural Conservancyof Ontario.Other buildings Woodclifferestored and owns include theGooderham Building on WellingtonStreet, also known asToronto’s Flatiron building,and King James Place, a stripof 19th-century buildingsacross from St. James Cathedral.In Montreal, he restoredthe Westmount Train Station;in Ottawa the firm restoredthe former home of the OttawaEvening Journal and theNational Press Club, on ElginStreet, into The Chambers, apremier business address.Mr. Oberman also lent hisvoice to preservation causes;he spoke loudly in Januaryafter fire took the neglectedand boarded-up Empress Hotelon Yonge Street, near RyersonUniversity.In a recent essay for an anthologypublished by the designfirm Teknion, called Designis Intelligence Made Visible,Mr. Oberman wrote:“Historic buildings integratingold and new are, forme, the lifeblood of a city. If wedon’t care about renewing ourhistoric buildings, if we don’tcare about preserving themby finding new uses for them,what will we care about? Howwill we create a vibrant urbanenvironment consisting of excitingand remarkable builtforms if we turn our backs onthe great achievements — andeven the mere survivals — ofour past?“If we don’t value our heritage,how will we create anythingof value in the future? Adesirable future, I submit, istied to our past.


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