Conservation expert killed in plane crash

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

The loss has left a 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 yesterday for a man who was a titan of the city’s heritage conservation movement.

Yesterday, 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 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 south of the U.S. border, and south of St. Pamphile, 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 yesterday, 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 (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 his firm restored the former home of the Ottawa Evening Journal and the National Press Club.

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