Demolition by Neglect

On Monday Paul Oberman, the prolific developer who built a fortune preserving Toronto’s heritage, died in the crash of a small plane in Maine. This week I thought of Mr. Oberman as I walked up Yonge Street and passed two of the city’s most remarkable old buildings, north of Queen Street on the east side: the former Bank of Commerce building at 199 Yonge and the former Bank of Toronto building at 205 Yonge.

Both went up in 1905; both are locked and decaying. This sort of disrespect infuriated Mr. Oberman.

“They are absolutely stunning examples of some of the best architects that our city has ever had,” says Rebecca Carson of Heritage Toronto, an arms-length agency funded largely through donations, “and to have them sitting on our main public artery and not shared with the citizens is almost criminal. It is stunning to us that they haven’t had any TLC.”

E.J. Lennox, architect of Old City Hall and the Ontario Legislature, designed 205 Yonge Street as the Bank of Toronto, a precursor to TD Bank. Some call this our finest example of Beaux-Arts architecture. The building boasts four huge columns topped by a richly sculpted crown of stone. The aluminum-covered dome roof resembles an observatory. The banking hall, with its columns and mosaics, is a show-stopper. The building later became home to Heritage Toronto, until the city sold it in 2003 to Irish businessman John Cavannah. Today, an Irish flag flutters on the roof line and pigeon poop speckles the columns. The Downtown Yonge business improvement area provided a telephone number for Mr. Cavannah; a recording says, “The customer you are calling is unavailable at the moment.”

To its south sits 199 Yonge, designed by Darling and Pearson -architects of the original Royal Ontario Museum and the North Toronto Railway Station (transformed by Mr. Oberman into the Summerhill LCBO). The building at 199 Yonge has sat vacant for about 40 years. Today it and the parkette to its north belong to Salvatore Parasuco, owner of Parasuco Jeans Inc. of Montreal.

On a chain-link fence bolted to its front flutters a for-rent sign mentioning, “Prestigious location.” No one returned calls to the Montreal telephone number on the sign. Workers recently sealed off the parkette between 199 and 205 Yonge Street with a Modu-loc fence; a sign screwed to a tree in the park warns, “Persons found dumping food or garbage in this area will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

“We have owned it for six or seven years,” Melanie Bergeron, a spokeswoman for Parasuco in Montreal, says of 199 Yonge. “We still have mockups to build a hotel.” She adds, “We are looking for someone to rent it or use it in a nice way because our project is delayed.” She later called back to say Parasuco Jeans does not own the building. Al Rezoski, a manager at Toronto Planning, says, “I believe that the Parasuco family still owns the building.”

In a recent show, Building Stories, Heritage Toronto wrote that 199 Yonge “is boarded up and appears to be quite seriously threatened by neglect.”

Given the tragic loss of Yonge’s Empress Hotel of 1888, torched in January (by arsonists, police say), are these two gorgeous banks being demolished by neglect? Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Toronto CentreRosedale) did not answer requests for comment. Mary MacDonald, manager, heritage preservation services, said both bank buildings have heritage easements registered on title, adding, “The city has a heritage property standards bylaw to address the failure of owners to maintain their designated properties and municipal licensing and standards, with our assistance, will not hesitate to investigate those heritage properties that are falling into disrepair.” She would not say whether Toronto has lifted a finger to protect these buildings.

Cathy Nasmith, a prominent heritage architect in Toronto, notes that “enforcement on demolition by neglect tends to be complaint-driven.”

In that case, consider this my complaint.

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Demolition by Neglect – Original Article (PDF)

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