Queen Street West’s good bones
The 20th century was not kind to this historic street, but projects such as Chocolate Co. Lofts show what can happen when it’s given some respect
By John Bentley Mays – The Globe and Mail
The recent mending of Queen Street West between Spadina Avenue and the Parkdale neighbourhood is something Torontonians can be proud of. Parking lots are disappearing, and galleries of intelligent contemporary art, furniture stores, chic restaurants and hotels, and smart boutiques have appeared and, apparently, are prospering.
Though their clientele is up market, the new local business folk have not demanded that citizens who need the services of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, at 999 Queen West, be banished from the sidewalks. The various consumers of urban life are getting along. After decades of dilapidation, the avenue is alive and livable again in a civilized, thoroughly big-city way.
But even if we let her get a bit tattered and snaggle-toothed in the 20th century, Queen always did have good bones. She was among the earliest streets laid out on the muddy shoreline of Lake Ontario after 1793, and a key geographical baseline for the city’s future development of streets and building lots.
In the middle of the next century, architect John Howard’s muscular neo-classical Provincial Asylum (now vanished) went up at 999 Queen – at that time, an address still in the countryside – and Bishop Strachan’s imposing Trinity College was built at Queen and Bellwoods Avenue, a few blocks closer to town.
In late Victorian times, with waves of British immigrants pushing the city westward, this once-rural corridor was populated by many small shops, factories and houses, and assumed an air of main-street, working class respectability.
In some spots along the Queen streetscape, there were splashes of architectural high style and attitude – and there was, until the 1970s, the mighty edifice of the asylum – but the general sense of the street was (and is) down to earth, mostly nuts and bolts and brick and Scottish porridge.
Plazacorp’s Chocolate Company Lofts, a mix of conversion and new residential construction at 955 Queen Street West, is a good example of what happens when urban bones get some respect.
The raw material for this project consisted of a couple of two-toned brick industrial buildings once owned by the Patterson Chocolate Company. Though obsolete for commercial use, these mid-rise structures made a good visual fit with the three-storey Victorian storefronts across the street, the big Candy Factory Lofts next door, and other elements of the old streetscape.
Instead of ripping them down and starting from scratch, the developer decided to salvage the two structures, then directed the designers (Gabriel Bodor and Quadrangle Architects) to knit them together with new brick fabric designed to match the old.
The result is a single, large six storey condominium loft building – the few remaining suites are for sale at between $169,900 and $401,900 – that sits quietly on its site, doesn’t quarrel with the neighbours, and looks, more or less, as though it has always been there.
Which raises interesting questions. When does it make sense for a building to slip discreetly into the streetscape (as the Chocolate Company Lofts does), and when is it appropriate for a new structure to break with local tradition and go big and noisy?
Community groups, historical preservationists, developers and architects will be arguing over such matters until doomsday. That’s understandable, because there is no final, absolute right and wrong in the field of urban aesthetics. What should be done, insofar as architectural style is concerned, is very much a matter of context – a given circumstance or opportunity, the cultural mood of the present moment, the historical importance or unimportance of a specific site.
In the case of the Chocolate Company Lofts, I believe the developer and architects made a good decision. Unlike districts closer to the downtown towers, this western stretch of Queen was neither intensively torn apart nor simply allowed to go to the dogs since its creation in the 19th century. It was never just so many unloved, unimportant warehouses and workplaces, or so much weedy, derelict industrial land.
People lived vividly along Queen, and many traces and echoes of that vivid life remain in the buildings themselves – in elaborate, multicolored brickwork, for example, and in the extravagant story-book carvings that decorate the Gladstone Hotel, and in the short sweeps of glassy storefronts under tall, dignified brick facades. Queen Street West has surely been damaged and neglected, but much of its stolid Victorian character remains intact.
What it needs is not heroic architectural therapy, but more time to heal, and more of the old-fashioned medicine used successfully to revive the Patterson Chocolate Company buildings.
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