The Tribeca Lofts is probably the most unlikely located loft in Toronto. When you think of the area around the Science Centre, do converted lofts come to mind? Didn’t think so… And yet, there is an interesting converted office building at 797 Don Mills Road, designed by commercial “starchitects” of a generation ago.
In a former life, it was the MONY Life Insurance Company office building, built in 1966. The 17-storey building became vacant in the early 1990s and was purchased by T.W.S. Developments Inc. and converted into 180 residential loft units. Originally marketed as Tribeca Lofts on the Upper East Side, it is now simply called the Tribeca Lofts.
The high ceilings are left over from the previous use, and the 10-foot height makes the lofts seem big and airy. Large lofts for low prices is the norm here, one of the best loft conversion deals in Toronto. The units are more condo-ish than many lofts, but they are authentic. Floor plans are generally spacious and windows big. Views are good. Finishes are a bit dated, but some have been renovated. Nothing fancy, but then again they are priced that way.
Designed by Bregman + Hamann Architects who also did the Foresters building next door. Both buildings housed insurance companies and both part of the Olympia Square project. This was headed by Olympia and York, a major international property development firm. The firm built major financial office complexes including Canary Wharf in London, the World Financial Center in New York City, and First Canadian Place in Toronto. It went bankrupt in the early 1990s and was recreated to eventually become Olympia & York Properties. The company was founded by Paul Reichmann and his brothers Albert and Ralph, in Toronto in the early 1950s. It first built and operated warehouses and other commercial buildings in Toronto.
Its first major project was the development of the vast Flemingdon Park project on Don Mills Road. It is hard to understand the scope of that project. It was HUGE. Webb & Knapp had started the development but they were having financial issues and a Swiss creditor seized Flemingdon Park in Toronto and put it on the market. The project was already partially under way, a combined housing/office/industrial complex next to what would eventually become the Don Valley Parkway. Paul Reichmann guessed that it would be a success and went after it.
Most other potential buyers shied away, since the development was away from downtown, in the boondocks. Every developer knows the three prime requirements for any real-estate investment: location, location, location. But Paul Reichmann could only see that a block of five hundred acres, with many of the services in place, was going at a bargain-basement price. The Reichmann brothers bought Flemingdon Park, in great secrecy, for $17.8 million.
The money came streaming back within six months as the family sold off parcels of land and began their first really large and challenging development. In addition to several thousand rental and condominium apartments, the Reichmanns built thirteen office buildings in Flemingdon Park. Their first multi-storey structure was the MONY Life Insurance Company building in 1966, into which they moved their York Developments Limited company. After the triumph of Olympia Square, as the development came to be called, the Reichmanns could pick and choose their projects.
MONY Life Insurance Company offers life insurance products and services. MONY was formerly known as The Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York and changed its name to MONY Life Insurance Company in November 1998. MONY stands for Mutual Of New York. Mony Life was bought by NN Life which then became Transamerica Life. Transamerica Life was bought out in 2015 by Ivari.
MONY is the oldest continuous writer of insurance policies in the United States. It was chartered in 1892, after beginning business in 1843. From its inception, MONY was a mutual company, owned by its policyholders and run by a board of trustees elected by policy owners. Offering whole life and term insurance, MONY was an industry pioneer, helping to develop mortality tables, actuarial techniques, and premium computations – all essential tools of the insurance trade.
At first, MONY concentrated its organization and sales in large eastern cities. As the company expanded, however, full-time MONY agents established themselves in far-flung cities and contracted with the firm to sell insurance in their territories. Reflecting the hazards of 19th century U.S. life, MONY was cautious about whom it insured. At first standard rates were given only to those living in northern states and in the settled parts of the northwest territories, areas with comparatively lower death rates. MONY also tried to avoid issuing standard policies to people traveling to China or around the Cape of Good Hope, or to seamen engaged in whaling. In 1886 the company policy handbook precluded “gamblers, barkeepers… saloon keepers, keepers of billiard parlors,” among others, from receiving the comfort of MONY insurance.
By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, MONY had business all over the country. Because no policies provided for insurance in the case of war, MONY called together 16 leading companies to determine a common policy for insuring soldiers. Surprisingly the company did not suffer any losses on war risks, even though every southern policy was considered surrendered. All operations below the Mason-Dixon Line stopped during the Civil War.
In 1885 Richard McCurdy, a company vice president assumed control. Determined to make MONY the biggest of the Big Three, he dispatched agents throughout the West and Southwest, pursued an ambitious investment policy, and took steps to extend MONY’s coverage not only throughout the United States but overseas. He succeeded. In the first three years of McCurdy’s stewardship, new insurance doubled. By 1904 it would quadruple. In the 1880s MONY also acquired an entrepreneurial bent – building large office buildings and renting out excess space. A key point 100 years later!
During the 1950s MONY was carried along by the strong tide of the postwar boom, which caused almost every financial institution to prosper. MONY expanded again, entering Alaska in 1949 and Texas soon after. In 1952 the first personal sickness and health policies were made available. As unions and collective bargaining units grew in strength, the atmosphere became more conducive to the development of group coverage. In 1953 MONY developed its first group plan for small businesses, providing pension, life insurance, disability, hospital, surgical, and polio benefits. In 1954 MONY made its initial foray into the general group field. By 1959 assets had grown to $2.7 billion and insurance in force topped $7 billion. In 1961 Roger Hull took over MONY’s reins, and during the next several years, he oversaw further expansion and the development of new coverages.
MONY entered the 1990s a more diverse and diffuse company than ever before, the economic downturns of the 1980s having caused some retrenchment. In 1989 for example, MONY unloaded Financial Services Corporation, which it had acquired just three years prior. The same year, James Farley, who took over as CEO in 1988, initiated a multi-million dollar cost cutting program.
It was that cost-cutting program that saw them sell their Toronto office at 797 Don Mills Road. The building had been empty for a few years in the early 1990s by the time T.W.S. Developments bought it. They started the permit process with the City in 1995, to convert the building, but took more than 5 years to complete the project.
The MONY building, as well as its sister Forester building next door, were part of a rather extensive collection of modernist commercial architecture in the Don Mills and Eglinton area. Some have interesting histories, such as Foresters. The Independent Order of Foresters (IOF) is a fraternal organization, now based in Toronto, Canada, and operating under the brand name Foresters Financial.
Foresters traces its origin to a British Friendly Society, a mutual organization caring for the sick. The original Foresters groups allegedly banded together for mutual aid and protection in 14th-century England, in or near the ancient royal forests which belonged to the monarchy.
The expansion of the Independent Order of Foresters (IOF) into Canada in 1875 is attributed to a prominent doctor and community leader, Oronhyatekha. Of Mohawk descent, born in 1841 at Six Nations near present-day Brantford, Ontario, Oronhyatekha (“Burning Sky”) was baptized Peter Martin and later attended Oxford where he became a medical doctor.
Dr. Oronhyatekha held the office of Supreme Chief Ranger (now called “International Fraternal President”) from 1879 until 1906; he died in 1907. By the early 1890s he had successfully transformed the Foresters into one of North America’s leading fraternal benefit societies. Like other friendly societies and fraternal organizations of the time, Foresters helped transform the insurance industry by extending insurance benefits to the average working family.
Oddly enough, the area of North York around Don Mills & Eglinton was known for its modern architecture, mainly in the office buildings constructed in the area during the 1950s and 1960s. This whole collection of office buildings was on the southern edge of Don Mills, Toronto’s first master-planned suburb. It wasn’t Toronto’s first suburb, of course. But until then, cropping up on the edges of the city, such areas had been built block by block, with little central planning. Even residential areas built from blueprints in the 1920s and ’30s, such as Leaside, the Kingsway and Lawrence Park, were tiny by comparison.
Despite the changes that have swept through Don Mills over the past five decades, its continuing sense of community is a testament to E.P. Taylor’s vision. Don Mills opened to a great deal of fanfare, winning numerous architectural and design awards over the subsequent years. In 1997, the Ontario Heritage Foundation designated Don Mills as a heritage site that used integral and consistent planning principles, the only community so honoured.
The name Don Mills came, of course, from the Don River and from the fact that several mills were established in the Don Valley in the 19th century. There was a woolen mill in the area of what is now Edward’s Gardens near a tributary of the west branch of the Don. Later, another woolen mill was located on the east branch of the Don where the Don Mills Ski Club was located. A saw mill operated in the Don Valley in what is now the Donalda Club area. Amazingly, the Don River flowed strongly enough in the last century and early part of this one to turn the water wheels operating the mills, and at one point during a great flood some of the mills were washed away.
The Wynford Drive and Don Mills Road area contains a number of fine Modernist commercial office properties many of which were identified by the former City of North York Planning Department in 1997. Several properties are on the City’s inventory of heritage properties as a result of past preservation initiatives by the former City of North York and the City of Toronto. However several properties have recently been demolished and others are potentially threatened as a result of future development.
Imperial Oil’s Ontario regional headquarters is now a Loblaw’s parking lot. The recession of the early 1990s killed a lot of the need for office space, spelling the demise of many of the area’s buildings. I still mourn the Bata HQ, as many others do. But the Imperial Oil building was of a similar modern design, in fact the inspiration for the Bata building. Now both are gone. Others in the area that have been demolished include the Oxford University Press building at 70 Wynford Drive (Fairfield & Dubois, 1963) and Shell Canada at 75 Wynford Drive (Webb Zerafa Menkes, 1966).
Believe it or not, 797 Don Mills has even been discussed as being protected as heritage due to its modernist architecture! That might be needed, as the building just east of it was demolished a few years ago. Now the home to Sonic Condos. The parking lot to the north is city-owned and will likely become part of the Crosstown LRT. And then there is the huge development planned for the Celestica (nee IBM) property.
-acre parcel of land at Don Mills and Eglinton belonging to Celestica International, an electronics manufacturing company, has been acquired by a trio of Toronto-based developers. Diamondcorp, Lifetime Developments and Context intend to turn the Celestica Lands into a mixed-use community with housing, office space and recreational facilities. An early proposal for the site envisioned 2,897 dwelling units, 77,136 square metres of office space, and 9,105 square meters of retail space across seven development blocks.
All of this new development means new interest in the area. And that means more people and higher prices. Being on a transit line will certainly cause area prices to appreciate as well. Best get in now, while you still can!