The metal scaffolding on the corner of Toronto’s Queen and Yonge is cold and narrow. The thin planks underfoot offer little assurance. The space is tight, high above the teeming sidewalks below and the subway underground.
We are examining the damage up and down the outer wall of the once stately building at 2 Queen St. W. in Toronto, on the northwest corner of perhaps the most historically significant retail intersection in Canada.
Yet, the decay is extensive. Project manager Annabel Vaughan of ERA Architects points out section after section of cracked yellow-beige brick. Further along the wall, large swaths of the store’s original exterior terracotta detail have been brutally scraped off, not just by a century of winters and downtown pollution, but by decades of architectural abuse.
Now, the current landlord Cadillac Fairview is hoping, at a hefty expense, to restore the building to its original, 1896 prominence, renewing the welcoming curved brick entrance hugging the sidewalk and turning the building into an upscale retail space connecting to the Toronto Eaton Centre.
Initially, Cadillac Fairview, which also owns the adjacent shopping centre, had a different plan. It sought to build a soaring tower on the site, using the façade of the old building as street-level ornamentation – a stylistic double-take common among a number of new towers throughout the city.
Yet, when it became clear that the plan wouldn’t get the city’s approval, Cadillac Fairview changed course, shifting to an approach that emphasized restoring the building’s original elegance as a central retail store, with a modest three-storey glass extension on top “distinguishable from and visually subordinate to the existing building,” as it says in ERA’s heritage impact assessment (wording that tries to drill home the new, more modest intent).
The first two extra stories are intended as office space, with the top level designed as a restaurant and outdoor terrace. Cadillac Fairview is still in talks with prospective tenants.
“It really changes the pro forma on a site like this,” said Philip Evans, a principal at ERA. The new plan meant changing from a focus on maximum profit for Cadillac Fairview to concentrating squarely instead on the building’s retail heritage and turning it into a showpiece property, like the attention-getting, revitalized pedestrian bridge just steps away, designed by Zeidler Partnership Architects between Eaton Centre and the Bay department store. (To clarify their different roles, Cadillac Fairview is the landlord, while Zeidler, which designed the Eaton Centre and has remained with the mall throughout its continual rounds of renovations and revitalizations, is the principal architect. ERA is the heritage consultant.)
Cadillac Fairview won’t reveal the cost of the new project, yet “no doubt this is far more expensive than any new building in Toronto,” said David Stewart, senior director at the company, as we surveyed the construction site, adding that the restored property will be “very true to the original in terms of shape and size of bricks, the size of mortar joints, the terracotta. Everything has been mapped to the millimetre. I like to call it a faithful recreation of what was here.”
The interior has been remodelled so many times that the remnants of the original building are mainly just the outside wall, save for some early, round, interior steel beams and the remains of an old wooden elevator shaft. The inside is now gutted and will be entirely rebuilt. The building’s history lies mostly in the smallest exterior details, such as the gilt lettering of the store’s first owner, Philip Jamieson Clothier, inlayed in stone, which had long been hidden by subsequent owners. The backing wall behind the street-facing bricks will also be one of the only remaining pieces of the original building left intact, because so much of the damaged streetside brick and terracotta need replacing.