phantasamagoria of ice and steam

Wed. Feb. 20th, 2008
                                                                                             Photos: Charlie Macchia/TAC

THE 5AM blaze at Queen and Bathurst that claimed almost a block of significant High-Victorian commercial buildings is a staggering blow. We have lost an entire series of proud vernacular architectural gems that had miraculously remained largely intact over the last 150 years. They were unique and now they are gone.

A fire of questionable origins has rent a serious wound in the heart of the grand old lady Queen. And what are we to say of the timing as it coincides with the total eclipse of the moon. This cruel blaze however is not natural and it leaves us feeling dirty, silent and in the darkness.

These buildings were true survivors -- grand expressions of and testimony to a hard working industrious past. These witnesses to a bustling yesterday were well-used until their end and sadly, having just achieved Heritage Designation, cannot now take their earned place among the numbers of worthy buildings which may hope to be restored along this storied street.

We are tempted to see this event as a strange correlative to the recent stated intentions to impose a biggish-boxy boring suburban shopping experience on the block, on the city and on our lives.


The block was a good parade of styles developed by Victorian builders, from the simple vernacular frame, to style and budget conscious interpretations of European styles like Second Empire and Italianate. The latter is well demonstrated in the Dukes building. You can see (below) the different bracket treatments on display on the grander structures mid-block. Twinned dentil-like brackets march down one elevation like soldiers abreast, while altogether more feminine singles regard them from the other. Each building has differently shaped quoins -- seen on either side of the seam where the two structures meet. These battlement-shaped ridges are replicas of stone work to be found in more important buildings. Here, in red brick, they are an attractive artifice. The drip moulds over the windows are different as well, suited to each building. The cornices do not quite match (they may have been rebuilt) -- but the small stringcourse above the windows does. Finally agreement!


2006 Photo: Mary Anne Neville/TAC

These buildings were frame buildings, meaning support came from a regular lattice of pre-sized lumber. In North America Old World construction practices were not easily reproduced, as materials were different and highly-skilled tradesmen were more rare. Trees were everywhere so wood frames became the general way to build, and build quickly. North Americans also pioneered the mass production of nails on a scale the Europeans would never have dreamt possible. Early frame structures were known as 'balloon frame' because they were so much lighter than the familiar solid structures made with load-bearing walls. Balloon frames appeared to be mostly air until skinned with lathe and stucco, board and batten, clapboard or brick. Many frame buildings line Queen Street and these were among them. The lower buildings in the fire were balloon frame. Dukes and the row pictured above were balloon or platform frame.

A short distance down the street, to the side of 331 Queen West, another frame building was taken down earlier this year and the remaining one (or two) shows evidence of fire. Here you can see the frame structure exposed. It appears to be a platform frame, rather than balloon frame which has continuous studs. Such a sad spectacle. The frame buildings which have stood for decades are under sudden assault even as historic listings and recent accolades (like our own Queen Street Exhibit) accumulate. Demolition makes it all moot. It is important for the city to plan to preserve the streetscape. If one or two are knocked out of a row, as has happened here, the others are imperiled. They will likely be demolished.


Photos: Charlie Macchia/TAC

Old buildings spoke of intimate streetscape
What will become of street now that the sentinels of its story have been silenced by fire?
February 23, 2008
Leslie Ferenc
Staff Reporter

It's not the sound of the rolling metal wheels of the 501 Queen streetcars that reverberate in Alec Keefer's ears. He hears the old buildings speak in a language the architectural and social historian understands.

Each block has a mix of styles among them masonry-built Edwardian and timber-framed High Victorian. Many have patterned bricks, others artistic cornice work, windows arched and hooded.

But one block is now silent.

Wednesday's fire gutted four buildings on Queen between Portland and Bathurst Sts. leaving, at best, skeletal remains of the past.

It's no wonder it was a six-alarm blaze, said the president of the Toronto Architectural Conservancy. Built using "balloon construction," the frames were made of long timbers. They went up like tinder. Structures built using that method are found in other parts of old Toronto. "But those lost were the best and biggest examples of balloon construction in the city," said Keefer. "They were very rare. We've lost a crucial piece of history."

Originally called Lot St., the strip was laid out in 1793 and divided the industrial and commercial area to the south and the more rural/residential area to the north. The street was renamed in the 1840s in honour of Queen Victoria. Bathurst, named after the British Secretary of War for the Colonies, linked Lake Ontario with Lot St. By 1860, Queen St. W. was abuzz with small businesses. Keefer described the block between Bathurst and Portland as a secondary shopping area, which is why there has been little pressure to change it. What did change was the neighbourhood. Goods and services changed to reflect the needs of waves of immigrants, including Ukrainians, Italians and Jews. The block has had ups and downs. Storefronts had been boarded up over the years. The area has been plagued with crime. Recently, it's picked up and become home to artists, musicians and young couples.

Last fall, the city designated the area between University Ave. and Bathurst St. a Heritage Conservation District. Buildings there must be restored in keeping with their original character while new and renovated properties must fit it.

Like others working to protect the city's architectural past, Keefer fears the character of the strip will be destroyed as the area rises from the ashes. A controversial retail and housing complex planned for a parking lot at Portland and Queen will be an intrusion on what he called an "intimate" streetscape. It's what's happened on Queen east of Spadina where "most new buildings ignore the heritage character of the street. They're made of cinder block construction with stainless steel fronts and plates of glass that don't relate to the street."

The conservation plan offers little security according to Keefer, who said heritage legislation "only functions when staff and council use everything at their disposal to protect it.

"And if the city is going to bring the area back, it has to be brought back religiously."

Our thanks to Heritage Toronto for the recognition that TAC received for our activities in 2007. Our BUILDING BLOCKS ON QUEEN STREET WEST exhibit was given an Award of Merit and out advocacy partnership with Citizens for Riverdale Hospital was nominated for a Community Heritage Award.


A documentary film and publication are in production based on our Building Blocks on Queen Street West Exhibit presented with the Market Gallery.

These proceedings are dedicated to the memory of Edna Hudson,
with thanks to those who donated in her memory.


Toronto Architectural Conservancy

e-mail: steve(at)