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
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.
VICTORIAN COMMERCIAL VERNACULAR:
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
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
TORONTO STAR ARTICLE
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
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
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
with thanks to those who donated in her memory.