Extolling the Virtues of Older Buildings

Written by Marta O’Brien and originally posted to Heritage Toronto June 14, 2011.  This blog post originally appeared in Ryerson University Magazine

Buildings represent more than bricks and mortar. No visitor to Ryerson since January could miss the gaping hole at Yonge and Gould Streets where the dignified – but neglected – former Empress Hotel once stood.

Perhaps you recall the upstairs bar from your student days. An example of “demolition by neglect” followed by arson, the Empress loss raised the profile of architectural preservation.

There are many reasons to preserve buildings. Many people with no knowledge of architecture or local history enjoy looking at and using older buildings. Variety and complexity are added to streetscapes by structures from various eras. Heritage buildings provide spaces for work, cultural activities and residences that are quite different in form and ambience from contemporary buildings.

Heritage buildings provide examples of craft not seen today. While contemporary buildings can be striking, we can often take in the entire structure – and all the materials and colours – fairly quickly. Many older buildings invite our gaze to linger. There may be intricate stone carvings of plants, animals or people. Complex brick patterns enliven walls. Inside, one can often find decorative plaster ceilings and mouldings and lavish wood trim.

Buildings today can make dazzling use of metal and glass, but our heritage buildings feature some materials no longer used. Terra cotta is one: Victorians used red terra cotta to add delightful ornament to buildings when carved stone was too expensive. In the early 1900s, white glazed terra cotta became the fashion. The timber beams and columns of old industrial buildings add warmth and character to spaces now used as offices, galleries and residences.

Heritage structures tell the story of an area. Former factories, for example, show that downtown Toronto was once a thriving manufacturing centre making everything from cars to combines.

Spacious Edwardian houses indicate a prosperous neighbourhood developed in the early 1900s. Sleek mid-century modern office buildings (such as Toronto’s TD Centre) and apartment high-rises with sweeping concrete balconies reflect the optimism of the post-war era. Yes, modernist buildings also need to be preserved: many are examples of innovative design and use of materials.

Architectural preservation is environmentally friendly. All buildings contain embodied energy – the energy used to produce the building materials, transport materials to the site and erect the structure. This is all wasted if a building is demolished. A great example is the renovation of Maple Leaf Gardens to house the new Ryerson athletic centre – a project that preserves the site’s historical features while reconfiguring the space to benefit the community.

Some property owners complain that “heritage types” seem to be against all new construction and want every old building saved. Not true! Balance is key: the most lively and interesting areas have buildings from many periods. The public can play a role by letting municipalities know the value of buildings in their neighbourhoods. Which buildings would you miss if an Empress Hotel disaster were repeated?

Marta O’Brien is a Heritage Toronto board member and passionate architectural historian who teaches courses and conducts walking tours featuring distinctive neighbourhoods and districts in Toronto (www.citywalks.ca).

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