Over the next couple of weeks, Mark Osbaldeston will be contributing a three-part series of guest columns to UrbanToronto. Mark is the author of Unbuilt Toronto and Unbuilt Toronto 2, as well as a respected speaker. We're very happy to have him writing for UrbanToronto.
For the past three years, since the first Unbuilt Toronto book came out, I’ve been giving illustrated talks based on the book to historical societies, professional groups, seniors’ clubs — basically any sympathetic assembly that will have me.
I love the talks, but I look forward at least as much to the question periods that follow. You never know what people might ask. Even so, I’ve noticed that there are certain questions that tend to recur. One of the most common is, “How did you get interested in this topic?”
That one I can answer pretty easily.
Back in the late '80s, when I was a student at U of T, I was working at the St. Michael’s College newspaper. Going through a filing cabinet, I found a fundraising brochure from 1929. It was soliciting contributions for the college’s building program. The plans called for the wholesale demolition of all St. Mike’s existing buildings. They would be replaced by a new collegiate Gothic campus stretching all the way from Bay Street to Queen’s Park Crescent.
At the time I discovered the brochure, St. Mike’s was facing a long-term funding crisis. The college had determined it would need to sell its Bay Street frontage for condo development, just to keep the lights on (the result, twenty-five years later, is the U Condominiums, now under construction. It seemed impossible to believe that there had been a time when St. Mike’s was confidently planning a campus modelled on Princeton’s.
It wasn’t difficult to deduce what had happened to that particular plan. The brochure that touted it had been printed less than five months before the stock market crash. In the end, the Arthur Homes-designed Teefy/Fisher/More building that St. Mike’s built on Queen’s Park Crescent in 1935 was all the college managed to salvage of its pre-Depression proposal — and that in a decidedly less opulent style.
I had actually lived in that building, completely oblivious that it was the vestige of a much grander scheme. Knowing that, though, I looked at it differently. Blank exterior walls, that had previously just seemed like bad architecture, now made sense: they were waiting for extensions that would never come.
Over the next several years, I began to mentally file away other such “stumps” that I became aware of across the city. College Park, for instance, with its capital-less pilasters on Yonge Street, waiting for Eaton’s planned 32-storey tower that never arrived.
I wrote about these and many other partially built projects in Unbuilt Toronto, along with two other categories of projects that I labelled “built to different plans” and simply “unbuilt.” I’m fascinated by all three categories, but I have to admit that the partially built projects — like the original St. Mike’s plan — have a particular hold on me. There’s something romantic, and a little melancholy, in learning that a building that you pass every day is actually a shadow of its supposed-to-be self.
Another dramatic plan that I wrote about is the former St. Alban’s Cathedral, between Howland Avenue and Albany Avenue in the Annex. Construction began on what was supposed to be the city’s new Anglican cathedral in 1885, based on plans by local architect Richard Windeyer Senior. But chronic funding problems meant that work had pretty much stopped by 1891, leaving just the chancel completed.
Below is The Cathedral of St. Alban the Martyr in a 1913 photograph. All that was built was the chancel, shown here, and the crypt.Image from Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 52, Item 178
The project began again in earnest in 1912. That year, the cornerstone was laid for a new design, by the Boston-based Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson.
The Boston-based firm of Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson were hired to come up with new plans for St. Alban’s Cathedral in 1910. Two 1912 postcards (as seen below) show exterior and interior perspectives of their proposal.
The firm, and particularly Ralph Adams Cram, were acknowledged masters of the neo-Gothic style. They had just taken on the commission to complete the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. For St. Alban’s, they devised an early-Gothic scheme that was highly reminiscent of Cram’s design for St. Paul’s Cathedral in Detroit, which had opened the previous year (minus its planned tower).
St. Alban’s timing was still off, however. When Canada entered the Great War, construction halted again. The end of the war didn’t see it resume. With building costs skyrocketing, the diocese voted to halt any further work.
By the mid-1930s, St. James’s on King Street had regained its role as Toronto’s Anglican cathedral. St. Alban’s, or what was built of it, continued life as a parish church. It serves now as the chapel of Royal St. George’s College .
In my new book, Unbuilt Toronto 2, published last month, I write about other partially built structures. One is the Scarborough Expressway. When I moved to the east end, I noticed a strange vestige of that plan: lanes of the now-demolished Gardiner Expressway East coming to a sudden stop — Wile E. Coyote-style — in mid-air at Leslie Street.
I also write about Simpson’s planned tower from 1928 at Bay and Richmond. I had no idea that this building was ever meant to be anything more than what we got. But its truncated aesthetic becomes obvious when you know its truncated history. And once you do know that history, if you’re like me, you’ll probably find that the building — like its partially-built counterparts elsewhere in the city — engenders an affection that just can’t be matched by any mere completed structure.
Coming up on Friday: Where we missed the boat