Last week, we toured the construction site of one of Toronto's most talked-about Downtown developments. Now reaching its full height of 40 storeys, the Kohn Pedersen Fox-designed EY Tower already catches the eye as the distinctively crystalline roof joins the Financial District skyline. However, while the prominent new skyscraper is prompting necks to crane upwards, an equally prominent architectural element is taking shape at ground level.
On Thursday, the first part of our tour took us inside the tower levels, with a preview of the 900,000 ft² building's AAA office spaces. Today, our attention turns to the replicated heritage facade that fronts the tower's southeast corner at Adelaide and Sheppard. Long home to the 1928-built Concourse Building, the corner of Adelaide and Sheppard is now fronted by a conspicuously new replica of the former building. Featuring prominent murals and mosaics by Group of Seven member JEH MacDonald, elements of the Art Deco building—demolished in 2013—have been incorporated into the new facade.
Designed by Baldwin and Greene, the 16-storey building stood on the site for 85 years, gradually becoming eclipsed by its taller Financial District neighbours. By the time Oxford Properties purchased the site in 1998, many of the building's intricately crafted features were either removed or covered up. Indeed, some of the structure's heritage elements—including a series of inscribed verses by prominent Canadian poets—suffered erasure long before the eventual demolition. Similarly, a series of retrofits and renovations throughout the 20th century consigned many of MacDonald's intact murals to invisibility.
Initially catalogued by ERA Architects but now overseen by GBCA, the EY Tower's heritage preservation entailed a meticulous survey of the Concourse Building in advance of demolition. The search uncovered a number of original murals and mosaics, as well as ornate architectural features that were hidden beneath mid-to-late 20th century renovations.
A number of these elements are now being re-incorporated into the contemporary lobby as art installations, with original murals—and Art Deco architecture—becoming museum pieces in the relatively minimalist lobby.
Moving outside, the replicated facade itself has had its share of supporters and detractors. Since the demolition of the Concourse Building was first approved by City Council in 2000, plans to integrate part of the structure into the new tower gradually took shape. As it is, the south and east facades that now front the development have been reconfigured to fit the contemporary glass tower, while additional elements from the Concourse Building have been preserved.
In order to match the office tower's taller floors, the Concourse Building's floors have been spaced further apart, with the replicated frontage—which matches the height of the original building—now numbering only 13 storeys.
Meeting the street, much of the 1928 stonework has been reassembled along the lower three levels, with a number of new panels seamlessly integrated into the base. The Adelaide Street entrance also maintains its romanesque archway (above), along with JEH MacDonald's original mosaics—there is another one to install still—which are being revitalized and returned to their original location.
Meanwhile, the new brick frontages above feature original spandrels between replica windows, punctuating the replicated facades with notes of green. "We didn't know they were actually this green when the building was demolished," says Oxford's Mark Cote, "it was only after they were cleaned that we realized how bright the colour is."
Atop the replicated facade, brightly coloured geometric details and gold carvings are now once again prominent (above). The colourful upper cornice wraps around the corner of Adelaide and Sheppard, while the 'Thunderbirds' design element from the tower's comparatively unadorned west frontage has been re-incorporated at the north base of the tower.
As shown in the 2013 photos below, the west and north frontages did not feature the same level of intricate detail, as they were expected to eventually become obscured by neighbouring towers. However, plans for the the area's high-rise future quickly stalled following the crash of 1929, leaving the tower looming above its immediate surroundings for decades to come.
With the facade installation nearing completion, the swing stages are expected to come down in the coming weeks, concluding a somewhat contentious saga that began with Oxford's purchase of the site 18 years ago. When plans to demolish the building first surfaced in 2000, the National Post's Robert Fulford argued that the facade restoration plan meant "the building will be effectively erased and will exist in future only as a ghost of itself."
As the plans for the 40-storey tower were finalized in 2013, however, the Toronto Star's Christopher Hume was more sympathetic to the economic pressures to replace the ageing structure with "top-of-the-line AAA office space." Nonetheless, Hume also warned that the precedent of 'façadism' does not "bode well for the future of Toronto or its heritage, which will cease to be a part of the city except as a series of past architectural artifacts—objects, like the Concourse, on display behind a 40-storey glass case."
Conversely, the heritage restoration has also been praised for its meticulous and flexible approach, with much of UrbanToronto's readership responding positively to the development. As my colleague Jack Landau recently put it, "[t]he 16-storey building had become functionally obsolete, was virtually unleasable, and as it was sitting on valuable land at the heart of Toronto's Financial Core, had to make way for redevelopment."
Designed for another era, the original Concourse Building would have required large-scale investment, and a significant redesign, to satisfy current safety standards and basic accessibility needs. With outdated interiors—including bathrooms at half levels—and inadequate mechanical systems, the building would have required more surgery than feasible to become a viable Financial District office space again.
What do you think? Does the EY Tower's heritage treatment fulfill a successful compromise between history and new development, or is the replicated facade merely an inadequate representation of the building itself? Feel free to leave a comment in the space below this page, or join in the ongoing conversation on our Forum. And make sure to check out a short video from our tour, linked below.
Coverage of our EY Tower tour will continue with an in-depth look at the structure's showpiece roof, which is now being assembled. In the meantime, more information is available on our associated dataBase file, linked below.