Adding some weight to the movement to save Toronto's Davisville Jr. Public School from impending demolition, the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA) is pushing the Province to instead consider an adaptive reuse plan for the one-of-a-kind school building. As it stands, a new school is set to be built on the grounds, with the existing building slated for demolition

In a letter to Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter, OAA President John K. Stephenson argues that the 1962 building "helps to reinforce a sense of community, unique identity and historic character in the area," remaining one of Toronto's few architectural emblems of Space Age optimism. Designed by Peter Pennington, the playful school building has also been praised as an architectural treasure by the small and informal group of activists fighting to save it.

The Davisville Jr. Public School, image via Google MapsThe Davisville Jr. Public School, image via Google Maps

Recommended for Designation under the Ontario Heritage Act by the Toronto Preservation Board, the building is also regarded as an "exceptionally valuable" part of Toronto's architectural heritage by the City's Planning Division. Nonetheless, the difficulty of retrofitting the building—which is in very poor shape—combined with the general cultural disregard for the heritage value of modernist built form means that the school remains destined for the wrecking ball. 

Earlier this month, a Site Plan Approval (SPA) application was submitted to the City, advancing the TDSB's plans to build a new school on the city, and subsequently demolish the 1962 building. According to the TDSB, the alternative of a retention project would be financially unfeasible. As Stephenson points out, however, even buildings that cannot continue to function as schools can be re-invented for other uses:

While it remains paramount that schools are current in terms of their facilities, technologies and amenities available to students, historic school buildings which are no longer feasible for educational use have the potential for significant reuse. Such is the case for the former Shaw Street Public School which is now home to Artscape’s cultural hub in Toronto’s West Queen West Neighbourhood. Additionally, Dundas District High School has been adaptively reused in the creation of the Dundas District Lofts.

Located just east of Yonge Street in the heart of Midtown Toronto, the Davisville Junior Public School is one among many development controversies playing out in the upscale area. In February, the Globe and Mail's Alex Bozikovic contrasted the school's pending demise with the public "uproar" caused by the demolition of a 1920s bank building around the corner on Yonge Street.

"At Davisville, the City... has given the school board the freedom to disregard heritage that a developer could only dream of," Bozikovic argues. "Meanwhile, parents see the school through the lens of decades of poor maintenance."

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As the Davisville school faces an all too quiet curtain call, another nearby school faces a development controversy of a very different vintage. At 18-30 Erskine, the pending construction of a condo tower next to Yonge & Eglinton's John Fisher Public School has prompted a vocal outcry, with the "Save John Fisher" campaign playing out in lawn signs, public rallies, and myriad news stories. Even Mayor John Tory has chimed in to label the project's OMB approval—negotiated with the City—as "preposterous."

At John Fisher, the construction of a neighbouring tall building—near what will be one of the city's most central and well-connected transit nodes—has prompted the sort of public outcry that the heritage preservationists fighting to save Davisville can probably only dream of. It begs the question: are concerns about excessive height, shadows, construction noise, and falling balcony glass really worth so much more of our attention than the irreversible erasure of architectural heritage? 

Davisville Jr. Public School Redevelopment, Toronto, by TDSBA rendering of the replacement Davisville Jr. Public School, image via submission to the City of Toronto

In our evolving city, the two Midtown schools provide a sort of litmus test of civic values. At John Fisher, the introduction of urban density—which seems entirely appropriate for an established high-rise area designated as a "Growth Centre"—is greeted with what the Globe's Marcus Gee recently described as an entitled 'First World Problem' hysteria. By contrast, the demolition of Davisville's undeniably unique mid-century institution is being treated as par for the course.

What will we make of it all in years to come? At Davisville, I'll wager the demolition will be regarded with the same mystified regret with which we now eulogize so many of Toronto's lost 19th and early 20th century buildings. At John Fisher, however, adding density will—drawing on precedents set in large cities across the world—seem an obvious good, and one that never threatens the safety or general wellbeing of the students. The difference, of course, is that while new towers can always be raised, a building can only be demolished once. And unfortunately, recognizing the value of our architectural heritage tends to come decades too late. 

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We will keep you updated as more information becomes available, and the plans for Davisville Junior Public School continue to take shape. In the meantime, more information about both the Davisville Jr. Public School redevelopment and the KG Group tower at 18-30 Erskine is available via our dataBase files, linked below. Want to share your thoughts? Leave a comment on this page, or join the ongoing conversations in our associated Forum threads.