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Whitney Block

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adma

Guest
Given the source, rather surprisingly not-bad...

Christina BlizzardSun, January 28, 2007

Ontario's vacant lot

Landmark Queen's Park Circle tower has been empty since 1968
By CHRISTINA BLIZZARD

It towers like some elegant grande dame over Queen's Park Cres. E., its graceful art deco lines making it a distinctive landmark in the city.

It starred in the blockbuster movie Chicago and is rumoured to be haunted. Yet behind those storied walls, the Whitney Block tower has a secret life: It is completely empty.

Designed by architect Francis Heakes who died in September 1930 before the building was completed, Heakes' ghost is said to haunt the tower.

I took a tour of the 16-storey tower last week with Government Services Minister Gerry Phillips, along with Richard Schveighardt and Jim Butticci from Ontario Realty Corp (ORC). Not that there is much to tour. Elegant on the outside, the tower is desolate and dusty on the inside.

Work began on the tower in 1931 and was completed in 1933. Allegorical figures representing what were believed to be the guiding principles of government at the time were carved in place on their precarious perches almost at the top of the building by Toronto sculptor Charles Adamson. The exquisite detail on the carvings can be seen from the Main Legislative Building across the road. They stand there as silent sentries to the tower, reminding us of the virtues held dear by an era that is long gone.

Four 8-foot tall female figures depict Justice, Tolerance, Widsom and Power. Additionally, there are two male figures representing government departments -- farming, forestry, health, finance, law, education, labour and mining. As we climbed the stairs of the tower and got closer to the carved figures, I was able to marvel at the workmanship that went into them.

The sculptures are examples of the social realism art movement that was popular at that time, in which farmers and other workers were depicted as national heroes. On this building, though, there is a careful balance between the educated classes and the workers.

So unique is the stone carving that it is partly why the full Whitney development was never completed.

In 1925, there were 7,000 public servants and the Whitney Block was meant to house all of them. Two more blocks had been planned but were abandoned after the war when skilled stone craftsmen were scarce and the work simply became too costly.

The building hasn't been inhabited since 1968, when it was deemed a fire hazard. There is only one staircase, which makes it unsafe in the event of an emergency evacuation. As well, there is no central mechanical ventilation system. The only way to get fresh air into the building is by opening the windows.

Over the years the building has served numerous functions.

There used to be a bowling alley in the basement, as well as ice-making facilities that were used to help keep legislators cool.

ANIMAL PENS

On the sixth floor there are animal pens left over from the days when provincial veterinary services were housed there. Cows were brought up to the lab in an adjacent service elevator.

Most of the materials used in the building are local. Exterior limestone cladding came from Queenston. That quarry is now depleted and when repairs were made recently, limestone had to be trucked in from Indiana. The interior limestone is from Shelburne. Marble for the beautiful floors came from Bancroft and granite from Coe Hill. Wood trim is birch from Parry Sound and Algonquin Park.

Officials from ORC believe one way to restore the building to safe habitation is to build an exterior, New York style staircase on the east side of the building, away from University Ave., where few people will be able to see it. That way they hope to combine safety with aesthetics.

Let's hope they can. Inside, the building is light-filled with spectacular views of the rest of Queen's Park and the city. More importantly, it is a glorious monument to a time when architects valued their craft enough to include gorgeous stone carvings in their plans. A time when a building was not just a steel and glass box. It was a living, breathing thing that sent a mute message to legislators about why they were in Parliament. It wasn't just built by average working people, it told of their values and their struggles.

Those stone figures are so lifelike, so elegant that as I look at them from my office window, I often wish they could come to life and walk over to the legislatures and remind MPPs about Wisdom, Justice and Tolerance.

I can dream, can't I?
 
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tudararms

Guest
Sounds wonderful. Does anybody know of any pictures online? It would be great to see a building like this restored.
 
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Dylan Leblanc

Guest
Nice article. But why doesn't the author quote power in the last paragraph? He seems to like the justice, wistom and tolerance virtues, but leaves out power.
 
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adma

Guest
Well, the Whitney Block's been in a perpetual state of restoration lately--it's only the tower part that remains mothballed. And unfortunately, the Whitney-at-large has been security-sealed since Mike Harris days, so incorporating classrooms into the tower might be a chore.

Though the tower might make an interesting Doors Open attraction, to say the least...
 
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unimaginative2

Guest
Okay...wait a minute. It's just the tower that's mothballed. I used to work on the fifth floor. It's a great old building, and it's in great condition, too. The OPO is on the top floor of the main building, so I've always wished that they could somehow move the premier's office into the tower. That would be pretty cool.
 
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Bogtrotter

Guest
They should find something useful for tins historic tower. Err yeh- well simple as that.
 
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rdaner

Guest
Camera Obscura

I have always thought that the top floor of this building would make an excellent space for a camera obscura.
 
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tudararms

Guest
Re: Camera Obscura

I was always mistaken in thinking that Commerce Court was the only substantial highrise existing from this period. I'm so glad I was wrong. Lovely building. Hopefully some organization or company will see the value in refurbishing it.
 
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interchange42

Guest
Re: Camera Obscura

As it's integral with Ontario goverment offices surrounding it, the Province will have to find some use for it. I can't imaginje them allowing any uses that would take the space out of their security oversight.

42
 
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unimaginative2

Guest
Re: Camera Obscura

That's right. The entrance to the tower is within the Premier's Office, and the entire Whitney Block is a secured building. There's no way that it can be used for anything but additional government offices.

Still, the problem remains with the staircase, and it's impossible to fit another one at a reasonable cost. Even if they could, it would reduce the amount of office space to make it useless. I can't think of a way around it.
 
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Ed007Toronto

Guest
Re: Camera Obscura

As the story suggests the staircase would need to be on the outside.
 

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