Pending City permits, Heritage Toronto’s Plaques and Markers Program will expand to the southeast corner of Spadina Avenue and Adelaide Street West, which will soon be adorned with a commemorative plaque recognizing prominent architect Benjamin Brown. Born in 1890 in what is now Lithuania, Brown was one of Toronto's first practicing Jewish architects. His built legacy is highly visible throughout the streets of the downtown core, despite a discriminatory environment which threatened to impede his architectural practice.
Brown's career portfolio consists of over 200 built works reflecting a variety of building typologies. He designed and produced smaller-scale structures like single-family residences, synagogues and community buildings, but also major large-scale projects such as apartment, commercial and industrial buildings. Many of his works rose during the peak of the Art Deco era, and as a result, are dressed with cut stone, brick, and embellishments indicative of the style.
The Ontario Jewish Archives—Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre was joined by Ward 20 Councillor Joe Cressy and Plaques and Markers Program Sponsor Scotiabank, in unveiling the plaque Tuesday at the Urbanspace Gallery inside 401 Richmond Street West. Since February 12, the space has played host to an exhibition showcasing Brown's original blueprints, drawings, photographs and maps.
A short walk outside 401 Richmond reveals several of Brown's most prominent creations, including two mirroring buildings flanking Spadina Avenue at Adelaide. Erected in 1927, the Tower Building at the northwest corner is a loft structure crowned with a two-storey mechanical penthouse and a pyramidal top.
Just across the street, at the northeast corner of the intersection, the 12-storey Art Deco Balfour Building was completed in 1930. It was named after Arthur Balfour, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1902 to 1905 and author of the Balfour Declaration, which advocated a "national home" for Jews in Palestine. Many Jewish garment workers entered the building through its distinctive limestone-clad archways, making their way to its open concept spaces that were designed to accommodate rows of sewing machines and unrolled fabrics. Today, the building is occupied by shops and offices for graphic design and advertising firms. The complementary duo of the Tower and Balfour Buildings elegantly comprise the urban gateway to what was known as the Garment District.
The 14-storey Hermant Building at 21 Dundas Square is also one of Brown's most noticeable creations, commissioned by Russian-born Percy Hermant to house his optical lens manufacturing business. Together with the shorter abutting structure at 19 Dundas Square, the concrete and terracotta Hermant Building has undergone a restoration and refurbishment as part of the Velocity at the Square development. Its signature bronze entryway has gloriously returned to the face of the 1929-built tower.
Over at the University of Toronto's downtown campus, the Georgian Revival-style building at 41 Willcocks Street once housed the Primrose Club, a place for Jewish male elites to congregate. U of T's Faculty Club took over the space in 1959, and the Primrose subsequently moved to a new building on St. Clair Avenue West until demolition in 1997. Brown designed a number of other important buildings for the Jewish community, including the Beth Jacob Synagogue on Henry Street in Baldwin Village. Built in the Romanesque style in 1922, the red-brick building has served the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church since 1966, when the synagogue's congregation relocated to North York.
The memory of Brown, who died in 1974, lives on not only in the built history that he created, but in the over 1,500 architectural drawings possessed by the Ontario Jewish Archives. The exhibition showcases these painstakingly-detailed drawings alongside a wall map by local artist Daniel Rotsztain, which pinpoints Brown's most significant contributions. You can admire Brown's legacy firsthand by paying a visit to the Urbanspace Gallery, which will host the exhibition until April 23.
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