Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Howard Dennison Chapman, RIP

I read the sad news in yesterday's Globe and Mail that architect Howard Dennison Chapman died. He was 96.

Chapman was the son of Alfred H. Chapman, the Toronto architect behind the Royal Ontario Museum's entrance on Queen's Park, the Princes Gates at the Canadian National Exhibition, the Toronto Hydro Building and others.

Chapman pere also built Toronto's first Central Reference Library, which Chapman fils restored (with partner Howard Walker) and turned into the Koffler Student Centre of the University of Toronto (which houses the university book store).


Alfred Chapman left no information (that I could find anyway) about who the bearded figure is on the building, and Howard was unable to answer the question when I spoke to him in 2005 while researching Faces on Places: A Grotesque Tour of Toronto.

Among his other works was the "half-round" Riverdale Hospital (with Len Hurst), which was demolished in 2013 after years of opposition.

A web exhibit of some of his work by the City of Toronto archives is still online.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Another view of March: Windy (in Chicago and in Toronto — at Jilly's strip club)


March "was a lousy month to exist on the South Side of Chicago... March was the final fart of winter."

So declared the late John Powers in his novel The Last Catholic in America.

John grew up around the block from me on the South Side of Chicago, and the Last Catholic is a book about our neighbourhood.

March is known for wind — the kind needed for kite-flying, as well as the meteorological flatulence Powers described — which is why I chose this terra cotta relief from a building in central Toronto to illustrate it. (More about the building later.)

Powers continued his description of this transitional month: March "would rain on us one day, freeze us the second day, and on the third day blow us off our feet. By the end of the month, we were globs of wind-wracked ice... In March, we would go to school ... dressed in fur-lined raincoats, cleated shoes guaranteed not to slide on ice-glazed sidewalks, and bricks in our lunch boxes so we wouldn't blow away."


These terra cotta pieces, and others like them, appear on a building that started life in 1893 as an office building known as Dingman's Hall. Located at the corner of Broadview and Queen Street East, it was built by Archibald Dingman, who had a varied business career — but not as varied as the uses to which this building has been put.

Dingman's Hall was a meeting place, with rooms rented out to visiting Shriners, Masons and others. Later, the building was known as the Broadview Hotel. It is currently a boarding house — the New Broadview Hotel — but is generally referred to as Jilly's, the name of the strip club on the first floor.

When Archie Dingman owned the building, he was a partner in the Comfort Soap Company. He was also associated with the Scarboro Electric Railway and a firm that built coaster brakes for bicycles, before moving west to Alberta and getting into the oil industry, according to his obit. He died in 1936, two weeks shy of his 86th birthday.

Most of what I've read about Dingman overlooks an unexpected accomplishment: In 1899 (or thereabouts), he somehow crossed paths and teamed up with composer Davenport Kerrison and wrote the lyrics of "The Flag That Bears the Maple Leaf." Although the song predates by more than 60 years the introduction of the new Canadian flag bearing the maple leaf, it probably referred to the maple leaf insignia worn by Canadian soldiers during the Boer War:

The flag that bears the maple leaf,
Entwined about thy brow shall be,
An emblem that beneath its folds,
No slave shall cry for liberty;

REFRAIN
Hurrah, boys, Hurrah!
For Canada, Hurrah!
No harm to her can e'er befall,
No danger great shall us appall,
While our prairies grand and Egypt's sand,
Tell how our heroes fall...
Tell how our heroes fall.

The Saxon force, the Celtic fire,
Grand heritage that thou dost own,
Make bold the Lion's brood and strong,
To front and brave the world alone,

REFRAIN

On many field of carnage red,
Stern duty's call thou hast obeyed,
And while they daughters sad-eyed wept,
Thy sturdy sons have hist'ry made,

REFRAIN

Should foes again our land assail,
Or traitor's foot her soil profane,
In serried ranks with iron front
We'll steadfast stand and not in vain,

REFRAIN

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The lions of March (part 2)

More of Toronto's architectural lions to mark the beginning of March...

Unfortunately, I don't have much any information on the history of the buildings to which these fellows are attached.

I talked to the then-owner of the house that sports these lions, but none of the very detailed information she gave me squared with anything I later looked up. So just enjoy these not-terribly ferocious-looking felines:


This guy has graced this yellow building (which has been a variety of restaurants) for as long as I've been in Toronto, in the Yonge-Eglinton neighbourhood:


Here is a newer cat (judging from the relative newness of the house), in one of Toronto's tonier 'hoods:


And finally, the lion I am most curious about. This fellow and his brothers appear on a number of houses in North Toronto. They're all made of cast stone, so are suffering varying degrees of erosion. But to get an idea of how really small they are, see how they barely register when you view the whole house. Maybe these are cowardly lions?



Tomorrow, some windy architectural sculpture...

The lions of March (part 1)

March has arrived. In Toronto, there are no alerts or warnings or red notifications on the Weather Network. But the forecast is for more wintry weather for the foreseeable future.

So it's as true as ever this year that March comes in like a lion (and — one can only hope this year — will go out like a lamb).

To mark the start of March, I thought I'd post some of Toronto's architectural lions:

If this were a human face tangled up in foliage, it would be called a "green man." I don't know if there is a category of architectural sculpture known as the "green lion," but there ought to be, based on this example alone.

Lions may be so ubiquitous in architectural sculpture because of their frequent use in heraldry, and because they stand for virtually everything.

This building is currently a branch of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC), at Church and Carlton, but it was originally the Somerset House Hotel, built in 1895 by Frederick H. Herbert and remodelled in 1930 by Langley & Howland.

In entry for Herbert in the online Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada 1800-1950, Robert Hill says he was a proponent of the Queen Anne style and his work was characterized by circular corner towers (of which this is a modified example).

Here's another CIBC lion, although from the days when it was just the Imperial Bank of Canada, and before its merger with the Canadian Bank of Commerce in 1961.


I shot this on a recently closed CIBC branch in Leaside. The building has recently been sold to a developer. It was built in 1940-1941 as the official bank to the former Town of Leaside and, according to the building's heritage property nomination form, was the scene of a Boyd Gang hold up.



Sunday, February 16, 2014

Faces *Around* Places?

One of the last times I was in San Francisco, I was walking around in the area of City Hall and the Opera, and noticed this unusual doorway.

I don't remember what this door led to at the time, but it's been a succession of financial institutions since it began life as the entryway to Vivande Ristorante, a second Italian restaurant opened in 1995 by chef Carlo Middione, in addition to his Vivande Porta Via, opened on Fillmore Street in 1981.

Both restaurants have closed. I'm not sure when Vivande Ristorante died, but Vivande Porta Via fell victim to the recession at the end of 2009 — as well as to Middione's loss of his senses of smell and taste as a result of a car crash in 2007.

A 1995 story on sfgate.com, a division of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, attributes the 15-foot (4.6-metre) doorway sculpture to local sculptor Michael Casey.

The article also claims the inspiration for the doorway sculpture is La Bocca della Verita (the Mouth of Truth) in the Roman portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.


But in a 2011 blog post, San Francisco architect Larry Mock found it reminiscent of the Orcus sculpture in the the Sacro Bosco ("Sacred Grove"),known colloquially as the Park of the Monsters (Parco dei Mostri) and the Gardens of Bomarzo in northern Lazio, Italy, about an hour's drive from Rome.

Inscribed on his upper lip is "Ogni penser vola" — translated as "All thoughts fly" but also as "All reason departs").


I'll leave it to you to figure out which the San Francisco doorway most closely resembles. I'm checking out flights to Rome!


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Canada's "monuments men"

The release of the movie "The Monuments Men" put me in mind of a building in Ottawa.

"The Monuments Men" tells the story of the rescue of European art stolen by the Nazis during the Second World War. The "men" included about 345 men and women from 13 countries, most of whom volunteered for services in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the Allied armies.

The Ottawa building is the K. W. Neatby Building, now home of the Eastern Cereal and Oilseed Research Centre, a research centre of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (the federal agriculture department). It's located on Carling Avenue, across the street from the Ottawa Civic Hospital and on the grounds of the Central Experimental Farm. The part of the building seen from Carling Avenue, a 1956-1958 addition in the International Style as it was used for federal buildings of the mid-1950s, actually hides the main reason it is a Recognized Federal Heritage Building.
The original 1936-1938 building was the Public Records Building, which housed the "Polish treasures" from 1940 to 1948.

The Polish government wanted to conceal the nation's cultural heritage at the beginning of the 1939 German invasion. The treasures — including 140 Arras tapestries dating from the 15th century, regalia such as the 14th-century coronation sword, religious artifacts including a Gutenberg bible, and Chopin manuscripts — arrived in Ottawa in July 1940, after a "dramatic and circuitous" trip from Wawel Castle in Cracow, through France and Britain.

According to an undated essay about the building by Edgar Tumak, an architectural historian and heritage specialist who is currently a city councillor in Deseronto, Ont., the Dominion archivist offered the building because no area museums had appropriate storage space. The Records Building, however, was fireproof and had necessary security and temperature and humidity controls. One floor was given over to the collection, including large open storage areas that allowed the tapestries to be hung and repaired. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police stood guard.

"In 1945 the Canadian representative of the Polish government-in-exile hid most of the artifacts in other locations around Ottawa and Quebec before the recognition by Canada of the Polish communist government," Tumak wrote. "Due to various claims on its ownership, return to Poland of the small portion of the collection remaining in the Records Building was delayed until 1948, while the bulk of the treasure was only released from various institutions between the years 1959 and 1961."

(At least two books, neither of which I have read yet, have been written about this effort — The Odyssey of the Polish Treasures by Aloysius Balawyder (1978) and The Strange Odyssey of Poland's National Treasures, 1939-1961: A Polish-Canadian Story by Gordon Swoger (2004).

The original Tudor Revival structure was designed by architect E.L. Horwood and was intended to be "severely plain," according to Tumak.

But Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King decreed that the exterior was to be "somewhat more embellished." King approved a sketch by architect J. Albert Ewart (eldest son of David Ewart, chief architect for the Department of Public Works from 1896 to 1914) who was also hired to supervise construction of the building, the plan for which was otherwise unchanged.

Most of the "embellishment" is around the entrance — and provides a treat for anyone who leaves Carling Avenue and walks around to the other side of the building.

Monday, January 27, 2014

What a gas! The clock is back!

Over the Christmas holidays, I was driving past the old Consumers Gas Showroom, on Yonge Street north of Eglinton in Toronto and happened to glance up at the clock. The clock that hasn't worked — at least, not for long — for at least the last 20 years.

Well, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a cleaned-up, lit-up, working clock!


(Yes, I know — this is a daylight photo of the clock.)

I guessed — correctly — that the work on the clock had been done by Abernethy and Son, the Richmond Hill-based firm of watch and clockmakers and heritage clock restorers.

I called to find out about the Consumers Gas clock, and found out it was Phil Abernethy (the eponymous "Son") who handled the job. He told me that the original Telechron system was worn out and couldn't be restored. So he installed a main synchronous motor, an AC motor that is synchronized with the frequency of the supply current. If the power supply is interrupted, the clock shuts off for 12 hours, at which time (assuming the hydro has been restored) it begins telling the correct time again. It even has an automatic Daylight Saving Time correction.

"The system is virtually hands-off," Phil said.

The clock's case and the bird on whose back it is borne are made of cast aluminum which was sandblasted, changing the colour from near-black (as in the picture below, from 2005) to a dull grey.


Because it's difficult to apply a finish to aluminum, that's just the naked metal exposed to the elements, meaning it will acquire a darker patina in time, he said.

The southern-exposed clock face — milk glass that is 24 in. (or about 61 cm.) in diameter — was cracked, but that could be repaired without Phil having to reproduce it in acrylic.

It's great to have the clock working again, and so beautifully. It actually was important to the North Toronto community in 1931 when architect Charles Dolphin built the Consumers Gas Showroom.

“A feature required on the building was a clock,” according to a report in the building journal Construction in 1931. “As there was none in the immediate district it was felt that this would be a very useful as well as attractive item if it could be embodied in the design.

“In order that the clock might be visible north and south on Yonge Street it was necessary to extend it out from the face of the building.”

Dolphin accomplished that by placing the clock on “an allegorical design of a bird,” frozen as it was poised for flight to the east, thus allowing people on Yonge Street to see the time. The bird motif was repeated in stone at the corners of the building, atop fluted pilasters.


The birds most resemble the phoenix, the legendary bird that is said to have lived 500 years, burned itself on a pyre, and risen from the ashes to live again. Only missing on this building are the flames that usually accompany representations of the phoenix — unless they were assumed, or the choice of bird was emblematic or a visual joke (Consumers Gas — get it?).

In recent years, the Consumers Gas Showroom building also been a women's fitness centre, a Puma athletic shoe store, Bowerings, the Children's Book Store, and a YWCA. Its latest incarnation is as Casalife, a furniture store that opened in early December, and for which the clock was restored. Nice job, Phil!