Had Toronto’s city elders, private developers and pundits of yesteryear gotten their way, a splendid street called Federal Avenue would stretch straight and wide through the heart of downtown from Union Station up to Queen Street West. A soaring Art Deco skyscraper, stepping up from a grand base, would stand today at the corner of Bay and College streets. And a tall pyramid by visionary planner and architect Buckminster Fuller would rise beside the water’s edge at the foot of a lengthened and straightened University Avenue.
None of these things came to pass. Some fine Toronto dreams, such as the Eaton’s tower at Bay and College, were squashed by the Great Depression. Other mega-schemes, not so fine, were thwarted by public outcries: One thinks of the Spadina Expressway in the late 1960s. The surviving drawings of these projects are traces of the civic ambition that has occasionally swept the city, for better or worse, during the last two centuries.
Toronto’s buildings and urban plans that didn’t happen have long fascinated lawyer and amateur historian Mark Osbaldeston. To celebrate these projects, Mr. Osbaldeston has compiled a forthcoming album called Unbuilt Toronto: A History of the City That Might Have Been. This work will likely become an indispensable companion to William Dendy’s Lost Toronto (1978), the most important text, so far, on its interesting topic.
But you don’t have to wait until November, when Unbuilt Toronto will be launched by Dundurn Press, to get a sense of what Mr. Osbaldeston has been up to.
This morning at the International Interior Design Exposition, in the Direct Energy Centre at Exhibition Place, the author will join forces with acclaimed urban designer Ken Greenberg and architect Michael McClelland to talk about Toronto’s towers, subways, highways, neighbourhoods and buildings that could have been. (The panel discussion, which will accompany a display of images from Unbuilt Toronto, is sponsored by the Toronto Society of Architects.) I talked with Mr. Osbaldeston last week.
“History that never happened! Who cares?” he said. “When you look at these projects, it does make you think about the choices that were made, the roads not taken. You think about how things might have been. Would that have been better? Would it have been worse? Indifferent? … I didn’t want to just show startling or beautiful images, I wanted to know where these [projects]came from, why they were proposed, what was the context in which they were proposed – the broader architectural context. All of the projects I talk about have a story. All my stories have a beginning and an end.”
One scheme Mr. Osbaldeston deals with extensively in his book is the creation of Federal Avenue, proposed in 1911, when beautification was all the rage in American and Canadian cities. Had it been constructed, the street would have revitalized the old downtown warehouse and factory district south of Queen Street, much of which had been devastated by the great fire of 1904.
“That was a plan, basically, for road improvements downtown, but it was informed by the City Beautiful movement, which was about grand urban spaces. … I think it would have given Toronto a sense that this is the centre, that this is downtown, between Union Station and City Hall and important government buildings. It would have provided a great sense of place.”
While nothing was done to make Federal Avenue a reality, Toronto does have architectural hints of other possibilities that never came to full fruition. At least the base of Eaton’s College Street tower was constructed (1928-1930), for example. Mr. Osbaldeston regards the handsome stump as a remnant of one of the most significant things we lost.
“We don’t have the same skyscraper buildings from that era, that some other cities in the Great Lakes area do,” the author said. “To have a building of that size and that calibre! When you look at what got built, the calibre of workmanship, materials – everything would have been spectacular.”
On the other hand, we shouldn’t be shy about thinking and dreaming large about what our city can be.
“When you miss the opportunity,” he says, “you never get it again.”