Before hip, even before cool, there was swank.
The late Lauren Bacall had it, and so did Grace Kelly and the Cadillacs of the 1950s. Manhattan’s Stork Club was the style’s Vatican, infallibly smart, and Don Draper has made a vernacular version of it chic again. In New York, Chicago and Toronto, swanky new office buildings went up during the decades just after the Second World War. These structures were less radical in appearance than the steel-and-glass towers Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was designing for corporate clients at the time, but the most eloquent of them embodied the elegance and urbanity that characterized swankiness at its best.
When it opened on Toronto’s St. Clair Avenue West in 1957, the dignified, limestone-clad headquarters of the Imperial Oil Co. had a lobby of the swanky sort – though the usual headgear I saw when I visited the place last week was the hard hat, not Don’s sharp fedora. That’s because this 23-storey commercial block, designed by the Toronto firm of Mathers & Haldenby, and perched on the escarpment that cuts across the city below St. Clair, is in the thick of a $250-million conversion by developer Camrost Felcorp into the condominium stack known as Imperial Plaza, scheduled to become habitable later this year.
There’s nothing new, of course, about the transformation of yet another old Toronto edifice into a residential complex. But this one promises to be special. If the entrance pavilion on the ground floor turns out as described to me by designer Matt Davis, partner in the Design Agency, and heritage architect Michael McClelland, the repurposing of 111 St. Clair West will restore to public view a handsome piece of Toronto’s Cold War architectural history (suitably updated) and one of the city’s outstanding examples of capitalist swank.
For the record, the units in Imperial Plaza come in a wide range of sizes and prices, going up from Toronto average to very large and expensive. The smallest suite, a one-bedroom, is 510 square feet, and costs about $385,000. The apartments toward the top of the building, between 1,360 square feet and 2,400 square feet in area, start at just over $1-million, while the penthouses, priced from $4.1-million, contain areas up to 4,400 square feet.
The structure’s elevated position on the brow of the escarpment means that the views from every floor toward the south, over low-rise neighbourhoods and the downtown towers, and out over Lake Ontario, will be panoramic and exceptional. The building will feature a 10,000-square-foot fitness facility and numerous other touches one would expect in an upscale urban condo project of this kind.
For architecturally savvy Torontonians who are looking for a place to live, and for those who aren’t, a large part of Imperial Plaza’s charm will likely lie in that refreshed pedestrian lobby on St. Clair. I can see it becoming a must-do destination for designers, historians of luxe and fans without portfolio (such as me) who appreciate modernist chic.
The spacious lobby stretches wide on either side of the centrally placed pedestrian entrance. If I understand the designer’s intentions properly, the interior volume’s two wings, which face the avenue through tall walls of glass, will host compatible retail activities – though nothing that will interrupt the open flow of space from one end of the lobby to the other. This long, uncomplicated spatial ribbon, running parallel to St. Clair over inlaid stone floors, is channelled between the exterior glass and, on the inside, glamorous expanses of polished marble. The svelte lighting fixtures that Alvin Mathers crafted for the double-height ceiling, the Design Agency’s Mr. Davis said, will be brought up to code and retained.
In counterpoint to the restrained, black-tie formality of the lobby’s spatial arrangements, planes and figures collide and clash busily in the theatrically modernistic mural commissioned by Imperial Oil from the well-known Toronto artist York Wilson (1907-1984). The 1957 piece, executed on two large panels installed on either side of the central passage from the entrance to the elevator bank, is called The Story of Oil. Mr. Wilson has told the substance’s tale in jagged, futuristic (but representational) visual language of a kind that was fashionable in public art everywhere during the 1940s and ’50s.
Like the Mathers & Haldenby building it adorns – like the swankiness of the 1950s itself – The Story of Oil glances over its shoulder at high-style precedents of the 1930s while trying to be as secular, cosmopolitan and contemporary as it dares. We’ll likely sense this creative tension between suavity and stark modernity, so characteristic of post-war high culture, when Imperial Plaza is finished, and we can step into the revamped lobby of this artifact from a different time.