Just as it wasn’t hard to find her husband’s work around the city, it wasn’t hard to find internationally acclaimed painter/muralist R. York Wilson’s widow, Lela M. Wilson, back in 2003. I simply flipped to the correct page in the phone book. However, Ms. Wilson, then 92 years old, thought I was trying to sell her a Globe and Mail subscription, so she tried, politely, to end the conversation; luckily, I managed to convince her of my interest in her husband, who had passed away 19 years before, and the home they had built together on the northern edge of Wychwood Park in 1955.
About a week later, I found myself sitting comfortably in her cozy living room – decorated with objects from all over the world owing to their nomadic lives – as she mixed a tray of gin and tonics and prepared a cheese plate in her tiny kitchen. In the seven years that followed before her death in 2010, I would visit the Wilson house often, and my appreciation for the paintings of Ronald York Wilson would grow and grow.
That’s why I think she’d love that one of her husband’s best works, The Story of Oil, is now enjoyed by thousands of people every day – many picking up a bottle of gin at the LCBO or some cheese at Longo’s – at 111 St. Clair Ave. W., the former Imperial Oil headquarters, now a Camrost-Felcorp condominium called Imperial Plaza.
Of the many mid-century modern features Camrost-Felcorp has kept for Imperial Plaza, formerly the Imperial Oil headquarters, is R. York Wilson’s mural The Story of Oil. (Dave LeBlanc for the Globe and Mail)
The diptych, which took three years to plan and execute, begins with a brooding depiction of the geological processes that led to the formation of oil and ends with man’s manipulation of the atom to create everything from skyscrapers to the Avro Arrow. While it was once reserved for oil bigwigs and thoroughly vetted visitors, Mr. Wilson’s masterwork now turns the humdrum act of shopping into the highbrow appreciation of Canadian art. And architecture, too, as the two 32-foot-long by 21-foot-high panels remain in their Mathers and Haldenby-designed environs: a deluxe, 1957 Mad Man-esque lobby crammed with original finishes, including creamy, veined marble, gold mosaic tile and finned, stainless-steel light shades.
The exterior of Imperial Plaza on St. Clair Ave. W. (Dave LeBlanc for the Globe and Mail)
“They did a great job with the leasehold improvements to respect the finishes,” Camrost-Felcorp president and chief executive David Feldman says during a recent walk-through. “This part of St. Clair was a dead zone; even the community, they’ve come back and said ‘Wow’ … we could’ve done just a residential lobby here and kept it just for the residents, but we felt that would be a mistake.”
And if any mistakes have been done here at all, they’ve escaped my eyes. Although there are hidden fire doors and other 21st-century safety and security upgrades, the lobby space can still be “read” in much the same way as in the 1950s and ’60s. Standing just inside the main (and original) doors, a visitor can look to the three enormous, now-working clocks – one set into gold tile over the elevator corridor, the other two on the east and west walls – because the retail display units have been kept low and unobtrusive.
Three enormous, working clocks can be seen in the lobby space. (Dave LeBlanc for the Globe and Mail)
The ceiling overhead, Mr. Feldman says, “looks the same, but it’s all been upgraded.” The chunky Canada Mail door, too, sits beside the elevators as it always has, except it’s never been shinier, and building way-finding is achieved with simple, sans serif, period-appropriate lettering done in stainless steel. And while a little wavy from almost 60 years of foot traffic, the alternating pink and cream marble floor is far superior than the thin ceramic tiles found underfoot at most condominium projects.
And, most importantly, Mr. Wilson’s mural has been left to breathe rather than being imprisoned behind glass: Only a waist-high stainless-steel railing keeps shoppers from brushing against it. And unlike the 100-foot long mural at the Sony Centre, The Seven Lively Arts – which sits rather high in that lobby – art lovers can get within inches of The Story of Oil.
“Even that railing, it was a couple of weeks just designing it,” says chief architect Rod Rowbotham of onespace unlimited.
The Canada Mail door near the elevator. (Dave LeBlanc for the Globe and Mail)
He’s proud of larger aspects of the project as well: to keep St. Clair free of added congestion, a below-grade, hotel-style, four-lane pickup and drop-off area has been created at the rear of the building. “What we wanted to do at this space was to make it really celebratory and very upscale,” he explains. “It’s going to have a really nice ceiling in it with glowing beams … and some artwork across there, on that wall, to serve as a focal-point.
“It’s designed to be the street,” Mr. Rowbotham finishes. “This is our own private street.”
Rod Rowbotham, chief architect, onespace unlimited and Camrost-Felcorp president and CEO David Feldman. (Dave LeBlanc for the Globe and Mail)
Amenities spaces Camrost-Felcorp has added to the building, such as the two party rooms, massive gym, indoor pool, theatres and sound studios, continue the luxury-materials palette. Furniture, such as the sculptural Harry Bertoia Diamond Chairs, Warren Platner wire tables and the spoke-and-hub Modo chandeliers by Roll & Hill, also underline the mid-century modern heritage of the building.
After unveiling a Heritage Toronto plaque in the lobby of Imperial Plaza in June, the project is now on the short list to receive a William Greer Architectural Conservation and Craftsmanship Award at Heritage Toronto’s annual awards gala on Oct. 17. For more information on the awards ceremony, please visit: heritagetoronto.org/programs/heritage-toronto-awards
If your love of Toronto’s modernist architecture has been piqued, Heritage Toronto’s Gary Miedema, Blog TO’s Chris Bateman and Your Humble Architourist will be hosting an all-day bus tour, “Modern TO,” on Saturday, Sept. 24. For information: heritagetoronto.org/event/bus-tour-modern-to
Article Written by: DAVE LEBLANC