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CNE Toronto 2013

Is  that a slight chill I detect in the early morning air?  Aren’t the tips of those tree branches looking a little brown?  And today, that  “grand old lady” down on the  lakeshore that’s been running all week, otherwise  known as the Canadian National Exhibition,  closes its gates for yet another season. Summer definitely must be over!

Is it only me, or can the expression “the more it changes the more it stays the same” be applied to the CNE? Yes, every year there are new attractions, new exhibits, and different performers as part of the entertainment line-up, but for the most part the “Ex” doesn’t really change all that much – and undoubtedly, that’s how people want it. The rides and the games are all there, the razzle-dazzle of the midway, and the decadent fair food  that we  would never eat anywhere else or  at any other time of year is all there for the taking, allowing us to indulge just one last time before we’re forced to wake up to reality and face that most sobering of months, September.

For too many years now, Toronto has prided itself on its sophistication. It boasts a “world class” arts- scene, architecture, shopping, and just about everything else. Million dollar condos sprout from the ground heading sky-high. You can buy Vuitton luggage, costly baubles form Tiffany, and Prada handbags any day of the week proving you have the  means to do it. But does a city that attempts to be on the same level as the Great Ones of the World still  have a place for a local exhibition that  runs for two weeks every August up to Labour Day?

The Ex stems from a time when there simply wasn’t as much to do in Toronto over the summer as there is now. There had been fairs in Toronto as early as the  1850s. During the latter part of the 19th century, agricultural  exhibitions were held in most Ontario cities on a rotating basis. In 1878, it happened to be held in Toronto, and because it was deemed such a success –  attracting more than 100,000 visitors –  local officials decided to make it an annual event. Four years later, it was the first fair to be illuminated by electricity, and in 1883, Torontonian J.J. Wright introduced the electric railway for the first time. The Ex was officially given the name Canadian National Exhibition in 1912 and over the years, it has  constantly attempted to reinvent itself to accommodate the changing tastes and needs of the local demographic. In 1937, Patty Conklin of Conklin Shows was awarded the contract for the midway and this company continued to provide the service for the next 67 years, when it merged with other leading midway operators to form North American Midway Entertainment (NAME)  The Ex didn’t run between 1942 and 1946 when the grounds were turned over to the Department of National Defense for training purposes. After World War II, the grounds were used for awhile as a demobilization centre. And on August 22, 1952, the CBC tested that novel new form of entertainment known as television for the very first time, making it the first ever (unofficial) broadcast in Canadian television history. Who says history was never made at the CNE?

CNE History Photos

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So what keeps people still coming back to it year after year? Is it a feeling for nostalgia, when  grown-ups like to remember the period when they were as young as their children or grandchildren and still had energy and  wide-eyed enthusiasm to spare? Or is it a chance to be a kid themselves again, riding the rides and indulging in food  they would never eat any other time of the year. Diet?  What diet? Greens? Balanced meals? Are you crazy? This is summer’s last fling, and we’d better make the most of it! 

But maybe it’s time to say good bye to the Ex. Right now I can hear the howls of protest coming from the faithful  annual fair-goers! There is so much going on in the city during any given month, do we really need to hold on to the EX? Outrageous rides? There’s  Canada’s Wonderland, not too far away, and open between May and September, not just a two –week period. Decadent food? Well, that shouldn’t be difficult to find in this city at any given time. Entertainment? As far as I  know, the city is still host to top acts who continue to fill the ACC, Massey Hall, Thomson Hall or any of the smaller venues.

On the other hand. The Ex’s line-up this year included the Beach Boys, Frankie Avalon, and the Fifth Dimension.  Agreed, these were all fine performers in their day,  but in 2013, they’re  hardly top attractions. Frankie Avalon? “Oh Veeeee-nus…” (For those not of a certain age, Frankie was a big teen idol in the late 1950s, and one of his big hits was a song titled “Venus” which reached the top of the charts in 1959…)

This summer, the city was host to the rock festival NXNE, the Jazz Festival, the outdoor art exhibit, Fringe Fest, Taste of the Danforth, Italian, Indian , Iranian,  Hispanic and Hawaiian festivals, Carabana, free outdoor movies, Dusk Dances, ROM walks, not to mention the ongoing activities down at Harbourfront. A lot of these events were free, while at $15 per person (a family pass was $45) just to get past the gates, the Ex can make for a pricey day of entertainment.

Publicity is always welcome, but this year, the Ex received some publicity it most definitely didn’t need. It happened when 200  people reported food poisoning after sampling some of the  dubious fare being offered. The culprit turned out to be the new and infamous Cronutburger, a $10 delicacy featuring a burger topped with maple bacon jam. While most people suspected that  the meat was the villain, it was actually the jam topping, contaminated  with a bacterial toxin  that resulted in so many cases being reported. The food woes didn’t end there. Two further food vendors, the Bourdon Street Grill and Bao Shanghai, were shut down by food inspectors for health violations. The moral of the story? Feel free to indulge, but beware!

 

More bad news followed. At the end of the week, an estimated $1 million worth of counterfeit goods was seized from the CNE grounds by Toronto police.  Fakes of luxury items bearing the logos of Michael Kors, Gucci, Prada, and Rolex were taken from three booths at the Direct Energy Centre with two owners being charged.

So maybe it’s time to say goodbye to this “grand old lady”. Ok, it supposedly brings in a lot of money to the city and to the province. So do the casinos at Niagara,  but that doesn’t make them any more legitimate. The Ex belongs to a different age and a different time. No, it will probably never go away, so maybe it should at the very least be re-examined in order to bring it a little more up to date. There was a time when the CNE was used to showcase the newest of the new, but in 2013, there’s  nothing there that can’t be seen anywhere else, on any given day.  Come on  Toronto, you claim to be worldly and sophisticated. You’ve  got a major film festival just around the corner. Do you really need Coney Island for 10 days every August as well?

 Toronto CNE 2013

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From an architectural viewpoint,  the design of most public schools built in Canada between c. 1900 and 1950 aren’t really all that inspiring. It would probably be safe to say they pretty much all look the same – solid three or four storey structures in either dark brick or stone with rows of tall windows. An impressive oak door usually served as the main entrance, and this was usually reached by means of a long flight of stairs. Accessibility anyone? In certain schools, boys and girls were even segregated by separate entrances.  Heaven forbid that the two sexes should ever come into contact with each other out on the playground! What were educators and architects thinking at the time? Youngsters could mingle freely in the classroom and in the hallways, but not outside?! Is there logic there somewhere?  In any event, there’s something about these scholastic structures that cries out “academia.” They seem to say to the passer- by: “Caution – this is a place of learning, and these are hallowed walls.”  Perhaps it’s for this reason that I find the Ecole Gabrielle Roy (formerly the Duke of York Public School) so appealing. Yes, it still resembles a school, but instead of being designed in the usual non-nonsense manner, its exterior style is Moorish-revival, with a nod to old Seville or Marrakesh – in Toronto! During the Great Depression!

At 14 Pembroke St., in the Dundas and Sherbourne area, the building is indeed a bit off the beaten track, and unless you knew it’s there, you might easily overlook it. To my mind, it’s another unnoticed building.  When the Duke of York opened its doors to 937 students on September 2, 1930, it was an elementary school for children from the middle-class families who resided nearby. Yet with its brown bricks, horseshoe arches, and rounded windows, the building must have stood in stark contrast to the late Victorian semi-detached houses that proliferate the area.   Its architect, C Y. Dyson, (the Toronto District School Board’s official architect between 1921 and 1949), designed several schools in the city including Jarvis Collegiate in 1924. The style of JCI was much more in keeping with the norm for the period – “collegiate gothic” as it came to be known.  Yet two years after the Duke of York opened, he once again returned to the Moorish style for  Harbord Collegiate Institute at 286 Harbord Street.

We’ll never know why Dyson went out on a limb in his designs for these two schools – maybe it was all those exotic movie palaces of the period – but Moorish influence had actually been around Toronto for quite some time up to that point. Among the earliest examples was a synagogue at 115 Bond St. built in 1895 by architect John Siddal for the Holy Blossom congregation.  The structure boasted twin domes, a wide arched entrance, and a row of smaller arches just below the roofline, and was surely as fine as any being produced in Europe at the time.

Another Moorish-revival building constructed for religious purposes was the Bethany Chapel, built by Henry Simpson in 1893 for a sect with fundamentalist leanings. How Torontonians must have scratched their heads when they first laid eyes on this intriguing little building which stood at 211-213 University Avenue! Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long. The congregation quickly dwindled, the building demolished in 1910, and today, the site is occupied by the Hospital for Sick Children. Looking at one of the few photographs, we see a curious square-shaped brick structure with arched entrances at each corner. The first floor had only three round windows per side, while the second storey featured a row of seven arched windows directly underneath the hip roof. We can only speculate as to why the group chose to construct a chapel in this style, but it was very possibly meant to invoke an image of the Holy Land.

Bethany Chapel, Toronto

The only Moorish-style building in Toronto not intended for the public but as a private residence, was the John Miller house at 33 Murray Street, a short street that parallels University Avenue from Elm up to Orde. As the houses in this formerly residential area were all razed in the early 1970s to make room for the construction of Mount Sinai Hospital, we can only surmise that Mr. Miller owned a house very different from those of his neighbours! Miller claimed that he found inspiration for the design during a trip to Brussels, but with its pointed arches over the front door and living- room window, and the fanciful poly-lobed wooden arches over a second- and third-floor balcony, the building was clearly Moorish, rather than central European, in its inspiration.

John Miller House, Toronto

         It would be safe to say that the few examples of Moorish- Revival style architecture in Toronto were constructed during a relatively short time-span starting in the 1890s. By the late 1930s, the style had been long forgotten, as the city looked to the future, embracing the sleek lines of Art Deco and modernism. And what about Toronto in the 21st century?  With the increasing Muslim population, maybe we’ll see something of a revival, but based on religious principles rather than the whims of an architect. And as more and more glass condo towers sprout up on almost every vacant piece of land, maybe we could use a few horseshoe-shaped arches and some fanciful brickwork as a means of softening the urban landscape.

As to the Ecole Gabrielle Roy, it’s now in its 82nd year,  continuing to serve the needs of Toronto students, albeit a very different demographic than it was originally intended for. Children still play in the yard at recess as they did in 1930, perhaps oblivious to the unusual architectural style of their building. Some things don’t change.  But if you happen to be in the Dundas and Sherbourne area, have a look at it and enjoy the fanciful style, an interpretation of scholastic architecture from the late 1920s – another unnoticed building.

Unnoticed Toronto Buildings – the Art Metropole

 

 

    Even those who don’t live in Toronto are undoubtedly familiar with the recognizable and iconic structures which have come to symbolize the city itself, buildings like the CN Tower, City Hall, and Casa Loma. Yet at the same time, there are certain other structures, while architecturally or historically interesting, never seem to make it into the guidebooks. Many of them may have been an architect’s dream when they first went up, anywhere from the 1850s to the 1960s, but particular ones now languish forgotten and unnoticed by the average passer-by. Among those that certainly fall into this category is the Art Metropole, located at 241 Yonge Street on the east side, between Queen and Dundas. The what?

Pedestrians could certainly be forgiven for overlooking this venerable structure, for the ground floor is currently home to a Money Mart, bright yellow sign and all. But if you happen to pause and look up, you’ll see a handsome four-storey building in  grey cut-stone, with huge windows occupying the entire front face (the top floor window is elegantly arched), very much in the Beaux Arts tradition.  As a finishing touch, five cast iron lion-heads gaze out onto Yonge Street at the very top, just below the roof-line, as if to guard the contents that were once contained within.  Long before the AGO, there were a number of private art galleries in the city, and the Art Metropole was among the first. It was designed by the architectural firm of Mitchell &White, and when completed, in 1911, it also housed an art-supply store and a printing facility. Over the years, the first floor has housed piano showrooms, shoe and apparel outlets and bookstores, while the upper floors have always been rented out as office space.  During the 1970s, the second floor was home to an artist’s resource centre, and was also the home of Centrefold magazine (later Fuse).

So why do I find this building so appealing? I like its understated elegance, and its quiet dignity. There’s nothing flashy about the Art Metropole, nothing about it that screams “look at me!” It goes on year after year, facing the gargantuan Eaton Centre, a symbol of an age long vanished, when automobiles were only just beginning to appear on Toronto streets, the Great War was three years away, women were sporting enormous hats and hobble skirts, and I-Pads were surely a thing of science fiction…