Eclipse on Queen

The street’s industrial past was overshadowed long before last week’s conflagration

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The 5 am blaze that claimed almost a block of significant high-Victorian commercial buildings at Queen and Bathurst was devastating.

We’ve lost an entire series of proud vernacular architectural gems that had miraculously remained intact for more than 150 years. They were truly unique, and now they are gone.

And what are we to say of the timing coinciding with a total eclipse of the moon? This cruel blaze is not natural, and it leaves us feeling dirty, silent and surrounded by darkness.

They were true survivors, grand expressions of and testimony to a hard-working industrial past. These witnesses to a bustling yesterday had lain inert and so pristine, as though asleep.

Although the fire did no damage to the buildings west of Duke’s, the desecration of the block’s most significant architectural gem, the former Occident Hall at the southeast corner of Queen and Bathurst (aka the Big Bop), began decades ago.

One of the last and arguably best of our Second Empire buildings, it’s an excellent example of the role of the fraternal society as speculator.

Built by the local lodges of the Masonic Order, it was a massive undertaking. The high-ceilinged, very ornate lodge chamber occupied the entire second floor. Below were three stores on Queen, among them, a showroom for piano manufacturers Mason & Risch, which took full advantage of the large plate glass windows to exhibit its latest models. The corner unit eventually attracted the United Cigar Store and co-tenants the Diamond Cab Company.

Modifications in 1948 converted the three stores into one for the Holiday Tavern, a dinner club complete with large illuminated marquee flowing down its front. The building was effectively decapitated, its third and fourth storeys, with elegant mansard roof, removed.

As well, the entire building was parged, its buff and red brick exterior covered with a layer of masonry, with lines incised to imitate cut stone. When the site was christened the Big Bop in 1990, it was painted a garish purplish blue.

The complicated development the Masons envisioned over a century and a half ago is no more, although it continues to be a very successful venue, attracting young musicians in the vanguard of the Queen West music scene.

We are tempted to see last week’s fire as a strange relative of the recent stated intention to impose a big-boxy, boring suburban shopping experience on the block, on the city and on our lives.

For god’s sake – wake up, people.

Alec Keefer is acting president of the Toronto Architectural Conservancy. He’s one of several locals involved in a documentary film and exhibit on the stretch of Queen between Portland and Bathurst gutted by last week’s fire.

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