The Current

New book explores the cultural importance of 'lost buildings' like Honest Ed's and Octagon Castle

The co-author of a new book about Canada's "lost buildings" is urging us to take a closer look at the cultural impact of former landmarks such as Honest Ed's Department Store and the Octagon Castle.

New book details 305 buildings in Canada and examines how best to remember — or preserve — them

Real estate developer Westbank Corp., bought the land t he Honest Ed's discount store sits upon from the Mirvish family in 2013. The store closed its doors at the end of 2016.  (Honest Ed's)

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The co-author of a new book about Canada's "lost buildings" is urging us to take a closer look at the cultural impact of former landmarks such as Honest Ed's Department Store and the Octagon Castle.

"We really wanted to … focus on the fact that buildings worth remembering are not necessarily only the ones designed by great architects or the ones that were occupied by important people, but also ones that were important in the lives of ordinary folks," Alex Bozikovic told host Matt Galloway on The Current.

Bozikovic is an architecture critic and co-author of the new book, 305 Lost Buildings of Canada

He says Honest Ed's is a great example of the point he and co-author Raymond Biesinger are trying to make in the book. The large department store opened in downtown Toronto in 1948. For more than 60 years, it boasted prices that people living on low incomes could shop and get everything they needed.

The store, owned by the Mirvish family, was also known for its ads and signs that made it unique. But it closed in 2016 after years of losing ground to big box stores and online retail. Now the building has been knocked down to make way for a mix of developments including residential units, commercial space, and a park.

An inside look at Toronto's famous Honest Ed's, a department store frequented by people trying to get by. (Kristan Klimczak)

"When we look back on what we have lost, I think there are a variety of different lessons that we can learn," said Bozikovic.

"Which kinds of places have we chosen to value?… Which ones survive through the generations? Which ones have continued to fill an economic role or social role in the life of the city, and when buildings don't, what has been lost? And what, potentially, is there that we can value in that?"

A castle in Paradise

Another building Bozikovic highlights is the Octagon Castle in Paradise, Nfld. The castle was a summer resort built in 1896, with a rooftop garden.

And while the building was iconic in its own right, Colleen Quigley says it was also well known because of Charles Danielle, who ran the building. 

The staff of the Octagon Castle gathered outside the resort for a photo. (Memorial University's Archives & Special Collections)

"He was known for being quite the lavish entertainer. He was over the top. The most-used descriptor is an eccentric man who had a very particular vision," said Quigley, an archivist at Memorial University in St. John's.

"He was an expert embroiderer, and that was evident in every business that he undertook, including the design of the Octagon Castle."

Bozikovic said Danielle was flamboyant hotelier who also worked as a dance teacher, costume maker and dress maker.

Danielle's presence made the castle more than simply a building, according to Bozikovic.

Professor Charles Danielle was the owner of the Octagon Castle. (Memorial University's Archives & Special Collections)

"The presence of a particular personality or the presence of a particular group of people can really transform the culture of a place," he said.

"A place like this hotel was a space for different kinds of behaviour and for other people, not just Mr. Danielle, to express themselves in ways that would otherwise have been unacceptable in quite a small and insular place." 

Danielle died in 1902, and the castle burned down in 1915. But Paradise hasn't lost the memory of the Octagon Castle. A memorial to the building stands in one of the town's roundabouts.

This blue structure was set up in a Paradise roundabout as a tribute to the Octagon Castle. (Submitted by Jessie Jones)

Preservation and compromise

Bozikovic says stories like those behind the Octagon Castle and Honest Ed's highlight why it's important to preserve some of these cultural structures.

"I think the life of a building, you know, can really extend beyond its physical life. And I think that says something interesting about how we think about places and how we think about architecture," said Bozikovic.

But he says it's not always so cut and dry. While preservation is important, it's also necessary for cities to expand and develop — and he notes that sometimes, old buildings are a reminder of actions best left forgotten.

The Halifax Infants Home, for example, was built in 1989, at a time where there was a serious stigma attached to having a child out of wedlock. The building was demolished in 2014. 

"The Halifax Infant's Home was a place where unwed mothers would come to work and then usually give up their child for adoption… This is a way of doing things that we find not only strange, but unacceptable today," said Bozikovic. 

Architecture critic Alex Bozikovic, left, and illustrator Raymond Biesinger, right, are the authors of 305 Lost Buildings of Canada. (The Globe and Mail, Goose Lane Editions, Marc Rimmer)

"I think it's always important to acknowledge that cities are growing and changing. Sometimes demolition is a natural part of that order, and it's not necessarily something to be mourned." 

Bozikovic says, that as cities continue to develop, a balanced approach needs to be taken. He said not every house in a neighborhood needs to be saved, as those buildings often are only important to a few people.

"We need to be more selective about what we keep. I think we also need to be ready to accept that an old building can exist with a new one that is quite different and perhaps much larger right next to it," he said. 

"I think focusing on keeping a vibrant and lively public realm, and keeping businesses and publicly accessible places intact, while letting some of the housing go, is the right sort of compromise."

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Kate Cornick.

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