One of Toronto's architectural 'gems' could get a new lease on life

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One of Toronto's architectural 'gems' could get a new lease on life

The sign on the door of the grand old bank at 205 Yonge St. reads, "Don't sleep on the steps."

That kind of notice would not have done at all in 1905 when this building was erected as the Bank of Toronto on the city's most important avenue, a neo-classical temple serving both the city's growing wealth and traditional ideals of beauty.

The front doors have been locked for 15 years and the stunning white marble interior, with its black and gold detailing barred from public view.

But CBC Toronto has learned of negotiations underway this week that could see the building reopen as a combined museum and boutique hotel.  The building's current owner, Irish businessman Thomas Farrell, has confirmed he is in the middle of negotiations with a prospective client to open and operate the building.

The building is designated as a heritage site with both the exterior and interior protected, which means finding the right tenant isn't easy..

Farrell refused to do an interview when CBC Toronto reached him at his home in Ireland.

But Ava Janikowski, an architect who drew up plans for the site several years ago, says her design included a separate building rising on stilts above the domed roof of the old bank to house the hotel rooms; the grand banking hall with its double-height ceiling and soaring windows would become an exhibit space open to the public.

Over the years, Janikowski says, plenty of condo developers and restaurant investors have been interested in the building but no one came forward with a proposal that met the stringent historical protections or satisfied the owner.  But she remains optimistic.

"You know, I've been in this business for a long time."Janikowski told CBC Toronto.  "And I'm sure that for such a gem, there's always a perfect match, so I'm really hoping there is going to be a developer who is going to appreciate the beauty of it."

Considered one of Toronto's architectural masterpieces, the building was designed by E. J. Lennox, the Toronto architect responsible for other landmarks such as Old City Hall, Casa Loma, and the King Edward Hotel.

It's one of Marta O'Brien's favourite buildings.  An architectural historian who created a program called City Walks to give guided tours, says of all the city's historic bank buildings, 205 Yonge is her favourite, partly due to the ornate stonework.

"It rewards you for standing here for a few minutes and taking a really good look," O'Brien said.

The intricate detail crowning the Corinthian columns is particularly spectacular, a sign of the architect's fluency in the classical language of Greek and Roman architecture.

It's no accident, says O'Brien, that the Bank of Toronto approved the architect's choice of Corinthian detailing, the most elaborate order of Greek architecture.

"The banks had the money to hire the best architects to design their buildings," said O'Brien. "By showing the Corinthian order, the bank is showing how much money we have."

The building's image was particularly important in an era when there were fewer banking regulations.

"Long before deposit insurance and the Bank of Canada," O'Brien said, "banks had to convince people that their money would be safe with them."

O'Brien says banks also served as gateways to communities across the city, anchoring key intersections, often facing competing banks on the opposite corner.  

At 205 Yonge, the bank once provided the vista for an earlier avenue that was blocked off when the Eaton's Centre was built in the 1970s.

There are many other ways in which the ornate building at 205 Yonge echoes the changing fortunes of Yonge Street itself.  Once a respected main street in the first part of the 20th century, Yonge became a shambolic mix of dollar stores, t-shirt vendors and strip bars in the '70s and 80s.

In 2017, it is being transformed once again thanks to rising real estate prices and the condominium boom. The Massey Condo Tower, now under construction, dwarfs the tall slim bank building, blocking much of the sunlight that once poured through the south bank of windows.

But this week, it appears the former bank's fortunes may soon change, as well.