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The Imperial Oil Building reborn: a Mad Men era building gets a new life. A slideshow and report.

The idea of uptown in Toronto is up for debate -- it might be at Yonge and Eglinton, or maybe even North York Centre -- but the part of town that lives up to a cinematic image of uptown the most is St. Clair Avenue between Yonge Street and Avenue Road. It's wide, it's got some trees, there's the streetcar right-of-way and it's lined with mostly-noble and smart buildings, like the art deco Park Lane Apartments at 110 St. Clair where, famously, Glenn Gould lived in one of the two penthouses. Across the street to the south, much taller and built a generation later in 1957, is the Imperial Oil Building.

Or, it was the Imperial Oil Building. In 2004 the company announced they were moving their Toronto operations to Calgary. Apart from the loss of jobs, fans of mid-century modernism worried about what would happen to this building. Just as Victorian architecture was out of style and unloved when this building was put up, our post-war modernism is most at risk right now because it's in an unloved, mid-life crisis stage of life: too old to be new, too young to have automatic respect. It's also 450,000 square feet of space, a massive amount that doesn't lend itself to an easy sale. After half a decade looming empty over St. Clair, developer Camrost-Felcorp announced last year they were purchasing the building and would convert it to residential condominiums called the Imperial Plaza. Fans of the building can rest easy as guiding the conversion is a respect for the original design.

"What we're doing is creating condominium units inside the building's existing shell, leaving the exterior intact, maintaining the ambience," says Rod Rowbotham, principal architect with the firm leading the renovation, One Space Unlimited. "The exterior limestone stays but the windows are being replaced as they're nearly 55 years old. We're creating a fantastic landscaped courtyard in the back designed by Janet Rosenberg. The only part of the building that will be changed above grade is the loading dock area for garbage pick up, but it's also designed to match the building."

There's a lot to love about this building. It's creation myth is attached to Toronto's modern, post-war renaissance: the international style design was the entry architect Alvan Mathers submitted to the New City Hall design competition. Ultimately Viljo Revell's now-beloved design was chosen, and Imperial Oil purchased this design for their new St. Clair headquarters. From the sidewalk, Torontonians have peered into the massive lobby for half a century, looking at the two floor-to-ceiling murals by Canadian artist York Wilson called the Story of Oil (you may have also seen another of his high profile murals inside the Sony Centre on Front Street). The Tennessee marble inside is shiny like a skating rink and a massive built-in wall clock is found between the two murals. In fact, there are clocks all over this building that, as Rowbotham discovered during the renovation, are all coordinated mechanically. How modern.

While much of the limestone exterior will remain unchanged, the distinctive mechanical penthouse (it looks like a green top hat in profile) and observation deck (once open to the public, but later a much sought-after conquest for urban explorers) will become what the developers are calling "Sky Penthouses," that will function like townhouses as residents enter on the main floor, where the deck is now, and can walk upstairs inside their home as if it were at street level, albeit with a better view.

And that view is striking. The escarpment that runs below St. Clair (the ancient Lake Iroquois shoreline) means the view to the south is an unmatched panorama of Toronto: a perfect, reverse shot of the usual skyline photos we generally see. While visiting the top floor recently to see the last vestiges of the office building that were intact, a train made it's way along the railway line that runs just north of Dupont between Rosedale and The Junction. We could see its entire length rolling through the city as if it was crossing the wide-open Prairies.

Converting an iconic building presents a challenge to designers. "How do we make it relevant in the city again," says Rowbotham. "When it was occupied as an office building, it collected memories. I had fathers of friends who used to work there everyday in the 1970s. They look at it very fondly, because of the artwork, the marble...so without that life inside, how do you make it relevant? The best way is allow new memories to live there. With over 400 new suites, that's potential for 800 people to create their own memories, new life and a new energy level."

Though the building will be filled with private residences, as an office tower, it was off-limits to all but those who had business inside, and the rest of us could only appreciate the details from the outside. With the conversion, more parts of the building will become public-private space, and invite passerby inside.

"I think people will be pleasantly surprised," says Rowbotham. "When you get to the front of the building it'll be exactly the same as today -- the same glamour of the 2 storey lobby is there, the art work is there, the marble, the general way the space is lit -- but we're looking to animate it with potential retail uses to allow everybody access. Now it'll have a wider appeal."

Shawn Micallef is Yonge Street's managing editor and the author of Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto.

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