The Imperial Oil Building and St. Clair Avenue in Toronto

I lived in the St. Clair area of Toronto in the 1990s when there were two movie theatres and three big book stores. Sadly, they all closed down in the next decade (although a Book City opened in that area recently). I always felt it was an undervalued neighborhood, overshadowed by the more bustling Yonge and Eglinton area just north of it.

Along St. Clair are a number of corporate offices, including one of my favorites: the Imperial Oil building.

Located at 111 St. Clair Avenue West,  it is going to be converted into a condo, the Imperial Plaza. It’s a beautiful 20th century modernist structure with an interesting history.
Here’s the wikipedia entry on it:

The Imperial Oil Building, designed by Alvan Mathers, is a skyscraper outside the downtown financial core of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Located at 111 St. Clair Avenue West, the 21-storey building was built in 1957 as the headquarters of Imperial Oil, Canada’s largest oil company.

The architectural model for this building was the original design for the Toronto City Hall. Nathan Phillips, Toronto’s mayor in 1955, rejected the Mathers and Haldenby design for city hall and opened the commission to an international competition that was eventually won by Finnish architect Viljo Revell. Imperial Oil, in search of a design for their Toronto head office, bought the design from Mathers and Haldenby.

During construction, catering to the wealthy local residents, welding rather than the then-customary and much noisier riveting technique, was used. The building, on completion, was the largest all-welded steel frame building in the world.

When Imperial Oil assembled the residential properties for the site, Isabel Massie, owner of a house on Foxbar Road, at the rear of the site, refused to sell, despite being offered what was, at the time, a princely sum for her house. Until she died, her property jutted into the Imperial Oil parking lot, an icon of a citizen’s refusal to give in to a corporation. Her estate sold the house to Imperial Oil, which demolished it.

The interior layout is based on the ‘core’ concept, with most offices having windows and with the various service elements (elevators and meeting rooms) clustered in the centre.

With its thick walls, relatively small windows, a built-in cafeteria, a location separated from major targets, and large offices that could be converted to wards, the IOB was designed to be used, in the event of nuclear attack, as an alternative hospital.
The Imperial Oil Building from the west, giving a better view of the observation deck at its top.

The building sits atop a high escarpment with a commanding view to the south, and before the construction of the downtown banking towers, in the late 1960s, the top floor observation deck was, at almost 800 feet (244 metres) above sea level, the highest point in Toronto; on a clear day visitors could see the rising spray from Niagara Falls, across Lake Ontario.

The ground floor lobby features a famous mural, “The Story of Oil”, executed by York Wilson in 1957. Three years in the planning and construction, the two panels of the diptych are each 25 feet by 32 feet; the left-hand side of the mural depicts the nature of oil from its prehistoric origins, while the right-hand panel portrays the modern benefits of its exploitation.

The mural is made of vinyl acetate and is mounted to the wall in such a way that vibrations in the building will not be transmitted to the artwork, possibly causing it to crack. In addition, a ventilation system behind the same wall prevents moisture collecting on the material. Crawley Films of Ottawa was engaged to document the artwork’s realization.

As announced in a press conference on September 29, 2004, the company has re-located to Calgary, Alberta (some corporate operations moved to the Esso Building at 90 Wynford Drive in Don Mills, Ontario). The building has been unoccupied for some years and is listed for sale. Soil testing before the property was listed found that sand about 40 feet below the parking lot was contaminated with heating oil that had leaked from an underground storage tank. The soil was excavated and taken away for cleaning.

In preparation for the sale, the owners told Deer Park United Church next door that they would no longer supply building heat to the church, effective July, 2008. This led the dwindling congregation to leave the church and share space with a nearby Presbyterian church. The Deer Park church building also remains vacant as of January, 2010.

The building was sold in the summer of 2010 to condominium developer Camrost-Felcorp.[1]

The converted condo will now be known as Imperial Plaza.[2]

Over at BlogTo, they had a chance to wander around the building before work started on it, and you can see that here.

If you do get a chance, you must see the mural. It is fantastic. People who live in this condo should be quite fortunate indeed.

Here’s to the growth of St. Clair, and the appreciation and new development of the buildings along the way.

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