What is Old is Carlu Again (The Carlu’s triumphal reopening)

(a shortened version of the following appeared in The Toronto Star, 27 April 2003)
By Stewart Hoffman

There was a time when most everyone in town knew the Eaton Auditorium.

Its acoustics were so good that Glenn Gould made more than 30 recordings there.
Crowds packed the place to hear artists and entertainers from Serge Rachmaninoff to Nelson Eddy to Duke Ellington to Maurice Chevalier. Debutantes and designers threw parties there. Nervous parents and children in the thousands for decades came from all over the city for the Kiwanis Music Festival.

For 40 years, from the day the auditorium opened in 1931, it was the cultural hub of the city.

And the 1,014-seat Art Deco Auditorium, perched atop Eaton’s old College Street store at Yonge – now College Park – was only one component of the building’s fabled seventh story. The elegant Round Room Restaurant and the sleek foyer that swept the length of the floor were the others. And while its streamlined, art moderne style can be found elsewhere, says Isabelle Gournay, a University of Maryland architecture professor and authority on the period, “in that scale, with a restaurant with a luminous fountain – I don’t think there is any equivalent in North America.”

But ask anyone today about the place and the response would likely be a quizzical stare. And with good reason. It’s been closed to the public since 1976, and hasn’t been headline news since a decade after that. That’s when a Federal Supreme Court order prevented College Park, the owners of the building at the time, from blasting it to smithereens in order to install TD Bank offices. For the next fifteen years it was simply left to rot. No one was allowed in and the developers of the site, Toronto College Street Centre Ltd. wouldn’t talk about it. The floor might have been forgotten altogether, had it not been for Eleanor Koldofsky and Friends of Eaton Auditorium, which organized when the seventh floor was first threatened in 1980.

Koldofsky is a poet and long-time patron of the arts. She ran her own record company, Acquitane Records, for ten years starting in 1975. A Gemini award winning filmmaker, currently wrapping-up filming her own documentary about the floor, she has vivid memories of Eaton’s College Street.

Though the building’s original plans – a seven-story department store topped by a soaring, 670-foot office tower – were nixed when the Depression hit, Koldofsky could still see the new building from her Brunswick Avenue home when it opened in 1930. It was the epitome of opulence. Originally the retailer’s “headquarters of furniture and house furnishings”, its fifth-floor period rooms included a mockup of Marie Antoinette’s Versailles boudoir. There was a second-floor art gallery, and a lending library at street level. The finest materials – including Tyndall limestone, Monel metal and French marble – were used in its construction. But the building’s undisputed crowning jewel was the seventh floor.

Lady Eaton herself, after a trans-Atlantic crossing on the Ile de France, decided that the Art Deco interiors of the spectacular liner should serve as its inspiration. To execute her vision, she hired the French architect and designer Jacques Carlu, a professor at MIT at the time, who would later gain renown for his redesign of the Trocadero in Paris.

Koldofsky recalls her excitement when, as a young girl, she rode the elevator to the top of the building. She would walk along the foyer and into the Round Room restaurant, which boasted a stylish, radio-equipped chandelier and a fountain of black and frosted-white glass plates lit from beneath a pool of water. Grand murals by Natasha Carlu, the architect’s wife, depicted idyllic images of life in the village, forest, fields and by the sea. Eight terra-cotta sculptures by Denis Gélin, set off by dramatic backlighting, were recessed into the walls. “It was glorious,” says Koldofsky. “To be a little girl and walk in there was very special.”

The auditorium, too, left a powerful impression. Covered with panels of Fabrikoid – a kind of rubberized material, golden in tone – and illuminated with wide bands of lighting that snaked up the front walls and across the ceiling to the back of the room, the hall radiated a golden glow that was magical.

“I attended every concert that was performed there,” says Koldofsky – no easy task in the middle of the Depression. To scrape up ticket money, she would swipe empty milk bottles off the front steps of people’s homes, then cash them in for five cents each. When violinist Fritz Kreisler appeared there, Koldofsky, about 12 at the time, sold her shoes to pay for a 75-cent ticket.

Not surprisingly, when the Hall was threatened fifty years later, Koldofsky was in the thick of the fray from the beginning.

In 1976, Eatons sold the building to a consortium, headed by London Life, called Toronto College Street Centre Ltd., with the proviso that the developer would “maintain and restore” the seventh floor. Four years later, company vice-president and general manager Gordon Bacque claimed that the floor was not viable commercially and that a 1975 heritage by-law covering the building did not apply to the seventh floor. He requested City Council’s permission to convert it into TD Bank offices. Toronto’s arts community rallied to the cause, and Friends of Eaton Auditorium was born.

Along with Koldofsky, its membership included Ontario Arts Council president Arthur Gelber, Glenn Gould, soprano Maureen Forrester, interior designer Jim Reid, architect Brian Forsythe, conductor Paul Robinson and media executive Edgar Cowan. Numerous theatre, dance and production companies joined in, lobbying government, circulating newsletters and raising awareness. Alderman Janet Howard helped galvanize City Council’s support. In Patricia Zolf, a city planner whose portfolio included the seventh floor, they had crucial support from within the City Planning Department – all the more important when you consider that Planning and Development Commissioner Stephen McLaughlin was prepared to let Bacque go ahead with his plans if he agreed to recreate the Round Room on the first floor. Neither Zolf, nor Friends, nor the Historical Board bought the idea. Most important, neither did the Land Use Committee. “Basically, the committee wanted further study,” says Zolf. “This is a national historic site for heaven’s sake.”

The City’s rejection of Bacque’s request led to a series of court cases and appeals that finally ended in the 1986 Supreme Court ruling against the developer. Koldofsky has one bitter recollection from the day she went to Ottawa to witness the judges’ decision. “This one judge, struggling into his beautiful red robes leaned over and said to me, ‘What is so important about this hall, the ladies’ toilets? It’s a pity that these buildings can’t be destroyed quickly and save the developers all that trouble.'”

While the Supreme Court supported the 1975 heritage by-law that protected the floor, it nevertheless ruled that the developer’s commitment to maintain and restore it no longer applied. The result? The floor was frozen in time. And from what could be gathered from reports that occasionally filtered out, time was taking its toll.

It was known that the Casavant organ – the magnificent instrument played by Glenn Gould at his debut performance – had been sold at auction, but there were also stories of water damage and vandalism. The Gélin sculptures were gone. Artifacts were turning up in second-hand shops and antique stores. William Dendy, in his classic book, Lost Toronto, even claimed that the Carlu murals had been removed. “It is hard to know,” he wrote, “how much the seventh-floor interiors can be described as ‘lost’.” It appeared that Bacque might win the battle after all.

Then, in 1997, Great West Life Realty Advisors Inc. acquired London Life. A few years after that, GWL, looking to build a pair of Bay Street condos, approached councillor Kyle Rae requesting significant variances to built-forms dating from the ’70s. Rae laid out the terms: no support from the city until there’s a commitment to restore the seventh floor. Not that GWL put up a fight. “I don’t think they realized they had something that valuable,” says Rae. “A light went on. They just started working on it.”

Rae called Koldofsky to deliver the news of the agreement the very day she was presenting a lecture at Toronto’s Heliconian Club, March 20, 2001. She could now add a coda to her backgrounder on the seventh floor: the announcement that her 20-year battle was finally over. At the end of the evening, Koldofsky – a determined, no-nonsense type who doesn’t rattle easily – looked to be somewhat in shock. When Rae called with the news that morning, she said, “I nearly fell over.”

Koldofsky might have felt a similar sinking feeling once she stared out onto the floor for the first time in twenty-five years. The scene was one of peeling paint, smashed glass and garbage everywhere. Ceilings were water damaged. Building materials and pipes were dumped on the floor. Elegant, old leather furniture was broken and sitting in piles “waiting to be taken to the dumpster.” The Round Room served as storage for boxes of broken dishes, the chandelier was painted over, and chunks of the fountain’s black Vitrolite – a rare, architectural sheet glass – were missing. And the niches that had once housed the Gélin sculptures were indeed empty. “I was looking at destruction,” says Koldofsky.

Shocking indeed, but repairing and restoring the damaged rooms and Deco elements would be like performing a facelift compared to the invasive surgery required elsewhere. “A lot of what we’re doing in terms of the finishing on the floor is actually just cleaning up, stripping paint, and repainting what was there,” says Mark Robert who, together with Jeffry Roick, manages The Carlu Corporation, the company leasing the floor from Great West Life for the next thirty years. “The vast majority of our restoration work is going into things that you can’t see.” Things such as upgrading the sprinkler systems, and removing asbestos. One Sunday morning last July, a section of Yonge Street was shut down as three 40-foot vans delivered heating and air conditioning equipment that was then hoisted by a monstrous crane onto the building’s roof. It would later be installed in the mechanical room above the seventh floor.

A total of $8.5 million – $4 million from the Carlu Corporation, $3 million from GWL and $1.5 million from sponsors – has been poured into the floor. Now called The Carlu, it opens on May 1. “Our vision is almost identical to what Lady Eaton’s was when she opened it in 1931,” says Robert – so much so that the permanent, raked seating installed on the auditorium’s main floor in 1951 was removed and replaced with portable seats, similar to the originals. Aside from concerts, theatre and lectures, the hall will once again be used for anything from weddings to meetings to auto shows to – if anyone is so inclined – debutante balls.

The return to a multi-purpose auditorium is key to the financial health of the enterprise. While the reopening of the hall has piqued the interest of a number of cultural organizations – representatives from Tafelmusik, the Mendelssohn Choir, the Royal Conservatory and even the Rome Opera have been through the floor – he says that limiting the venue to cultural events would be financial suicide. “With the rent that we’re paying, we’d be bankrupt in a month. Events beyond cultural offerings generate a greater amount of money, quite frankly, so we have to do one to be able to afford the other.” With that in mind, the auditorium will sport new sound and lighting systems while the entire floor, boasting internet access for 1,700 people, is wired to accommodate any kind of conference or trade show. “We’re trying to make this place sort of plug-in-and-off-you-go for any conceivable type of event.”

The auditorium seats one thousand for a concert, six-hundred-and-eighty with tables and chairs installed. The three-hundred-and-eighty seat Round Room, like the rest of the floor, is a function space. The Clipper Room, used in the old days for light meals, and a new meeting area, forged out of what had been a massive kitchen, complete the floor.

At 7:30 in the morning just over two weeks before opening, the floor buzzes with activity. Workers are painting mouldings along the foyer pillars and cutting baseboard for the Auditorium floor. A scissor lift carries a technician to the foyer ceiling to adjust the lights. The floor is littered with scaffolds and cans of paint. A dolly in the foyer is stacked with carpet tiles.

The ubiquitous Monel metal – a rare alloy of nickel, copper, iron and manganese used on the grills, doors and the display cases lining the foyer – has all been restored and buffed to a rich lustre. The auditorium floor, having been dug up and soundproofed, is again covered with tiles replicating Carlu’s geometric design. The ceiling, after being punctured and probed to remove asbestos, is now pristine.

Every effort has been taken to make the restoration as authentic as possible. Even the two-by-two foot section of mural, once removed from the Round Room wall in order to hang a fire hose cabinet, has been located in a City of Toronto storage facility. With the cabinet now removed, the canvas should be back on the wall in time for the opening.
The murals have been cause for other concerns. Sealed with varnishes that severely yellowed over the years, the risks associated with cleaning them were so high that E.R.A. Architects’ Michael McClelland originally thought that they might have to be left as is. “The trick was that glazes were used as part of the painting. Now it’s difficult to see which is glaze and which is varnish.” Ultimately, the light touch of fine art conservator Laszlo Cser removed some of the yellow with no damage done. E.R.A. – which is also working on the ROM extension with Peter Liebeskind as well as the Gooderham and Worts restoration – is entrusted with the floor’s heritage restoration. WZMH Architects is coordinating the project.

But some of the original material cannot be replaced. Ruboleum, a predecessor to linoleum that was used on the auditorium floor, is no longer available. And matching the colour and size of the fountain’s broken Vitrolite is now impossible. “We’re lucky most of that material was still there,” says McClelland. As for restoring the material that wasn’t there, a period of experimentation was needed to come up with the right match.

And that golden glow of the Auditorium that Koldofsky remembers from days gone by? “The original Fabrikoid was quite gold,” says McClelland. “With layers upon layers of paint applied to it over the years, it became a dull yellow.” McClelland is replacing the material, now deemed a fire hazard, with wallpaper that should recreate the same luminous effect.

You might say the Auditorium is returning to its Golden Age – though it’s unlikely that the Rachmaninoffs and Kreislers of today will schedule performances on as regular a basis. But Koldofsky remains unperturbed. “It could be simply an entertainment hall for weddings or conventions – which would be very beautiful. I only hope the people that have it will make a thundering success of it.”

But while the rest of the building retains its magnificent façade and some of the ground floor Deco features, Koldofsky laments the alterations it has suffered over time: the wonderful arcade that once ran its entire length along Yonge Street is now divided up into separate entranceways, and nondescript provincial courts and offices occupy most of the upper floors.

“The building could never be what it once was. But the seventh floor is what it was.” She pauses, reflecting a moment. “That’s a small miracle really.”