Top of the Seventh

The Carlu, College Park, Toronto
ERA Architects Inc. and WZMH Architects

The reopening of the seventh floor of the old Eatons building at the corner of College and Yonge Streets, Toronto, was a process over 25 years in the making. It included considerable historical research and investigation that set out to understand the intentions in space, proportion, lighting and materiality of the original 1930s interiors. Being one of the few remaining Art Moderne interiors in Canada, the seventh floor of the old Eatons in the College Park building represents a unique social space in this country. The Carlu, the series of rooms named after designer Jacques Carlu, was originally opened in 1930 and was entombed in the mid-1970s after Eatons moved its flagship store to the new Eaton Centre further south on Yonge Street. It was through the combination of an enlightened client and optimistic market conditions that the Carlu’s restoration of its spaces begun a new chapter in the appreciation of an important piece of Toronto’s heritage. In its first incarnation, the Carlu was technically advanced for its time. The challenge for ERA Architects was to preserve the original architectural intentions that related to technological innovation without ending up with an anachronistic expression of interior architecture technology.

The seventh floor is divided into several spaces: the Round Room, Clipper Rooms, Foyer and Auditorium. The interior architecture had, from the outset, a didactic approach. It represented a truly wonderful example of Art Moderne in Toronto. Architect Jacques Carlu was quite successful in developing a style that made a transition toward Modernism through his work on many department stores, ocean liners and places where people could socialize. Carlu’s method and approach to the seventh floor was driven by a desire to develop well-considered surfaces that would incorporate new technology and would include a conscious decision to incorporate a streamlined and economical aesthetic that defined the Art Moderne movement. Carlu’s careful program of lighting, materiality, colour and texture was used to define surfaces and spaces that would form the basis of creating a particular mood, showcasing culture and elevating the senses of the average citizen arriving at the department store.

Social Space

Lady Eaton envisioned a retail space that would serve a public purpose that transcended the commercial realm. She believed that architecture could educate the masses. When the Eatons’ building was built on the corner of Yonge and College, Toronto’s inventory of public spaces was weak, especially during the winter months where few spaces could offer an opportunity to spend an afternoon of leisure sheltered from the blistering cold. Eatons approached the retail challenge as an opportunity to create a series of internal galleries in which customers and by extension, the public, could shop freely while engaging in a social activity. The seventh floor served as an example of the Eatons’ vision of public life in Toronto that was essentially financed by the six floors of retail below. Lady Eaton understood the value of “mall culture” early on in Canada’s retail history and well before Rem Koolhaas wrote his Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping (Taschen: 2001). Throughout the store, Eatons offered bare, functional elements including large freestanding vitrines that were elegantly detailed with metal details made of monel, a steel-nickel alloy that is highly resistant to corrosion. The store also contained large, well-lit and uninterrupted surfaces of marble. Stairwells were open in between floors where numerous escalators and elevators would lift shoppers up through the building. At the seventh floor, one could attend lectures on the value of modern living and tasteful design, which served to educate the public about making intelligent and stylish purchases. While the goal of the pedagogical experience was ultimately geared to shopping, the seventh floor was also a destination where shoppers would be entertained while having tea and viewing the art for sale.

The Process of Restoration

The Carlu is a national historic site whose heritage status had been legally challenged in the 1980s. A court ruling in 1986 concluded that the 1985 heritage by-law concerning the building included the seventh floor. The developer at the time had no means to restore it, and was legally bound to preserve it. The result was benign neglect, and the whole floor was closed to the public. When the latest process of restoration began, ERA Architects were required to preserve much of the original configuration of the 1930s while weighing the value of nostalgia, historical accuracy and contemporary considerations that were required to make the space viable, such as using some of the original back of house spaces for washrooms and public areas, most notably the Sky Room.

The project began in earnest during 2000, when Great West Life decided to reopen the seventh floor. Since they had no tenant at the time, they hoped to do the work with a small budget of $2,500,000. This figure proved to be unworkable. In August 2001, the client group and budget shifted when tenants came on board in the process. Jeff Roick and Mark Robert had a vision to turn the seventh floor space into a venue where private and public functions could be held. They brought with them experience, money and a clear vision. Mark came from Cadillac Fairview while Jeff was an event planner. The speed in which the project was conducted was a major complicating factor. The beginning of the contract documentation phase to the completion of the final project amounted to a period of roughly only eight months. While some work was done beforehand, the change in budget, client and overall direction of the project meant that much of the work had to be reconsidered once the new tenants came on board.

As construction began, the value of project team relationships became clear. Aecon, the contractors for the project, were extremely adept at handling difficult situations as they arose and in relaying issues to architects. Senior Project Manager Sal Assenza and Project Superintendent Mike Keating were brought into a project with a difficult timeframe and budget. Not only did they manage to respect the deadline but costs were kept within budget as much as possible while the contractors worked above and beyond the scope of the contract. This might have been helped by the strong vision of the client in addition to the concern for detail that was facilitated through the efforts of ERA Architects.

Scott Weir, who led the restoration project for ERA along with Hadi Khouzam of WZMH, were committed to strengthening the value of the tripartite relationship between the client, contractor and consultants. This relationship was especially critical in an interior project of this scope and level of sensitivity. Throughout the process, the architects had to engage in a position of leadership in order to nurture the structure of the project while keeping the team talking about the “possibilities” and the “solutions”. Out of many revisions and meetings that were held over the course of the project, stumbling blocks continued to appear and this is why Weir cannot stress enough the importance of maintaining a strong relationship between all parties involved.

The colour palette of the space was taken from the marble paneling used at the end of the foyer space. The surfaces of the various rooms amounted to volumes with various textures and colours. Even the windows carry a particular form through the composition of divided lites. At the time of its original construction, the use of the sprinkler system was a new technological advancement. As a result, the sprinkler system was emphasized in the aesthetic of the ceiling detailing where, for example, the mouldings in the front foyer were designed to express the sprinkler heads.

Of particular note is the way the Round Room produces a space that relies on the strategy of building a circle within a square. This enabled unobtrusive functions t
o occur within the back of house spaces. Behind the circular faade of the Round Room lies a series of coatrooms and closets. While the public side of the Round Room is highly finished and resolved, the spaces behind them are raw. There was no attempt to conceal the rear of the walls that were constructed of lathe and plaster just as the monel and white glass windows conceal a rough iron and steel framework behind the clean public side of the assembly.

The wide foyer of the Carlu was designed with a curious sense of proportion. Lighting consultants from H.H. Angus provided insight into an effective lighting strategy to bring about greater comfort in patrons. Because lighting has an effect on how people perceive spaces, secondary sources of lighting were placed along the perimeter in order to prevent the foyer from becoming too cavernous.

A decision was made to restore the auditorium to its 1930s shape. The raked floor was removed as was the fixed seating on the main level. Carpeting and some of the hard wall surfaces were removed and the restoration of the fixed seating on the balcony level and the wall coverings were fairly true to the original. Overall, this restoration served quite well for certain types of performances and venues, such as those that originally occurred in the auditorium. Unfortunately, the acoustics of the auditorium were not designed to carry amplified sounds. Thus, in the restoration process, the acoustical strategy switched from an unamplified to an amplified hall which meant that corrections had to be incorporated into a new sound system.

The dilemma in dealing with contemporary acoustic requirements in the auditorium meant that a decision would have to be made whether to deaden certain surfaces to account for acoustical amplification and this issue has yet to be perfected. In addition, apartments were built adjacent to the auditorium since its closure in 1977. This meant that the issue of sound absorption along the auditorium wall had to be addressed because it served as a demising wall for the apartments on the other side. When the auditorium first opened, energy requirements and electrical loads were not a major safety or cost consideration. In order to cut down on electrical and heating loads on the space, adjustments had to be made with the lighting system in order to increase its level of efficiency. While the results achieved in colour and intensity of the lighting solutions were not to the full satisfaction of architects in terms of recreating the exact ambience of the original lighting scheme, the special dimmable warm fluorescent lighting approximated the original artificial lighting scheme without substantial compromise.

Another point of interest that is not apparent to the casual observer is that some of the missing elements are only to be found in historical photos. Statues from the niches inside the Round Room are missing and while some of the original furniture remains in storage, much of it is nowhere to be seen. Special hoods above the auditorium doors did not make their way back into the restoration either. Nonetheless, new curtains and the restored plaster relief sculpture in the auditorium are magnificent, as is the care involved in restoring the qualities and detailing of the linoleum, new light fixtures, grilles and the Birds’ Eye maple veneer.

Today, the space in the old Eatons building that was once a large bakery operating on the seventh floor (it served the entire Toronto area) has been converted into the Sky Room and provides for new washrooms and offices.

Mechanical considerations, such as air handling was addressed through the help of H.H. Angus’ Catherine Belanger. One solution permitted the detailing of return air grilles and a floating ceiling in the foyer (designed by WZMH architect Hadi Khouzam) to enable the HVAC to be updated without compromising the original qualities of the space while continuing to showcase the provision of fresh air dispensed through the numerous and ornate monel grilles found throughout the Carlu. Other mechanical challenges included the accommodation of a smoking lounge with a separate air exchange that had to be incorporated into the existing space while providing air circulation through the existing vents.

The Fountain

Perhaps the restoration and rebuilding of the fountain, with the collaboration of Nelson and Garrett, symbolizes the archaeology and craft involved in the whole restoration process in the project. For Weir, the fountain, with its components of electricity, water, lighting, and the lighting fixture incorporated into the ceiling above came to symbolize the synthesis of technology, surface and atmosphere. It remains to be seen how this incarnation of Jaques Carlu’s design will integrate itself into Toronto social life as a place for planned events and installations, but its intentions remain clear–to continue to educate the public about the value of interior architecture.

Client: Carlu Corporation; Great West Life Reality Division

Architect team: Michael McClelland, Edwin Rowse, Scott Weir, Philip Evans, David Winterton, Marsha Kelmans, Lindsay Reid (ERA); Jay Bigelow, Hadi Khouzam, Maria Cabrera (WZMH)

Structural: John Kooymans, Yolles

Mechanical/Electrical: Catherine Blanger, Sergey Polak (H.H. Angus)

Contractor: Aecon–Sal Assenza (Senior Project Manager); Mike Keating (Project Superintendent)

Specialist consultants: Paul Connally (Waterworx); . Paul McCluskey (Design.Net)

Area: 50,000 sq. ft.

Budget: $6 million

Completion: April 2003

Photography: Scott Weir, unless otherwise noted