Posts Tagged 'George Robb'

Meet me at the Shell Oil Tower

Shell Oil Tower brochure 1

Based upon a winning competition entry by Toronto architect George Robb, the Shell Oil Tower was an Exhibition Place landmark from its completion in 1955 to its demise in 1985. The welded-steel and glass structure, the first of its kind in Toronto, extended 120 feet above the midway and provided fairgoers with panoramic views over the city and Lake Ontario from its open-air observation deck. Hardy patrons could eschew the elevator and climb twin staircases that scissored back and forth behind the glass walls, the equivalent of ascending a nine-storey building. Capping the tower was a giant clockface 16 feet in diameter, visible from across the fairgrounds, with hour markers three feet high.

CNE Shell Oil Tower

During the 1960s and 70s the Shell Oil Tower was renamed the Bulova Tower and traded its analog clockface for a then-new digital readout, but retained its popularity as a viewing platform and fairground meeting place. Elevator breakdowns and other maintenance issues led to its closing in 1983, however, and in 1985, despite protests from architects, preservationists and urbanists such as Jane Jacobs, the tower was demolished to make way for the first Molson Indy racetrack. More about Exhibition Place’s Modernist buildings can be found here.

Shell Oil Tower brochure 2

Shell Oil Tower brochure 3

A medley of motor hotels

Constellation Hotel postcard, c. 1963

A creation of postwar mobility and affluence, the upscale motor hotel swept across North America during the 1950s and 60s. Motor hotels combined the auto-oriented convenience and informal ease of the suburban motel with the luxury amenities, attentive service and fine dining found in the better downtown hotels, all wrapped in a high-style architectural package that captured pure midcentury swank.

In Toronto, the model was epitomized by the sleek and glamourous Four Seasons Motor Hotel and the Inn on the Park, both designed by Peter Dickinson, and the Scandinavian-influenced Valhalla Inn by George Robb. Joining the trend in the early 1960s were three other notable architect-designed motor hotels: the Constellation Hotel, the Ascot 27 Hotel and the Canadiana Motor Hotel.

Constellation postcard 2 LR

With air travel rapidly expanding and the new Toronto International Airport under construction, formerly rural Dixon Road became a magnet for hotel development. The Constellation Hotel (above and top) was among the first to open in 1963 at Dixon and Carlingview Drive. Architects Bregman + Hamann designed the Constellation as a two-part composition, fronting the block of guest rooms with a low-pitched A-frame pavilion for the entrance lobby and dining lounges. Rugged fieldstone walls helped to visually tie the pavilion to the site and contrasted its transparent glassiness. The Constellation’s backers further upped the ante by commissioning murals from Jack Reppen and Harold Town as well as Galaxy, an enormous welded-aluminum sculpture by Gerald Gladstone that now resides in front of the Etobicoke Civic Centre.

Ascot 27 postcard LR

Ascot 27 Hotel crop

The Ascot 27 Hotel opened in 1960 near the intersection of Rexdale Boulevard and Highway 27, also convenient to the Toronto airport and the new Woodbine horse-racing track. Architect George Robb stretched the hotel 700 feet along a curving ravine escarpment, giving guests and restaurant diners a birds-eye view into the trees of the Humber River valley below. A swoopy Swiss chalet-style roof, inset with coloured glass, established an immediate visual identity and created dramatic interior spaces for the entrance lobby and dining lounge.

Canadiana postcard LR

Overlooking Highway 401 at Kennedy Road was the Canadiana Motor Hotel, designed by James Murray and Henry Fliess and opened in 1962. Here, the signature element was the circular dining pavilion, a space-age flying saucer that had alighted on the lawn next to the amoeba-shaped swimming pool. The crisply rectilinear main building provided an inset sundeck for each of the 95 rooms as well as lounge and conference facilities.

Like most of their contemporaries, much has changed for these roadside icons in the intervening fifty years. The Constellation Hotel was repeatedly expanded, enveloping the original building and enlarging from 150 rooms to 800 rooms (including numerous disco-era clubs, restaurants, health spas and palm-tree atriums) before going bankrupt in the early 2000s. The abandoned complex was finally demolished in 2012. The Ascot 27 Hotel is also long gone, replaced by high-rise residential towers, while the Canadiana’s guestroom block lives on within the current Delta Toronto East. The economics of the hospitality industry have shifted to blandly generic chain accommodations, but the remaining preserved or restored examples of classic motor hotels still bring a sense of style to the open roads.

Exhibition Place goes Modernist

Inaugurated in 1879 as the site of the Toronto Industrial Exhibition, Exhibition Place currently draws over five million people each year to the Canadian National Exhibition, the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, sporting and cultural events and trade and consumer shows. Although Exhibition Place’s eclectic mix of buildings dates as far back as 1794, seven major structures built between 1948 and 1962 exemplified Modernist architecture in Toronto and captured the optimistic, forward-looking spirit of the time.

CNE Grandstand Stadium

Grandstand Stadium (Marani and Morris, 1948; demolished 1999) was Exhibition Place’s first postwar Modernist building and received a silver medal in the inaugural 1950 Massey Medals for Architecture competition. For many years the home of Argonauts football, Blue Jays baseball and innumerable concerts and special events, the stadium was defined by its massive steel-truss roof, cantilevered over the spectators for unobstructed sightlines. A carefully-detailed rear elevation of brick and limestone gave the building a substantial street-level presence.

The Food Building (Richard Fisher, 1954) was built to showcase the products of Canada’s food industry, from Laura Secord chocolates to Maple Leaf meats and Red Rose tea. An 80-foot pylon of stainless steel, now removed, marked the main entrance; reflecting pools at the secondary entrances feature bronze fish sculptures by Jean Horne. The enormous FOOD sign atop the roof remains, and after dark the rows of hourglass light fixtures wash the exterior walls with cones of light.

Once a dominant landmark at Exhibition Place, the steel-and-glass Shell Oil Tower (George Robb, 1955; demolished 1985) provided visitors with 360-degree views from its observation deck. The giant analogue clockface, visible from across the exhibition grounds, was replaced in the late 1960s by a then-novel digital readout.

The Queen Elizabeth Building (Page & Steele, 1956) was designed by Peter Dickinson, an English émigré architect who helped define Modernist architecture in Canada before his untimely death in 1961 at the age of 35. Folded-plate concrete roofs facilitated the long spans required for the 1300-seat theatre and exhibition hall, complemented by a swooping entrance canopy (now removed) and a glass-walled lobby with a freestanding spiral staircase. The blade-like structural towers jutting from the exhibition hall are particularly dramatic. In the foreground is the Princess Margaret Fountain, created by the Toronto exhibit-display firm Design Craft and installed in 1958.

Dufferin Gates (Philip Brook, 1959), a 65-foot-high parabolic arch of reinforced concrete, marks the northern entrance to Exhibition Place. Its shape was likely inspired by Eero Saarinen’s famous Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, designed in 1947 but not completed until 1965.

Canada’s national sport found its permanent home at the Hockey Hall of Fame (Allward and Gouinlock, 1962; demolished 2005). Neoclassical New Formalist influences showed in its columned entrance portico, polished white granite exterior walls and latticework screens of gold-anodized aluminum. A matching east wing, added in 1967 for the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, completed the symmetrical composition.

CNE Better Living Centre

The Better Living Centre (Marani, Morris & Allan, 1962) celebrated the latest consumer goods for the home, including furniture, appliances, electronics and housewares. A thin, flat roof appears to float above the curving walls of white glazed brick, separated by a narrow band of clerestory windows. Some five acres of floor space were relieved by a central courtyard marked by a Mondrianesque tower of black steel and coloured Plexiglas.

CNE aerial view

Canadian National Exhibition postcard 1

The Valhalla Inn passes on

Valhalla Inn postcard image

Named after the mythical resting place for Viking warriors who died in battle, the Valhalla Inn opened in the spring of 1963 at 1 Valhalla Inn Road, Etobicoke, just off Highway 427 and a few minutes’ drive from the new Toronto International Airport. Closed in 2009 and now in the process of demolition, the Valhalla Inn exemplified the exotically-themed, high-style motor inn so popular during the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

The Valhalla Inn was conceived when local builder Edmund Peachey, inspired by Viking longhouses and Danish Modern furniture while traveling in Europe, commissioned architect George Robb to design a Scandinavian interpretation of a motor inn. Beginning with a landscaped courtyard enclosed by low wings housing guest rooms, a fine-dining restaurant and a pair of cocktail lounges, Robb created a romanticized Nordic fantasyland amid the asphalt tundra of suburban Toronto.

Exteriors were weathered cedar planks, Cooksville brown brick and rough-cut stone; a porte-cochere with monolithic fieldstone piers marked the main entrance. The Valhalla Inn’s trio of conical roofs atop the Nordic Dining Room, clad in cedar shingles, referenced traditional Scandinavian oasthouses and established a signature visual image for passing motorists. Finely-detailed wood fascia along the roof edge accentuated the building’s horizontal lines and produced delicate shadow effects. The courtyard garden drew upon the Canadian Shield as well as Scandinavian forests, with gnarled pines, native wildflowers and exposed rock jutting from the rugged terrain. A second south wing was added in the late 1960s and a 13-storey tower in 1977, completing the inn’s final configuration.

Valhalla 2 LR

Inside, past the massive teakwood entrance doors with sculpted bronze handles, the Valhalla Inn’s interiors were a warm, richly-toned mix of wood, brick and stone accented by bronze and copper. The walls of the Nordic Dining Room were cedar and fieldstone, the ceilings lined in Douglas fir with exposed timber beams. Overhead, natural light filtered down from skylights set into the peaked ceilings of the oasthouse roofs. Most of the furniture and lighting fixtures were custom-designed by Robb, as was the Viking longship bar with its carved dragon head holding court in the adjoining Nordic Lounge. Down a few steps was the Mermaid Lounge, where portholes behind the wraparound bar offered underwater views into the swimming pool. Patrons could sip their Martinis and Manhattans while young women in mermaid costumes languidly swirled about the luminous waters.

Valhalla 1 LR

Valhalla Inn pool bar crop

Set to replace the Valhalla Inn are the One Valhalla Towns and Condos, a complex of 68 townhouses and three glass-walled residential towers of 22, 30 and 35 storeys rising from a landscaped podium. But not all is lost; in consultation with the City of Toronto’s Heritage Preservation Services, the developer will incorporate the famed longship bar and other interior elements into an amenity room upon the podium, which in turn will be topped by a full-sized recreation of the iconic oasthouse roofs.

Nordic Lounge, Valhalla Inn, postcard image c. 1970s

George Robb (1923-1991) is best known for his 1955 Shell Tower (later the Bulova Tower, demolished), for many years a landmark on the CNE grounds. Other notable projects are the Old York Lane retail laneway in Yorkville, the Guildwood Village Church in Scarborough, offices for the Beaver Lumber Company and subsequent Valhalla Inns in Thunder Bay, Kitchener and Markham. In addition to his architectural practice, Robb taught generations of students as an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture from 1948 to 1984. His firm, founded in 1952, continues as George Robb Architect.

Season’s Greetings from the Shell Oil Tower

Architect George Robb’s Shell Oil Tower was for many years an icon of the Canadian National Exhibition and, as the postcard above indicates, the holiday season as well. Opened in 1955, the steel-and-glass tower provided fairgoers with 360-degree views from its observation deck, topped by a giant clock visible from passing cars on Lake Shore Boulevard and the Gardiner Expressway. Later renamed the Bulova Tower and fitted with a then-novel digital clockface, the structure was removed in 1985 to make way for the Toronto Indy racetrack.

Happy holidays to all—stay tuned for more in 2011!


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