Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Sam the Record Man sign debacle another example of Toronto not protecting its heritage

By: Metro Toronto Published on Mon Sep 09 2013

There really shouldn’t be a whole lot of debate about the future of the iconic Sam the Record Man sign, which spun its giant neon lights on Yonge Street for decades before the music store shut down. Ryerson University, when they made plans for the old Sam’s location, signed an agreement making it clear that they’d find a place to display the sign again. They should be held to that agreement. Period.

Letting the much-loved sign fall to pieces in storage would set a lousy precedent and stand as just another example of Toronto failing to protect its heritage.

And we’ve had way too much of that over the last few years.

In 2007, Walnut Hall, a Georgian-style building that had stood since 1856 on Shuter Street, went under the wrecking ball. It had been designated a protected heritage building but fell under the weight of neglect and eventually had to be torn down for structural reasons. The site is going to be condos now.

Four years later, arson claimed the old Empress Hotel building at Yonge and Gould. Built in 1888, it had been allowed to deteriorate, with a structural collapse occurring just months before it went up in flames.

That was followed by an incident earlier this year, in which an owner of an 1886 heritage building on Queen Street East simply called in a demolition company to tear it down. The owner said he got a permit. The city disagrees. But the building is gone either way.

The problems with our heritage buildings aren’t just confined to neglectful owners. A lot of it is due to the fact that the city allots only a slight budget and a handful of staff to heritage preservation.

When I asked city-hall staff about a nineteenth-century building at 376 Dundas St. E. that was recently covered in ugly beige stucco-like material called “EIFS,” senior preservation co-ordinator Scott Barrett told me that staff simply had not had time to process a request to designate the building as a protected heritage structure. The request was made in 2011.

The long lag period between requests to protect old buildings and actual heritage designation makes it too easy for historic properties to fall through the cracks. And even after designation, there’s not much in the way of support for property owners, who often face complicated and expensive renovations.

A neon sign is different than a Victorian building, of course, but they’re both pieces of our collective history — a history we are in danger of losing through neglect and underfunding. Put the Sam’s sign back up, but don’t stop there — let’s use this as motivation to finally get serious about protecting our heritage and preserving our past.

This post was originally published at on 2013-09-09T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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