House of surprises

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By Rodney Barnes

An old building is like an old person. It’s musty and worn down. You put up with it only because it’s managed to survive this long. But as time goes on and it doesn’t stop aging, problems occur with greater frequency and hit the wallet harder. And when time calls for change, it’s met with difficulty and resistance.

So it was no surprise to Sheldon Levy when asbestos was found behind the walls during the demolition crew’s gutting of the Image Arts building. But it came as a shock, Levy said, when a crack was found in one of two main water lines coming in to the building, increasing the work load of an already stressed renovation that broke ground mid-May in 2009.

It all began with the anonymous donation of the million-dollar Black Star photography collection, a series of about 300,000 photos documenting many of the 20th Century’s most memorable moments, and $7 million towards a gallery and to preserve the photographs. In 2006 plans were proposed to install the collection as an upgrade to the image arts building and in 2007 Toronto’s Diamond and Schmitt Architects were chosen to develop an entire retrofit worth over $8 million. Plans were approved in January 2008 and by March drawings of the new building were released to the public, showing a futuristic block clad in glowing glass.

The original building was built in 1953 and was the warehouse and bottling works of the O’Keefe brewery. It was purchased by Ryerson and renovated in 1970 to house photography and film students and help manage the ballooning enrollment rates at the university. Now, 40 years later, image arts students are waiting to move back in as construction turns the corner of what campus planning and facilities director Ian Hamilton calls the demolition phase, and moves into the “build-up” phase.

Last summer the building was closed off to students and faculty, displacing the 700 undergrad and 150 grad students who took courses in the Image Arts building. Many of their classes are now held in the Victoria Street building, with the image arts lounge shared with the international students’ lounge and photography students using equipment cages in the Victoria Street building and Kerr Hall.

The renovation was originally planned to be completed by September 2010, but if shocks like the cracked water pipe are any indication, a delay is not out of the question. Hamilton is reserved about the date. And Levy is also apprehensive about meeting the deadline for completion. “Hope is a good word,” he said.


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