Wanda Baxter Reviews Elegant Collection of Buildings’ Stories and Images, Rescued “from the rubble”
305 Lost Buildings of Canada
Raymond Biesinger (artist) & Alex Bozikovic
Goose Lane Editions
Think of this book as an impossible architectural walking tour. It spans the country, its cities and countryside, and jumps across periods of history without hesitation. We hope that after you’ve taken this city-by-city trip through what used to be here, you will think twice about how your home city is changing––or not changing.
There’s something unique and pleasing about the way 305 Lost Buildings feels to hold. A unique size at 5.5 x 9 inches (taller and narrower than a novel), the book has height and weight in my hand. The texture of the paper is also pleasing and–though unappealing when I first glanced at the bold, almost neon-like orange-and-black cover–the distinct and slick illustrations and striking colouration won me over.
Here’s the thing about 305 Buildings of Canada, it’s not what I expected from a book about heritage buildings. But that’s the point. The book is doing its own thing, and it looks, feels and reads like it.
What I love most about 305 Lost Buildings: the writing is stellar throughout. The succinct, thoroughly researched prose is written with the kind of elegance most writers only dream about.
I remember in high school, trying to learn how to write a précis and finding it near impossible, but Alex Bozikovic is a master. In less than 184 pages, Bozikovic shares key information and notable stories about 305 buildings that no longer exist, AND what happened to them. It is an incredible feat of distilling information and stories into bite-sized (though satisfying) pieces of cultural history.
His partner on the book, illustrator Raymond Biesinger, matches the style of the writing perfectly with his stand-out, two-dimensional renderings of every one of the 305 buildings. The images are arresting, effective, and ultra-cool.
If you are like me and have lived in numerous cities in Canada (and are old enough to remember some of the “lost buildings”), this book may also hit nerves you didn’t know were there. I was reminded that the hulking, art-deco building I was born in, the Saint John Regional Hospital, is gone.
Landmark buildings that carried meaning for me in Halifax, like the distinctive CBC building on the corner of Sackville Street, the ever-classic Mills Brothers Building on Spring Garden, and the building built in the 1840s that housed the Sweet Basil Bistro are also gone. I was surprised to feel a pang of loss when I read that the old Woolworth building on Slater Street in Ottawa (where I’d wandered on my lunch breaks when I worked on Parliament Hill in my 20s) is gone. The infamous Cecil Hotel in Calgary, which I skirted on my way downtown on my bike while studying at the U of Calgary, is gone too.
I was saddened the most, though, to learn of the demise of the one-and-only Ben’s Restaurant and Deli in Montreal. On a trip to Montreal in my undergrad, I walked into Ben’s and was transported. It was like something out of a movie. I’d never imagined such a place was real: the framed, signed pictures of famous people who had stopped by, the bottomless coffee served in white porcelain mugs, the unbelievably perfect bagels, the servers dressed “in white shirts and black bow ties. … It finally closed in 2006, and its décor went to the McCord Museum.” RIP, Ben’s.
Biesinger and Bozikovic’s 305 Lost Buildings will hit personal nerves and remind you of things you didn’t know you cared about, while it also hits deep cultural nerves about who we are and what we value (and don’t). Many churches have been demolished along the way. Many theatres and buildings where live entertainment reigned are no more. Grand train stations, post offices, fine bank buildings and library buildings: gone.
Other lost buildings are remembered not for their architectural value or beauty, but for their one-of-a-kind-ness. The Toronto building where Sam the Record Man was housed is gone; the much-loved, iconic Peter Pan Restaurant in Charlottetown was demolished in 2020; the irreplaceable Honest Ed’s (also in Toronto) and Telstar Drug of Calgary (with its faux satellite on the roof) are gone too.
Some tragic stories are remembered in 305 Lost Buildings, and stories of success and progress are told too. Other stories of lost buildings of Canada are missing altogether, however, and it is an unfortunate oversight. Canada north of the 60th parallel is ignored entirely (as is rural Canada, though perhaps that is another book in the making), and the exclusion is strange and takes away from the otherwise comprehensive effort. I looked for an explanation as to why they excluded the North in a book about Canadian heritage, but found none — which is also strange.
Though many different buildings and reasons for their demolition are featured in 305 Lost Buildings, a common undercurrent runs throughout. In many cases, we paved what was there, and put up a parking lot (or mall). Thankfully, Biesinger and Bozikovic have rescued the buildings’ stories and images from the rubble, so we can remember what was once there – and why they mattered.