The news that Ed's Warehouse will close in September means that the most imaginative town planner of his Toronto generation is finally beginning to contract his astonishing empire.
Ed Mirvish, who celebrates his 86th birthday on Monday, did more to humanize and animate Toronto than any other entrepreneur of his time. He alone, of all our capitalists, personally created two distinct and permanent downtown districts. And he did it with style, energy, and a feel for the way good urbanism and good business work together.
What makes this especially remarkable is that he got into the business of town planning by accident, a sequence of events delightfully told in Honest Ed's Story (1972), by Jack Batten. It happened when Honest Ed's, the discount emporium at Bathurst and and Bloor that made his fortune, annoyed its neighbours. In its first great boom years, the 1950s, the store drew complaints about noise and traffic from people living nearby on Markham Street. At the suggestion of City Hall, Mirvish bought about a dozen worn old houses so that he could tear them down and create a parking lot. In the period 1959 to 1963, he purchased a row of them, at prices like $21,000 and $28,500. But when the land was assembled, City Hall no longer thought a parking lot appropriate for that site, so Mirvish had to find another use.
The emerging visual culture of the city, and of his own family, came to the rescue. With the help of his sculptor wife, Anne Mirvish, he transformed Markham into a little bohemia, a place of art galleries and studios for artists. He acquired both sides of the street, more than two dozen properties in all. Galleries, stores, and restaurants filled the street-level spaces and studios went in upstairs. For a while, his son ran the most elegant private art gallery in Canada, the David Mirvish Gallery, which later became an art bookstore. In another space, Olga Korper got her start as a dealer. That part of Markham acquired the name Mirvish Village. It turned out to be exactly what that part of town needed.
King Street, in 1963, needed something much grander. West from University, King was a once-grand avenue that had all but died. The Royal Alexandra Theatre, which had stood there since 1907, was still attracting the touring shows that didn't go to the O'Keefe (now the Hummingbird) Centre. But it was a run-down money loser, and the owners wanted to unload it.
Cawthra Mulock, a great figure in the Toronto aristocracy, had spent $750,000 in pre-First World War money to build it, but now it was available for much less. Mirvish bought it, at the fire-sale price of $200,000. Then he spent lavishly on reviving it. On the day in September, 1963, when he invited journalists to tour it in the company of the designer, Herbert Irvine, it looked like a miracle in red and gold. Mirvish, who had grown up as a poor boy, had made a magnificent gift to the cultural establishment of Toronto. Lady Eaton herself came to the opening and wrote Mirvish a letter saying the revived Royal Alex could be compared with the great theatres in London, Rome and Paris.
The opening of Ed's Warehouse, and several other restaurants, followed naturally. Mirvish had the idea that theatres and restaurants went together. He bought the building next door to the theatre and opened Old Ed's (now the only one still running), Ed's Seafood, Ed's Follies, Ed's Chinese, Ed's Italian Restaurant, a theatre museum, and probably places that even he can't remember. At one point all the restaurants together had 2,800 seats. No one outside the family ever claimed they were good restaurants, but they brought the street to life. They and the theatre fed each other -- "a package," as Ed put it. Part of the charm was an over-earnest striving for class, which meant that Tiffany lamps hung over everything and a dress code remained in force long after most Toronto restaurants had surrendered to a tieless and jacketless new generation. (I can remember painful moments when someone in our party showed up improperly attired, and had to be jammed into an ill-fitting jacket and ugly tie by the waiters.)
But the Royal Alex, Ed's Warehouse and then the Princess of Wales Theatre encouraged others to come to King Street, and eventually it became a kind of theatre district. From the standpoint of urban design, the whole enterprise was superbly handled. Other nearby buildings, government or non-profit, showed no interest in the culture of the streets: Roy Thomson Hall, Metro Hall, and the CBC all stood alone and ignored the creation of sidewalk life. The Mirvish businesses respected the street lines and helped, in the most practical way imaginable, to make downtown Toronto feel like a community. Now the Ed's Warehouse building will be developed by others (though still owned by the family), and the two major theatres will remain, monuments to one of the great citizens of the century.