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OBITUARY: Architect leaves indelibe marks (July 2020)

August 7th, 2020 · No Comments

Martel was a planner and architect who turned parking into parks

Paul Martel (3rd from left) with his loyal band of Ecology Park volunteer gardeners. He saw the project as contributing to the greening and cohesion of the Annex.

By Nicole Stoffman

If you have ever basked in the serenity of Gwendolyn MacEwan Park, delighted in the view of old trees in Taddle Creek Park, or enjoyed the conviviality of the plaza at Jean Sibelius Park, you can thank Paul Martel. 

An astute architect, planner, designer and consensus-builder, Paul brought his love of nature to the revitalization of these parks. He also designed and built Ecology Park (now Paul Martel Park) and an innovative infill public housing project on Madison Ave. A passionate modernist, he worked with the great Canadian modern architect, Ron Thom, on Trent University, and with Mathers & Haldenby Architects on Robarts Library. He also had a deep appreciation for heritage homes, as can be seen in his renovation of The Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Toronto (IICT) on Huron St., and the Elmwood Spa and Bangkok Garden on Elm St.

Mr. Martel, who did so much to shape the Annex neighbourhood where he himself resided, died on April 3, aged 83.

Paul Martel was a Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, and a Member of Long Standing of the Ontario Association of Architects. A citation of appreciation from the House of Commons was presented to him by Olivia Chow in 2006 for the contribution of Ecology Park to the community. 

In the late ‘70s, Mr. Martel was the consultant on an initiative that saved a group of heritage homes on Madison Ave. and transformed them into a public housing project. Density was added with infill housing, which he designed. 

As Mr. Martel explains in the book, Making Cities Work: The Dynamics of Urban Innvovation, the success of the project, completed in 1981, hinged on his ability to include all stakeholders in the process. “He really knew how to integrate good social purpose into architecture,” said Adam Vaughan, MP for Spadina-Fort York. “The project on Madison was very important to him, because it “tied in with his social action,” explained friend Micky Fraterman. 

When Mr. Martel was hired to renovate what would be The Elmwood Women’s Club in 1980, the interiors were dilapidated. He kept only the facade of the original building, restoring the beauty of the exterior masonry, and rebuilt everything in behind. 

“From the outside, it’s hard to tell the old from the new,” said Executive Manager, Marie Picton. “The way he did that, was amazing.”

Inside, he installed a pool, whirlpool, terraced restaurant, dining room and kitchens; all still enjoyed by guests at the Elmwod Spa. He also detailed new woodwork inside that fit right in. 

“In order to house what was going on in here, it was major heavy duty construction,” explained  Picton. “But when you entered the building, you would have thought that was how it was in 1897.”

In 1979, when Mr. Martel met with then director of the IICT, Gianni d’Alba, the architect had already envisioned every detail for the renovation of the 1897 Queen Anne Style heritage home at 496 Huron; a library on the main floor with a small theatre next door, offices, archives and a newsletter room on the second floor, classrooms on the third, and more archives and a kitchen in the basement for catering events. This vision was realized and over the years, many Italian and Canadian personalities were guests of the Istituto, from Adrienne Clarkson, filmmaker Liliana Cavani, professor Agostino Lombardo and writer Umberto Eco, to name a few. The theatre is now used primarily as an art gallery.

Paul Martel was born in St. Boniface, Manitoba, to French parents Raoul Martel, and Arlette Grandmont. He was the eldest of four siblings. In 1948 the family moved to Hamilton, where Paul grew up. He moved to Toronto at the age of 17 to study architecture at the University of Toronto, moving into a rooming house on Admiral Rd. 

Joan Willsher, an abstract painter, lived below him. Paul would stay up at night doing his projects and drawings and would rock a bit on his chair. Joan complained about the noise to the landlady, who replied, “I think you two should meet.”

They met, and married in 1962. The newlyweds took over being landlords of the house on Admiral Rd., purchasing it in 1968, when their daughter, Anne was born. Years later, when Anne found herself a single mother, the Martels happpily took her in, helping to raise their two granddaughters, Rachel and Rosalyn. “Paul was so smitten with his grandchildren,” recalled Picton.

Paul and Joan created a loving, artistic household. One of Rosalyn Martel’s earliest memories was crawling under Paul’s drafting table, and making drawings beside him and his hired draftsmen. He would encourage her to bring her sketch book on any family trip or outing. “He was like this giant heart,” recalls Rosalyn. “He was very gentle, very calm, an incredible listener, and the type of person you could tell absolutely anything to, without fear of judgement.” 

In his role as Chair of the Parks and Trees Committee of the Annex Residents’ Association, Mr. Martel designed Ecology Park, on Madison Ave., just north of Bloor. The garden featured native species representative of all the ecosystems one can find in Southern Ontario. Every Saturday morning for ten years, he led a group of volunteer gardeners to maintain this ambitious little park from April to November. In 2014, it was renamed Paul Martel Park in his honour.

The architect also led the revitalization of Walmer Rd. Circle, an orphaned traffic circle. The city hoped to add some flowers, grass and a statue of a local poet.  By the time Gwendolyn MacEwan Park was unveiled in 2010, it was 25% bigger, thanks to the removal of three parking spots on the outside of the circle. It was bulked out on every corner, turning it from a two-way to a one-way circle, calming traffic and making it safer for pedestrians. Adam Vaughan worked with Paul on the project, one of his first as a City Councillor, and remarked that Martel was one of the few people who’s ever put a park where parking spaces literally used to be. 

“It was quite spectacular,” said Vaughan.

Paul designed Taddle Creek Park in 1976, and his original concepts held when it was redesigned in 2011, such as the mature trees that ring the park on elevated ground.

“So now when you stand in the middle of the park and look out you still get that expansive view of greenery without seeing parked cars,” recalls friend Eric Jackson. “That part of the park is all Paul.”

Community-based park design was a signature element of Adam Vaughan’s tenure as City Councillor for Trinity-Spadina (now Member of Parliament for Spadina-Fort York), and he says he owes it all to Paul Martel. Paul taught him to lead community consultations during the Jean Sibelius Park revitalization. 

“He showed a way to bring voices to the table, and how to blend competing ideas,” recalls Vaughan. “There’s two ways to compromise: you can try and please everyone, or bring people together around a brilliant vision.” 

It took six years, including intense debates between the Annex dog owners who wanted a dog-off leash area, and those who did not (this group won), but the park finally opened in 2012 with new playgrounds, pathways and a central plaza.

“Everything he touched had a reason. He had ideas behind it, he knew how to listen,” recalled Vaughan. “I can’t say enough good things about him. He was a real influence on me, a real influence on the neighbourhood, and one of the most gentle, sweet and smart people I think I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.”

Paul Martel was predeceased by his wife, Joan Willsher-Martel. He leaves his siblings, Lucille, Raymond and Robert; daughter, Anne; grandaughters Rosalyn and Rachel; great-grandsons, Jordan, 11, and Levi, 6;  and great-granddaughter, Aleyah, 2.


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