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From the archives

The March of the Cheezie

Our snacks as a history of ourselves

Model Behaviour

A Haida village as seen in a windy city

Beyond the City Limits

Diversity and rural Canada

Somewhere above Bloor Street

What Noah and Rose built

William Thorsell

How much of the apartment did Mr. Johnson, a towering figure in 20th-century architecture, actually design? How should new architecture relate to heritage architecture? The stand-off also raises questions about how far into private homes preservation should be able to reach.
— 
Globe and Mail, January 30, 2021

In 2001, the president of the foundation charged with raising money for the Royal Ontario Museum, where I was director and CEO for ten years, suggested we contact a retired businessman named Noah Torno. Soon after, Noah agreed to lunch with me at the museum’s restaurant, JK ROM. I read the briefing notes and headed upstairs to meet him. It was the start of a particular friendship.

Noah was already seated at the far end of the bistro when I arrived, some ninety years of age and elegantly attired in a blue blazer and ebullient tie. As I settled in, he was sipping from a large glass of red wine. He had stories to tell and proceeded to do so.

He spoke of his time on the ROM board some thirty years earlier, portraying the museum as a hive of scheming characters indulging diverse appetites and engaging in mutual vendettas. He had rather enjoyed the drama, he said with an impish grin, and asked if anything had changed. I indicated that, in my term so far, the ROM was considerably more boring in that respect, though the vagaries of human nature kept us distressed and entertained, within bounds. I set out our vision for the next decade — what would turn out to be a $300-million renovation and expansion project known as Renaissance ROM. Unlike the very few retired board members I had met, Noah did not express doubt or mirth; the plans intrigued him.

Everything was as it had always been.

Panda Associates; Canadian Architectural Archives; University of Calgary

“Now, please tell me more about yourself,” I said as two more glasses of excellent wine appeared. He did so with gusto and with whatever added colour, embellishment, and elided fact he wished.

Noah Torno was born a Jewish kid in Toronto’s west end in 1910. By high school, his family had moved to the east end, and he ended up at Jarvis Collegiate Institute, where he excelled. In his graduating year, a recruitment team appeared from the University of Toronto, seeking to attract the best students. Noah indicated his interest in medicine or law. Neither faculty was open to Jews, the recruiters said, and suggested commerce and accounting instead. Noah could look forward to a back-office job in the finance department at Eaton’s — a solid place for a Jew in Toronto those days. That was not to be.

Noah’s father was prepared to put up tuition. Noah asked how much that would amount to over four years. He then made his father an offer: Hand over that sum now, and if he could not double it within two years, he would go to university at his own expense. The elder Torno reluctantly agreed.

Noah bid on an industrial building that had come up for auction in lower Mimico, then a small town west of Toronto’s High Park. He offered too much and got it. Short story: he ran low on cash, then more than doubled his money in two years, and never went to the University of Toronto. So began Noah’s career in real estate, where he built a substantial portfolio over time.

He also wanted to be a fiction writer. He once wrote a pornographic novel and tried to sell it to a guy who had an office above some shop on Queen Street West. Noah didn’t say where the manuscript ended up. We ordered more wine.

Noah told me how he had met Rose Laine and fallen in love. Rose was among the first women to graduate in law from the University of Alberta. She had married, had a son, and had gotten divorced at a time when the Senate had to assent to such things. She then moved to Toronto and volunteered for the armed forces during the Second World War, where she crossed paths with Noah, who was working in army intelligence. Formidable both, they married; Noah inherited a stepson, and Rose Torno became a defining presence in Toronto’s social scene. After the war, Noah went back to real estate.

Sometime in the 1950s, Noah stumbled across a beleaguered winery for sale in Georgia and bought it. It so happened that Jordan Wineries attracted the interest of the Montreal liquor titan Sam Bronfman, and, in the context of some accidental encounter on a plane ride down south, Noah met Sam’s people. To hear it from Noah, Sam made an offer Noah could not refuse. And there was another thing: Noah Torno would represent Sam Bronfman’s nascent real estate ventures in Toronto: the Fairview Corporation (later Cadillac Fairview). Done.

The portfolio grew to include a sleek modernist office building of some fourteen storeys on Bloor Street West, opposite the Colonnade. That offered the opportunity to build a residence on the roof, and Noah went for it. Initially, plans also included a luxurious apartment for Sam’s nephew Peter, whom Sam wanted to move from Montreal to be the family man in Toronto. Peter didn’t like that idea, so Noah was charged with designing Peter’s apartment secretly, including a private elevator attached to the west side of the building for security. Peter found out and refused to move, and Noah continued planning, now with the whole rooftop to himself.

Meanwhile, Sam Bronfman went into partnership with the Toronto-Dominion Bank on its new headquarters at King and Bay. The bank, under Allen Lambert, had publicly committed to building the tallest concrete structure in the Commonwealth. Then Phyllis appeared.

Phyllis Lambert, Sam’s second daughter (and no relation to Allen), had worked with her father on the Seagram Building, at 375 Park Avenue, in Manhattan. Designed by Mies van der Rohe, it was a triumph of the International Style and included the Four Seasons Restaurant, itself designed by Philip Johnson, another force in modern architecture. Phyllis looked at TD’s plans and insisted she visit Toronto to convince Allen to change them. She then took him to Chicago to meet Mies, argued fiercely for the precedent of the Seagram Building, and convinced the CEO to forgo the concrete leviathan for what would become TD Centre. Noah would be the local point man for the Bronfmans on the iconic project and have a large corner office on the fourth floor of the highest tower, where he would overlook the plaza for decades to come.

(It so happened that Allen Lambert was an honorary trustee of the ROM when I arrived in 2000. We bonded as he, too, recalled these stories. Allen had started his banking career in Yellowknife, and to mark Canada’s centennial, he insisted that TD amass a significant collection of postwar Inuit sculpture. The collection was housed in a small museum, attached to another one of the TD Centre buildings, on Wellington, and I went to see it. I drew up plans to move the gallery to the ROM, and Allen embraced them. He said he would make it happen, though it was a bit delicate, as the bank’s CEO at the time, Charlie Baillie, was also president of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Allen died shortly thereafter, in his nineties, a civic hero for bringing Mies to Toronto — but the Inuit sculptures stayed at the bank.)

As plans were under way for TD Centre, Noah and his formidable wife linked up with Philip Johnson to design and build a 10,000-square-foot apartment on the roof of Bronfman’s Bloor Street office building, with a local architect as partner. Noah and Rose would go over the plans with Johnson in New York and supervise every detail of construction in Toronto. It turned out rather well, Noah told me over lunch, pointing through the window to the east, where a grove of trees protruded from the skyline. Would I like to walk over with him right now to see it?

A door off the Bloor Street lobby led to the private elevator (you could also arrive via a long enclosed walkway from Cumberland Street), which took us to a large cube of space, two floors high and clad in travertine. A small fountain splashed beside a sculpted nude under a wide bronze staircase that floated to the second floor. The ceiling was a glowing lacework of undulating panels lit from behind. “Let’s go into the library,” Noah said, “and meet Rose.”

Rose was almost 100 years old and sat in an elegant dress on a couch beside her live‑in caregiver. From time to time, she had donated wonderful pieces of her jewellery to the ROM, as well as couture from her closet. We had tea as Noah filled her in about me and the museum’s new plans. He also told me the high oak doors into the library and the panelling around the room had come from one huge oak tree in North Carolina, so the grains could repeat throughout the room.

Then we toured the two-storey apartment that looked over downtown Toronto to the south and Yorkville to the north. Everything was as it had always been, including mid-century furniture and, in the living room, an art-deco-style Steinway grand (which I found to be completely out of tune). The dining room was high with East Asian flavour, including stunning Chinese wallpaper that Noah had bought at auction in New York, sent to Hong Kong for refurbishing, and installed here in the sky. Indeed, the ceiling had been raised slightly to accommodate the wallpaper, which Noah refused to trim.

A classic kitchen faced Yorkville and overlooked a Kyoto-style garden of raked gravel, boulders, and small evergreens. The large terrace off the living room featured an enormous olive tree in a large planter, with soil that was warmed in the winter, and pine trees lining the perimeter. Upstairs, the master bedroom faced south, flanked by his and hers baths and dressing rooms. Noah pulled out small drawers on Rose’s side, showing me her collection of exquisite gloves.

As we walked around, I knew this was surely one of the most ambitious private apartments in town, with the ROM visible just out the windows to the west. I told Noah that his museum view was about to change, and I took the elevator down to the street.

We would lunch together frequently after that, red wine always setting off Noah’s expressive ties. As our plans for renovation and expansion came together, I would show him around our design studio, and on the day that we started demolition to make room for Daniel Libeskind’s Crystal, in 2003, Noah sent an eight ball over to my office, saying I was behind it now for good. He knew construction.

That same year, Phyllis Lambert was set to give a lecture about architecture at our Institute for Contemporary Culture, which would be a reunion for her and Noah. He demurred from the talk itself, saying he could not leave Rose alone with her caregiver before she went to bed, but joined us afterwards for dinner. We all had a pleasant if somewhat formal conversation.

After Rose passed away, at 101, Noah and I had lunch, and we toured the apartment again. He was obliged to move out, he explained. Some fifteen years previously, the office building had been sold and two gentlemen had come to visit on behalf of the new owners. Noah and Rose had been paying rent on their apartment, but it was time to make new arrangements, the gentlemen suggested, which meant the Tornos relocating. Noah said Rose put on a great show, trembling and misting up, saying that she would surely die if forced to leave the home they had so lovingly built. She had always vowed to die there. The two men looked at the couple and relented, saying they could stay until Rose died — assuming, said Noah, that this little frail woman in her eighties would not be here much longer. Now the time had come.

At Noah’s request, I returned with our senior curator, Dan Rahimi, and toured the apartment with an eye to accessing works of art and couture. We chose a few. I showed Dan the dining room and explained the history of the wallpaper. “Do you want it?” asked Noah. It was meticulously removed and is now at the ROM. Noah sent the Steinway down to Remenyi House of Music, across the street from the museum, for rebuilding and refinishing before sale. In his nineties, Noah was ready for a relaunch.

“I am a bachelor again,” he exulted. It was time for another elegant apartment and a return to the dating circuit. He chose an almost complete penthouse in a new rental building on Bay Street, just north of Bloor. There was a Pusateri’s grocery store on the main floor, and wine could be had at the LCBO just kitty-corner at Manulife Centre.

Noah loved new projects, style, and social life. He hired two guys as his interior designers and invited the three of us to dinner at the University Club. He said word was already out that he was dating, and one woman had come in by limo from nearby Oakville for drinks. He had gotten together with several more, but, he said, “they either want to be my nurse or have my purse.” Noah had been around and was prepared to play the field. It was going to be a lot of fun, he was sure.

He said his new penthouse had an ample rooftop deck facing south and west, and I proposed that we host a large martini party up there in the spring to launch both it and Noah’s exciting social life. This became an enthusiastic vow.

Some weeks later, Noah asked to meet on the sidewalk at Bloor and Avenue Road, just outside the ROM. We made our way to Remenyi, where the restored piano sat in the large front window. He was walking with some difficulty and explained there was a cyst at the bottom of his brain, on the top of his spine. Doctors were planning to remove it soon.

Noah called a month later to say his Steinway had not sold. Could he give it to the museum? We put it in the Glass Room, above the Queen’s Park lobby, and I found it lovely to play.

By spring 2004, Noah had moved into his new penthouse and was scheduled for surgery to remove the cyst. His sister was staying with him, and I went over with a book, The Da Vinci Code, for his convalescence. He had donated the large sculpted nude from his old atrium to the lobby of this other building — continuity, to be sure. He was at his desk, dressed in a thick white robe. “Look,” his sister said, pointing to a glassed‑in cabinet against the wall. “Noah told me about the martini party, and we had no stemware.” The cabinet was full of pristine martini glasses sparkling in the light.

Noah went to hospital just as I was leaving for a two-week trip to Japan and China. The night before my departure, his sister called from the hospital saying the operation had gone well: Noah was awake and had asked her to confirm the martini party on the roof. I told her to start on the guest list, and that I knew some attractive mature women who might be of interest to a gentleman.

Several days later at breakfast in the Okura hotel in Tokyo, I received a message that Noah had died of pneumonia at ninety-three. This time, the infection was not “the old man’s friend.”

In summer 2004, I decided that the martini party would simply have to go on. We contacted his extended family and invited them and others to drinks in the Glass Room, to honour Noah and Rose as individuals and for their contributions to the museum. We created a dramatic bar with suitably elegant servers. We brought the grand piano into the centre of the room, and I sat down and played “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

Over the years that followed, developers added several floors above Noah and Rose Torno’s penthouse. The original apartment was renovated and sold. One day, I was invited to visit it once more, and did so. I knew it could never be the same.

William Thorsell is the former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail.

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