Original Shaarei Shomayim to be demolished

The former Shaarei Shomayim at 840 St. Clair Ave. W., as seen this summer before demolition started.  [photo courtesy of Jerry Austin]

TORONTO — The building that originally housed Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim Congregation is being demolished.

“We hope to be done [with demolition]  by the end of October,” said Tony Manocchio, vice-president of construction at Urbancorp, the developer that bought  the building at 840 St. Clair Ave. W., between Atlas Avenue and Winona Drive.

Although Urbancorp’s designs aren’t finalized and are contingent on zoning, the company is planning a mixed-use structure with commercial and retail outlets at ground level, and residential units on top.

For the past 40 years, the building was known as Hungarian House, a hub for the Hungarian community, but there are still a few stained glass windows from the original synagogue.

“We’ve tried to see what is salvageable,” Manocchio said. The windows are old, fragile, and difficult to save because of safety concerns, he added.

Toronto councillor Joe Mihevc said the building – designed by the architectural firm Kaplan & Sprachman, which also designed other synagogues – is not designated as historic. Mihevc said his office had requested that the stained glass windows be saved if possible.

Shaarei Shomayim, located on Glencairn Avenue since it moved from St. Clair in 1966, has restored and displayed four stained glass windows from the original building.

Al G. Brown, whose membership at the shul dates back to the late 1940s, told The CJN that some windows, and other items like benches and plaques, were taken at the time of the move.

He remembers that early services, dating back to 1936, were held in the basement of 840 St. Clair. It was the first permanent home for the shul, which was founded in 1928. The rest of the building was completed in 1947.

Once the sanctuary was built, there was no physical mechitzah to separate male and female worshippers. “The carpet [on the aisle running up the middle of the sanctuary] was considered the mechitzah,” Brown said.

Although he added that the design wasn’t common, “cross-the-aisle seating… was not considered a radical departure from Orthodoxy in the Toronto of those days,” according to a history of the shul written by the late Stephen Speisman for its 50th anniversary in 1978.

Brown noted that his daughter, Golda, went to nursery school on St. Clair. “Associated Hebrew Schools had a couple of classes in the building, where the kids in the neighbourhood attended.”

Bernard Green, 68, president of the synagogue from 1983 to 1984, grew up at the St. Clair building, attending nursery school in the late 1940s, then going to junior services in the chapel, playing basketball for the Shaarei Shomayim team against church teams as a high school student, and serving as a youth leader for the bar mitzvah club, where youngsters would eat a breakfast of doughnuts and cereal.

Green met his wife, Helene, at the shul when he was youth director and she was a youth leader.

The old building “was a large part of my life,” he said.