Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A huge flashing sign from a shuttered record store in Toronto gets a new home after a lengthy preservation battle.
Surrounded by buildings as tall as they are often uninteresting, few places in downtown Toronto attracted as much attention as the stand-alone record store that once stood at the corner of Yonge and Gould Street.
Since selling its final CD in 2007, Torontonians have been waiting to find out what would happen to the flashing neon discs that used to lure them into Sam the Record Man's flagship store for nearly 40 years. The property's new owners initially agreed to incorporate the storefront into their construction plans. After reneging on that promise, city officials were able to finally secure the storefront's fate earlier this month—on top of a mid-rise tower one block away.
A nationwide chain, Sam's was ubiquitous across Canada while it lasted. Founded by Sam Sniderman (who helped create the Junos, Canada's music awards), the company started with a single location in Toronto in 1937 before eventually growing to more than 100 stores across Canada by the 1990s.
But like many other music retailers, changing times were unkind to Sam's. The chain filed for bankruptcy in 2001 while managing to keep the flagship store open until 2007. Sniderman passed away in 2012. Only an independently run franchise store in Belleville, Ontario, still operates today.
The Yonge Street location that everyone remembers opened in 1961. In the middle of an active entertainment district filled with lively signage, Sam's joined the club in 1971 when it commissioned a flashing neon sign that, when illuminated, resembled a spinning vinyl record. As Sam's popularity grew, it expanded incrementally into surrounding properties. A second spinning neon disc was added next to the original one in 1987. If you grew up in Toronto during those years, there's a good chance you bought an album or saw a show inside the Sam's on Yonge street.
When Ryerson University bought the property in 2008, the institution signed an agreement with the City of Toronto saying it would preserve the beloved storefront feature and find a way to incorporate it into the student center they planned to build in its place. If such an effort wasn't architecturally feasible, they'd be allowed to move it to the Gould Street side of the former record store.
In 2010, the neon signs had been placed in a storage facility and the rest of the building was demolished. But when Ryerson unveiled its renderings for their new student center, there were no spinning records to be found. The Snøhetta-designed proposal was unquestionably attractive, but it was just as clear that the University had no interest in incorporating the sign as agreed. "They talked about how wonderful their student center was going to be, but they didn’t demonstrate that they made their best efforts [to keep the sign], or any at all," says Toronto City Councillor Josh Matlow.
Music journalist and Ryerson graduate Nicholas Jennings was bothered by his alma mater's handling of the situation. He wrote to university president Sheldon Levy, who eventually wrote back, saying that Ryerson was committed to saving the sign but that the cost was prohibitive and the signs were environmentally unfriendly. "I offered to meet with him and bring other people from the music world in to help problem solve," says Jennings, "but never heard back."
Jennings reached out to the music world anyway, receiving an impressive list of support from some of Toronto's most famous artists. Statements from Gordon Lightfoot, Geddy Lee, and Leslie Feist, among others, came in last fall asking that the signage be saved. "They all felt a debt to Sam [Sniderman] because of his exemplary support of Canadian music," Jennings tells us.
Once it had become clear that Ryerson was not going to fulfill its promise, city councillors met in September to come up with a new course of action. Meanwhile, letters from musicians kept coming in, which Jennings would scan and post on the Facebook page for "SOS: Save our Sam the Record Man Sign." The page was created by Jeffrey Balmer, a Toronto-born architecture professor based in Charlotte. Balmer was so upset the night he found out about the sign's uncertain future last Labor Day weekend that he "got up in the middle of the night and launched the page."
In October, city councillors officially deferred the issue to Deputy City Manager, John Livey, who then put James Parakh, the city's urban design program manager, in charge of coming up with a solution. Parakh and his team went through a lengthy consultation process, which included talking to Sniderman's family as well as Ryerson. After looking at all the possible relocation sites along Yonge, the city came up with a unique option— the roof of a city-owned tower at 277 Victoria St., the site of the Toronto Public Health building.
Facing the city's equivalent of Times Square, the rather bland building could stand some decoration. In fact, Parakh argues, the old neon signs may help it fit in better with its surroundings. "277 Victoria has no signage, which makes it stand out from the rest of Dundas Square." Matching up with Mayor Rob Ford's interest in making Toronto as synonymous with music as Austin, Texas (the city already hosts NXNE, Canada's answer to SXSW), the building will also have a sign running down its facade that says "Toronto Music City."
The city council approved the relocation plan two weeks ago, all of which will be paid for by Ryerson (therefore, the actual costs of the reinstallation are private). With this involving an aging public building in a bustling part of the city, however, both Parakh and Matlow told us that they wouldn't be surprised if the city put out a RFP to developers at some point in the next few years. Uninterested in another preservation fight, Matlow added a motion in the council's decision that would force future owners of 277 Victoria to preserve the sign no matter what kind of redevelopment they propose.
The musicians, politicians, and preservationists who wanted Sam's spinning discs to stay would have preferred to keep them where they've always been, but nearly everyone is happy with the outcome. "If you had to have a second choice," says Matlow, "it’s a remarkable location."
And for a city that has struggled to save much of its heritage, Toronto now has something old, unique, and nearly impossible to miss, preserved in a cityscape dominated by newer and mostly forgettable buildings. "A kid will look at it and ask their parents 'What is that?'," says Matlow. "That’s the point in a heritage structure."