David Mirvish on the Edge
David Mirvish wants to dismantle his famous father’s empire to build two giant Frank Gehry towers and a gallery for his personal art collection. He thought Toronto would be grateful. He was wrong. A behind-the-scenes story of mega-monuments and monumental egos
At the end of 2011, David Mirvish was itching for a new venture. He wanted to take on something grand, something unprecedented, a legacy project that would bring together his twin passions: business and art. He wanted to build the greatest piece of architecture Toronto had ever seen.
He went to his friend Peter Kofman for ideas. Kofman, who is an engineer by training and a developer by trade, had worked with Mirvish on two earlier condo projects, One King West and a revamp of the old Westinghouse building at 355 King West, which both men considered modest successes.
Mirvish was looking to do something with the buildings he owns on King, between John and Simcoe. His father, Ed, had bought up most of that chunk of real estate in the ’60s and ’70s, and David had spent the better part of his career developing it into Toronto’s theatre district. The Royal Alexandra Theatre, the original jewel in Mirvish Productions’ crown, borders the site to the east. To the west is the Princess of Wales Theatre, which the family built in 1993. In and around them are four century-old warehouses, one housing Mirvish Productions’ offices.
Kofman proposed a radical solution: why not tear it all down and start fresh?
The idea seemed crazy, but once Mirvish started thinking about it, he came around. With the exception of the historically designated Royal Alex, which he wouldn’t touch, the rest of the properties were expendable. Yes, the warehouses and the Princess of Wales functioned well for their purposes, and held some sentimental value, but the area could be so much more. With the new TIFF condo tower nearby, his strip of King was well positioned to become a creative hub for the city. He imagined an entire block devoted to modern art, architecture and design. He’d build a gallery to house his enormous collection of modern art, and a second OCAD campus, which the university sorely needs. The project would be extravagant, but he would recoup his investment by including thousands of residential condos in the design. If things went well, Mirvish stood to make a killing.
For a development of this scale there was only one man for the job in Mirvish’s mind: Frank Gehry. The Toronto-born, L.A.-based architect is the greatest of his generation—the world’s original starchitect and a man known for single-handedly revitalizing B-cities like Bilbao with his over-the-top designs.
Gehry and Mirvish first met in 1971 at a dinner party and bonded over their shared interest in abstract expressionism. Over the years, the two men stayed in touch—Mirvish visited Gehry during the construction of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in the late ’90s. As someone who had spent years luring tourists to his theatres, Mirvish fantasized about what effect Gehry might have on Toronto. Now he had an opportunity to find out.
He contacted Gehry, who was immediately enthusiastic about the project’s possibilities, if wary of its potential complications. His initial concern was whether a complex of such ambitious scope and scale could get built in Toronto. He didn’t want to spend years developing something only to see it shut down by regulation-obsessed bureaucrats at city hall. Gehry is 85. Even if the project went perfectly according to plan—and no project ever does—he would be in his 90s before it was completed. “He needed to know that we would stick with it and in turn he would stick with us,” says Mirvish.
Over the next several months, Gehry’s office produced a plan for three 80-plus-storey condo towers sitting on a six-storey base that would house high-end shops, restaurants, an OCAD campus and Mirvish’s gallery. The proposed towers were pure Gehry: precariously stacked and bulging, like buildings in a sci-fi epic. They were beautiful yet almost unnerving to look at.
Mirvish expected the brilliance of Gehry’s design—combined with the promised campus and art gallery—to be enough to convince the city to let him break every rule in the official city plan. He wanted permission to rip down the Princess of Wales theatre as well as the four warehouses. The design would also significantly exceed the area’s 49-storey height standard. And he was proposing to more than double the residential population on that stretch of King (the city’s last count, in 2011, put it at 3,610). In order to give Mirvish what he wanted, the city would have to make a slew of exceptions, effectively opening the door for other, perhaps less visionary, developers to demand the same.
Mirvish exudes a very Toronto sort of niceness, but there is flint beneath that gentle surface—the determination of a rich and clever man who is accustomed to getting precisely what he wants without ever having to raise his voice. He knew he was asking the impossible when he went to the city with his proposal, but he also felt that he earned their indulgence. When Ed Mirvish bought the Royal Alex in 1963, he saved it from becoming a parking lot. He refurbished the theatre and opened its doors to the public instead. Given how long his family has owned this particular block, David Mirvish seems to think he knows what’s best for it. It’s a position of astonishing entitlement—and not altogether wrong.
Now nearly 70, Mirvish is bald but for the close-trimmed white hair around his ears. His face is open and unlined for his years. He has buried both his parents (Ed died in 2007, Anne six years later), and his mortality is at the forefront of his thinking. Having his family’s name emblazoned across the city apparently isn’t enough of a legacy—or not quite the right one—for Mirvish.
He’s a notoriously private person. He and his wife, Audrey, whom he met in high school and married in 1967, rarely make appearances on the charity ball circuit and infrequently entertain at their home. He often turns down invitations to sit on corporate boards. (“David is not a joiner,” says Matthew Teitelbaum, the AGO director and Mirvish’s friend.) He only agreed to meet with me for this article because he wants to promote his Gehry project, and he had strict conditions: he wouldn’t talk about his family or his personal life, just business. At one meeting, he brought along his brother-in-law, Richard Conway, a retired lawyer who rattled off a list of subjects they didn’t want me to broach, including Mirvish’s falling-out with the developer Harry Stinson, who helped build the One King West condo-hotel. I was surprised he relied on Conway to intimidate me—I’ve heard many stories over the years of how Mirvish himself calls up editors to complain about bad reviews of his shows and articles he dislikes, occasionally enacting vengeance by pulling his substantial advertising dollars.
The rise of the Mirvish family is embedded in Toronto mythology. They started poor—Ed Mirvish, the small-time greengrocer, cashed in Anne’s $212 life insurance policy to open Honest Ed’s, his iconic discount store at Bloor and Bathurst—and became millionaires with an empire of theatres and restaurants. In staid, buttoned-down Toronto, Ed was the flamboyant razzle-dazzle salesman, a guy who would do just about anything—including don a funny hat and ride an elephant through the streets—for publicity.
David Mirvish grew up in a big house on Vesta Drive in Forest Hill, right around the corner from Forest Hill Collegiate, where he attended school. Anne, an accomplished artist, took David on trips to London and New York for theatre and art shows. By the time he was in his teens, he was a sophisticated, rather serious young man, one who occasionally wore three-piece suits to school and had big plans for the future.
David was the intellectual aesthete to his dad’s glitzy showman. In 1963, the 18-year-old Mirvish stunned his parents by telling them he wasn’t going to university as planned. His mother begged him to reconsider, but his mind was made up. He used his savings to rent a $300-a-month storefront from his father on Markham Street, west of Honest Ed’s. He was interested in art and had heard that sometimes rich gallery owners would loan to small galleries to sell on consignment in different markets. Mirvish went straight to Leo Castelli, the Manhattan art dealer who represented some of the era’s most famous artists, and convinced him (as well as several other well-established New York galleries) to loan him works to sell on consignment. Soon his upstart gallery was exhibiting art by Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning and Hans Hofmann.
By the late ’70s, as the fashion for colour field art and abstract expressionism generally was beginning to wane, David closed his gallery and took a more active role in his father’s theatre empire. In 1987, he took over the Royal Alex as well as the Old Vic in London, which his dad had acquired a few years earlier for $1.23 million (he sank another $4 million into restoring the building). David and his father built the Princess of Wales together, but it was David’s vision—most notably the series of vibrant Frank Stella murals he commissioned for the auditorium ceiling dome, the proscenium arch and the walls of lounges and lobbies. The theatre became Mirvish Productions’ biggest cash cow, staging mega-musicals like Miss Saigon and The Lion King, and selling thousands of tickets a year.
Mirvish, with the Gehry project, is banishing his father’s empire of kitsch in order to build his own monument to the avant-garde. In 2013, he announced that he was putting Honest Ed’s on the market. The property sold quickly to the Vancouver developer Ian Gillespie, who is currently leasing the building back to Mirvish while he decides what he wants to do with the site. Mirvish wasn’t moved by the public affection for the store. To him, this much-loved local landmark was a vulgar relic. He is dismissive of people who wish to hang on to what he considers our history of mediocrity, and points out that if our current heritage laws had been in place in the 1960s, Mies van der Rohe’s TD Bank towers would never have been built because the pre-existing Bank of Toronto headquarters could not have been levelled.
“If you look at it, we are a very good A-minus city,” he told me. “We always aspire to not be noticed too much. It fits the national identity.” He talks about his Gehry project as a watershed moment for Toronto, one that will determine the course of the next 100 years and beyond. He sets out this epic vision for me in almost apocalyptic terms: because the GTA has lost most of its manufacturing base, we must now become a highly urbanized, knowledge-based economy. “I want to put people in tall towers because it’s a more efficient as a way to live,” he explains. “It saves energy and saves transportation. Density is a fact of life in the 21st century.”
For all his high-minded talk of urban density, the part of the project that Mirvish cares about most is the gallery, where he wants to display his collection of colour field art. At the moment, most of the collection lives in two concrete bunkers just off Toronto’s grim industrial eastern shoreline. Last March, Mirvish took me on a tour. He was dressed in monochrome black and followed by a small entourage of middle-aged women. These included his long-time assistant, Laurel Purvis; Eleanor Johnston, who managed Mirvish Books for 31 years and is now in charge of his collection; and his wife, Audrey—a delicate woman with cat-eye glasses and a short, no-nonsense haircut who watched her husband with the quiet intensity of an armed secret service officer.
He led us past the in-house security desk and into a vast white room where a collection of Morris Louis’s 1958 Bronze Veil paintings were displayed on the wall. “It took me 50 years to bring these together,” he said of the metallic-hued canvases. “I really just wanted to spend my life looking at pictures.”
Hundreds of works are stored in the warehouse, on purpose-built metal racks, something like a morgue for art. Mirvish wouldn’t discuss the estimated value of the collection (“My father always told me it was crass to talk about money”), but it’s safe to say it’s tens—if not hundreds—of millions. His helpers pulled out rack after rack of paintings by Motherwell, Bush, Noland and Stella for Mirvish to explain.
Mirvish made one huge blunder as a collector that continues to embarrass him. Between 2002 and 2007, he invested just under $5 million in three Jackson Pollock paintings with the Knoedler and Co. Gallery in New York, from whom he had purchased several works in the past as both a dealer and a private collector. The problem with the Pollocks was their provenance. They had arrived at Knoedler through an obscure Long Island dealer called Glafira Rosales, who claimed they had come from a wealthy Mexican collector whose father had bought the works secretly decades before. As Richard Warnica noted in a Canadian Business story, they had no bills of sale, no contracts from the artist—in short, they were not authenticated. In fact, one of the paintings had been returned to Knoedler after another New York collector had concerns about its origins. The gallery had submitted that work to the International Foundation for Art Research, which concluded it could not validate the authenticity of the painting.
Knoedler, who dismissed the report, showed it to Mirvish, who came to the same conclusion. As he said in a deposition obtained by Warnica last year, “I saw the IFAR report, and I considered it carefully. I considered all the aspects of it, particularly the fact that it didn’t identify who the experts were who had given their opinions. I weighed it carefully and ultimately I felt the report was without substance.” In the end the Pollocks—and dozens of other works sold by Rosales through two New York galleries to wealthy private collectors over 15 years—were exposed as fakes painted by a Chinese immigrant in a back-alley studio in Queens. Rosales and her boyfriend had discovered the painter on the streets of lower Manhattan and knowingly commissioned the forgeries, which they sold for almost $80 million in total. It was the biggest New York art scandal of the past decade, and David Mirvish was right in the middle of it.
Mirvish’s lawyer brother-in-law warned me that he wouldn’t speak to me about the Pollocks. “I have made mistakes,” Mirvish said obliquely at one point in our interviews. “My father didn’t make mistakes.”
Mirvish presented the city with his proposal for the Gehry project in the fall of 2012. The planning office, headed by Jennifer Keesmaat, was immediately skeptical. Over the following months, Mirvish and Keesmaat met for a series of tense negotiations. In the room were Mirvish, Kofman, an architect from Gehry’s office and five or six senior staff from the planning department. Gehry himself did not attend. Almost every meeting would begin in the same way, with Mirvish recounting his family history in the neighbourhood, as if that alone justified his wish to sweep aside the city’s regulations to manifest his grand vision. As the months passed, the atmosphere in the room grew increasingly strained. Mirvish wanted to talk about history and art, while the planners wanted to talk about infrastructure. Mirvish saw the planners as unimaginative sticklers determined to reject his beneficent offer to elevate Toronto from aesthetic mediocrity. The city officials, on the other hand, thought Mirvish’s plan was totally unrealistic. Keesmaat suggested he consider scaling back the project, but he was indignant. If he and Gehry had to compromise, he told them, they would abandon the project altogether. The two camps hit an impasse.
Keesmaat’s concerns with the initial proposal were many. She didn’t approve of the destruction of the warehouses or the Princess of Wales, along with its Stella murals—which even Mirvish seemed regretful about sacrificing. She objected to the luxury shopping mall component of the plan, which she argued wasn’t appropriate for the neighbourhood and belied Mirvish’s claim that he was primarily building a cultural destination. She was also concerned about the narrowness of the sidewalks and the design of the podium of the building. Her biggest fear was that the enormous height of the three condo towers would encourage other developers to build more skyscrapers in the neighbourhood. “We don’t have the hard infrastructure capacity to flush that many toilets,” Keesmaat says. “We don’t have schools, we don’t have parks. There’s nowhere for dogs to go. Suddenly, living in the downtown core is not that great at all.”
Other critics of the project say the whole thing is simply greed dressed up as a cultural institution. Mirvish will be getting extreme density on land his father purchased cheaply eons ago. There is no way of knowing how much he stands to make (or lose), as the project currently has no budget. But you can be sure those Gehry condos are not going to be cheap to buy. According to Mirvish, they will be charging at least $100 more per square foot than the average Toronto condo.
Last December, Keesmaat and her staff released a report to council recommending that the design be significantly reduced in height and scaled down to save three of the four heritage buildings. Council agreed and rejected Mirvish’s proposal (only Rob and Doug Ford and Mike Del Grande voted in favour). It looked like Mirvish would be forced to take his fight to the Ontario Municipal Board—which has a history of siding with developers—but the process would involve hearings and a potentially protracted legal battle.
Developers have been known to play chicken with the planning department, asking for unprecedented height allowances at the outset and then accepting a compromise that still far exceeds what exists in a neighbourhood. I suspect Mirvish anticipated the city would reject his proposal. The first design—so visionary and outrageous—may have been a bluff intended to goad the city into accepting some of the requested exemptions.
Despite council’s rejection, there was still support for Mirvish’s project. A development this ambitious doesn’t come up often, and plenty of proponents wanted to see some version of it happen. The Toronto Star’s bombastic architecture critic, Christopher Hume, called the Gehry design “a genuine architectural masterpiece,” which might save Toronto from being perceived in the eyes of the world as “some frozen northern backwater presided over by Mayor Hogg and Sheriff Doug.”
Instead of rejecting Mirvish completely, Keesmaat proposed that he hold a series of community meetings with a range of local representatives, in an attempt to come to a compromise. And so, from January to March of this year, Mirvish met with representatives from U of T’s architecture school, OCAD, the arts community, Bay Street and the CityPlace residents’ association. He heard more of the same: the proposed towers were too big, the heritage buildings too valuable, the Princess of Wales too important.
What finally convinced him to stop pushing for the original plan was a third-party financial analysis, commissioned by Keesmaat, of the project’s viability. It concluded that constructing three mega-towers in such a tight space would be significantly more expensive and complicated than building two. If he built three towers, Mirvish stood to lose money. If he built two, everyone would win. When she handed Mirvish the report, his jaw dropped.
He asked Gehry to start over. The revised project consists of two towers (“Annie and Ed,” Mirvish calls them), which will sit on either side of Ed Mirvish Way instead of occupying two city blocks. The towers will be 82 and 92 storeys, each containing over a thousand residential units. The new design was made public in May and is currently inching its way through a maze of paperwork. Crucially, with this reduced footprint, it will preserve one of the heritage warehouses and the Princess of Wales theatre. “I don’t lose my most comfortable theatre or my Frank Stellas,” Mirvish told me, spinning it into a win for him. On the top of the warehouse, Gehry proposed an 8,000-square-foot gallery for exhibiting his art. Instead of housing the entirety of Mirvish’s collection, it will feature semi-permanent, rotating installations. “What you won’t have is a place to see 85 or 90 16-foot-long pictures,” Mirvish explains. “You might see five Morris Louis and five Kenneth Noland circles. Or you might have group shows devoted to the collection or you might see shows devoted to the last living artists like Frank Stella and Larry Poons. It will be an anchor for the collection.”
The revised proposal received full support from Keesmaat and won an Official Plan amendment from city council in July. If everything goes according to plan, Mirvish will break ground in the winter of 2016.
“It’s still very ambitious, but we have maybe 700,000 square feet less of density,” he says. “People might say I’ve compromised, but I disagree. Frank is also happy with the changes.”
When the towers are finished—sometime in the next decade or so—Mirvish’s legacy will be complete. His fight with the city is coming to a close, and today he is feeling philosophical. “Frank says that in order to get anything done you have to keep a copy of Alice in Wonderland and Don Quixote by your bed,” he says. What does he mean by this? Just that the creation of great art requires extraordinary bluster and perseverance. In this, Mirvish the collector has succeeded.