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The Story Behind the Benjamin Brown Records

17 Feb 2016
Image Credit: Elevation drawing of the Beth Jacob Synagogue on Henry Street, 1919-1922. Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 49, series 1, file 2
Architectural Credit: Benjamin Brown
This past Friday, February 12, the Ontario Jewish Archives opened the exhibition Benjamin Brown: Architect, featuring original drawings, blueprints, watercolour presentation boards, historical photographs, and maps documenting the work of Toronto architect Benjamin Brown (1890-1974). This exhibition is possible thanks to the work of an OAA member, architect (retired) Allan (Jim) Levine, who played an instrumental role in the collection’s preservation. In this special blOAAg post, his son, architect Jay Levine, tells the story of how his father came into possession of these important archival records. His story reminds us of our collective responsibility for preserving the history of our profession. 

From architect Jay Levine:
In late 1972, my late mother, Rochelle Levine, was researching the Henry Street Shul for a course at the University of Toronto.  Looking to locate the original drawings, she discovered that their author, Benjamin Brown, was one of the first Jewish architects in the city. As a practicing architect my father Jim knew that the building department would loan out the permit drawings, so long as the original architect gave permission. 
Initially told that the architect had died, he persisted, finding out that Ben Brown was alive and well and living in the Annex just off of Avenue Road south of Davenport. Mr. Brown, then 82, was so surprised that anyone would still be interested in his work, he not only gave his permission to borrow the drawings, but initiated a friendship with my parents that lasted until his death in December of 1974.  During that time Jim had made arrangements to have him reinstated in the Ontario Association of Architects, and Mr. Brown was so grateful that he bequeathed his entire life’s architectural work to him.
After Brown’s death, Jim went to retrieve the drawings from his home to find a dusty and deteriorating collection of drawings, renderings and files, piled around, on top of and even inside of an old Edsel.  It took a total of six trips to get it all, and for the next 13 years they sat in the mezzanine storage of Jim’s office on Consumers Road. Unsure of what to do with the “Ben Brown Pile”, we contacted the Centre for Canadian Architecture in Montreal, who was uninterested in the collection, considering it the work of a minor regional talent.  They suggested calling Dr. Steven Speisman, then Director of the Ontario Jewish archives who could advise whether there was anything worthwhile saving. When Dr. Speisman saw what we had, he could hardly contain his excitement. 
Undoubtedly, you have probably stood in one of Benjamin Brown’s buildings, or if not, have certainly seen beautiful examples of his work around the city. His designs are beautiful, and the documents that guided their construction are equally as beautiful. I am so grateful to Jim and Rochelle Levine for seeing the value of the records, and for getting it into the hands of the OJA, where it can be preserved for posterity and made available to the community. The OJA has done a lot of work documenting the collection and protecting it from further decay.  It is now time to conserve this important body of work for future generations, and we hope that you will consider contributing to the cost of conserving this very important chapter in our collective history. 
For more information on the Benjamin Brown Preservation Campaign, please visit their website.
The exhibition Benjamin Brown: Architect is on display at the UrbanSpace Gallery at 401 Richmond, Toronto from February 12, 2016 to April 23, 2016.

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