A Toronto real estate developer who arrived in Canada as a youth with little more than raw talent and a determination to succeed has made an historic gift to U of T’s Faculty of Architecture. John Daniels (BArch 1950), the founder and chairman of The Daniels Corporation, has donated $14 million to the faculty, which will be renamed the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design.
The longtime developer – whose credits include such Toronto landmarks as the Eaton Centre and TD Centre and the Mississauga community of Erin Mills – says his education at the faculty laid the foundation for a highly rewarding career, enabling him now to give something back. “This school means a great deal to me,” says Daniels. “It’s the basis for my success.”
Like many immigrants, Daniels created his own opportunities. He arrived in Canada from Poland with his parents and two siblings when he was 12. The family didn’t have a lot of money, but his father, a teacher, impressed upon his children the importance of education. (All three went to university.) Daniels, who had always shown an interest in drawing, sculpture and painting, attended Central Technical School in downtown Toronto, where he picked up drafting as a career backup plan. “In those days it was important to have a trade,” he says. Despite not speaking a word of English when he arrived in Canada, Daniels became editor of the school magazine, The Vulcan, and class valedictorian.
An interest in designing buildings led him to enrol in architecture at Uof T. It was 1945, and he and other students used to commute daily in a beat-up old Greyhound bus they dubbed the “Green Hornet” from downtown Toronto to Ajax, where they attended classes in a converted munitions factory. (The faculty moved back to the main U of T campus the following year.)
Daniels had always demonstrated artistic talent, but soon developed an entrepreneurial streak as well. In his fourth year at U of T, he and two classmates borrowed funds to buy a piece of land in North Toronto on Glengrove Avenue – at that time a dirt road. They divided the land into six lots, and started a small construction company called Modern Age – reflecting their preference for modern split-level homes with flat roofs and radiant heating. Much of the bricklaying, carpentry and plastering they did themselves. As the homes took shape and were then sold, Daniels realized that it wasn’t strictly designing homes that interested him, but rather building them. “It satisfied me tremendously – the ability to envision something and then actually create it,” he says. “This is what I wanted to do.”
After graduating in 1950, Daniels worked at an architecture firm for a year before venturing out on his own. Before long, however, his desire to build led him to co-found Cadillac Development Corporation. He served as the company’s chairman and CEO, and later, as chairman of the Cadillac Fairview Development Corporation, worked on high-profile real estate developments in cities across North America. He has collaborated with a number of internationally renowned architects, including China’s I.M. Pei and Canada’s Arthur Erickson.
In 1983, he set up his own company, The Daniels Corporation, and, in a sense, returned to his roots – as an entrepreneur specializing in home construction. Although the company takes on a range of projects, Daniels says the construction of affordable housing has always been important to him – reflecting his own family’s background as immigrants. His company is currently involved in the redevelopment of Regent Park. “My experience has mostly been in building projects where we’re looking after people with the lowest income levels. For many immigrants, it’s difficult enough to get by, or buy a home, and almost impossible to send their children to university,” he says.
This is why Daniels and his wife, Myrna, have provided $5 million to support scholarships at the Faculty of Architecture. The John and Myrna Daniels Scholars will be awarded annually, with preference given to students who are the first in their family to attend university. “I hope I can help a lot of young people pursue the kind of dream that I was able to bring to life,” says Daniels.
The rest of the gift – the largest ever to a Canadian architectural school – will support a planned $21-million renovation and expansion of the five-storey building at the corner of College and Huron, which the school has occupied since the 1960s. George Baird, dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, says the donation will help the faculty solidify its position among the top architectural schools in North America. The John and Myrna Daniels Scholars will double the faculty’s financial- aid capacity, boosting its ability to recruit the country’s top students, and should reduce the number of students who have to take a job during the academic year. “We prefer them not to work so they can concentrate on their studies,” says Baird.
The renovation to the century-old building will see the fifth floor expanded to accommodate seminar rooms, a conference centre and faculty offices, and perhaps a sixth floor added. A courtyard on the third and fourth floors will be filled in to create more studio space for students. A new elevator will also be installed and the entire building will be made more energy efficient. “The gift will really impact virtually every aspect of our operations here,” says Baird. He anticipates work on the project to occur over the next three to five years. Ron Daniels, a former U of T law dean (now the provost at University of Pennsylvania) and a nephew of John Daniels, praised his uncle’s desire to create educational opportunities for first-generation Canadians and the positive social impact of the gift. “[In my uncle’s story] you see in a very vivid way the transformative ability of higher education to catapult people forward.”