Category Archives: heritage planning

An Ontario Heritage Champion

Stephen Otto, A Life Story
by Catherine Nasmith/Rollo Myers

Stephen Otto, a heritage champion

“Ontario’s heritage community is mourning one of its finest.  Stephen A. Otto died peacefully in his sleep April 21/22. Earlier this year he was awarded the Order of Canada at a special ceremony in Toronto.

Steve’s friend Michael Vaughan wrote to Steve on that occasion ” As long as I have been involved and it has been a long time now, whenever a heritage question has arisen, the first thing anyone says is “Call Steve.” For generations of us you have been the ‘call to’ person, so the Nation’s recognition of your contribution through your Membership in the Order of Canada, will be felt by many as recognition of their own work and confirmation of the public worth of their efforts. Also, and perhaps more than merely collaterally important, your lesson of active and engaged celebration of our heritage, has generated an institutional response including Heritage Toronto and Heritage Canada among many others.”

Friend Rollo Myers writes, “I have known Stephen Otto for more than thirty years and have an ever-increasing admiration for his judgment, knowledge and impeccable research on anything to do with Ontario’s history — and his determination invariably underpins tangible outcomes that have brought about positive, significant change.”

He is a special friend to the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, a member of its President’s Circle.

Steve brought to heritage a unique set of skills; he was descended from a loyalist family who came to Upper Canada in 1794. He graduated in history from Cambridge and also had degrees in business from the University of Toronto and the Harvard Business School. He had an extraordinary memory for historic facts, and an exceptional interest in the people in any story, past and present.

His accomplishments are numerous. First there were his updates on Eric Arthur’s landmark Toronto – No Mean City. Then his Once More Into the Breach that chronicled Fort York’s long history of trials and tribulations, then his participation in the award-winning urban design proposal Fort York – Setting it Right, both of which gained Toronto City Council’s attention, and contributed to the success and achievements of the Friends of Fort York, a group of volunteers Steve helped found, provided continuing leadership to, and funds for the Fort York Guard. Steve was active in raising funds for the new Fort York Visitors Centre, including a generous personal donation. When he died, he was nearing completion of a book on Ontario architecture, planned for publication by U. of T. press.

Steve initiated and advised Parks Canada’s precise delineation of the Fort York National Historic Precinct and encouraged and influenced the subsequent addition of significant additional open space for the fort.

His research brought back to public attention the original Walks and Gardens legislation – dating to 1818 – of how Toronto’s waterfront should be protected, and this in turn led to Council’s formation of the Walks and Gardens Working Group.  The successful international competition for the commemorative artwork to be installed at Union Station is a direct result of Steve’s initial research and participation.

Steve’s sought-after advice has influenced the development of – amongst many others — Toronto’s Distillery District,  Spadina House, Todmorden Mills — and he advised on and participated in successful efforts to return the site of Upper Canada’s First Parliament Buildings to public ownership.

Steve was head of Heritage Conservation Services at Ontario’s Ministry of Culture and Recreation, and administered the newly enacted Ontario Heritage Act between 1975 and 1981. During this period his initiative resulted in the donation of the superlative Horwood Collection of architectural drawings to the Ontario Archives. He also organized a landmark exhibition in Toronto on the history of Toronto’s City Halls and edited a catalogue of the professional library of John M. Lyle.

He was remarkably effective in dealing with development and political situations, perhaps because he brought to the discussion a business background gained early in his career working for Laura Secord and Dominion Stores in real estate management. But history, and management of historic projects won out.

From 1981 to 1984, he planned and was co-ordinator for the province’s Bi-centennial celebrations.

He was a former director of the Ontario Heritage Foundation (now Trust), and a former director of the Canadian Association of Heritage Professional Consultants.

He was awarded the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977, the Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2015, and has received awards for Special Achievement from Heritage Toronto and from Architectural Conservancy Ontario.

Steve has been an active participant in the regular publication – since 1996 – of Fife and Drum, the journal of the Friends of Fort York. With book reviews, recipes, historical essays, biographies, research reports, architectural studies and other topics of interest to the 3000 readers.

Along the way, he was involved in so many smaller projects, particularly around Toronto, such as finding a dignified location for the bust of Robert Gourlay, or commemoration for Joseph Bloor.”


BUILT HERITAGE NEWS  Issue No. 268,  April 23rd

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