The Fort, the Roundhouse and the Streetcar Barns part 1

I will highlight over my next few posts three more civic spaces that have used heritage as their source for inspiration.  They are: Fort York National Historic Site (built by the British government in 1793), Artscape Wychwood Barns (built by the Toronto Civic Railways in 1913), and Roundhouse Park/John Street Roundhouse (built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1931)


All three have emerged over the past decade as exceptional additions to Toronto’s public realm serving as community meeting and event spaces.  They are exceptional because they have effectively used the heritage of the site to create a special place,  a place that has a story and meaning to the community. Each place has taken care to understand the meaning of its built heritage resource, its landscape and the story of the place to create an evocative space where people want to be.


Each of the three were originally built as major pieces of infrastructure to service public needs: Defence in the case of Fort York and transportation for the other two.  Both the Roundhouse and the TTC Barns were abandoned by their owners as the technologies they represented became obsolete. While the Fort was never abandoned its defences were left to deteriorate following their last improvement during the US Civil War. (Carl Benn, Fort York A Short History and Guide) By the early 20th century plans began to convert the Fort to a historic site museum. All three pieces of infrastructure ended up being owned by the City of Toronto. In each case, a strong community group emerged that provided the needed energy for revitalization and directed that the story and authenticity of the places had to be preserved and recognized if they were to have a sustainable future.

Fort York National Historic Site

When I first visited Fort York in 1990, as a newly minted employee of the Toronto Historical Board, I thought, how could I not have known such a place was here: the founding site of urban Toronto still intact in the downtown. I had a degree in Canadian history and thought I knew all the signifcant sites in Toronto; how had I missed this? And it’s not a small place. It is huge: 43 acres near the centre of the city stretching east-west between Strachan and Bathurst and north-south between the rail lands and Fort York Blvd. It is the place where the British decided to build the city’s primary defence in 1793.  It contains Canada’s largest collection of original War of  1812 buildings and is operated as a museum by the City of Toronto.

Five things you need to know about Fort York and about Toronto

  • Fort York is located on the Lake Ontario shoreline as the shoreline existed in the early 1800s. It now fronts on Fort York Blvd., but this street and all land to the south is actually lake fill.
  • Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe selected the location across from the tip of the Peninsula, (now Toronto islands) where the British established the Gibraltar Point Defences. With the aid of these defences, and with Fort York, the British guarded what was then the only entrance to the Toronto harbour.
  • Fort York was the site of a traumatic 6-hour battle that resulted in 477 British and American casualties
  • The Americans first put ashore at present day Dowling Avenue and were met by an advance party of 40 to 50 Ojibwa and Mississauga warriors who fought on the side of the British
  • Victoria Memorial Cemetery, located south of Wellington and east of Bathurst, is part of Fort York National Historic Site. Katherine, infant daughter of Simcoe and his wife Elizabeth, is buried there.  The cemetery was in use between 1793 and 1860. 

Fort York’s new addition to the public realm

A new 22,000-square-foot-Visitor Centre opened in 2014, finally bringing the city’s most significant public landscape and story in to public view.  The new Visitor Centre is the culmination of more than a quarter-century of work by citizen advocates, especially The Friends of Fort York and the Fort York Foundation, and City staff to properly recognize the significance of this place and to knit it back into the life of the city.  Designed by Patkau Architects and Kearns Mancini Architects, the Visitor Centre is embedded in to the original escarpment of the site, following the original shore line. The defensive nature of the site is conveyed by the rusted Corten steel cladding extending along the façade of the building. The original shoreline in front of the Fort is evoked by wetland-inspired landscaping and a boardwalk to be completed in 2017. With a new front door to the Fort, visitors enter at the lake level and move up through the building using a ramp system that releases them on to Garrison Common, now a grass field,  but once a battlefield. The exit at the Common level provides visitors with views to the 7-acre walled fort containing the original war of 1812 buildings as well as views to the west through what would have been the field of fire. It’s also a great place from which to see how the city rose around its founding landscape, with the rail lines and Gardiner expressway to the south, and Toronto’s downtown to the east.

Inside the Visitor Centre, visitors can get an orientation to the 43-acre site, see a brand new exhibit on the War of 1812  and see precious artifacts that are on display at a City museum for the first time thanks to the environmentally controlled exhibit space afforded by the new Visitor Centre.  My favourite are the two colours or flags of the Third Regiment of York Militia. They were sewn by Toronto’s young women in 1812-1813 and presented to the regiment just before the American invasion of Toronto. They have been painstakingly restored by the Canadian Conservation Institute.

The Visitor Centre exhibit on the War of 1812 is one of the most thoughtful on this period in Canadian history.   In this year of commemorating Canada 150 and the different perspectives on this anniversary,  take particular note of the exhibit section on First Nations which examines the long term consequences of the War of 1812 through the experience of the Mississagua of the New Credit who occupied the lands we now know as the CIty of Toronto. (The Toronto Purchase Specific Claim was finally settled in 2010.)

The Fort York Visitor Centre has been named one of the top 10 Toronto buildings from the last 15 years by Blog TO. When it opened in 2014 it pioneered use of the public space under the Gardiner. Now it will link directly to other major city building projects, The Bentway linear park and the Fort York Pedestrian Bridge.

Heritage + Community = Evergreen Brickworks

In this second post I want to highlight some examples of how heritage resources have been used to build great public spaces that are elegant in physical design and also create a sense of community connectedness. Four examples immediately come to mind. They are:  Evergreen Brickworks, Artscape Wychwood Barns, Roundhouse Park and Fort York National Historic Site. Each has emerged in the last decade a shining example of placemaking.  Placemaking is defined by The Project for Public Spaces as “the art of creating public places of the soul,’ that uplift and help us connect to each other.

In each case, the landscape the buildings and the story of the place was used as both an ideas platform and a physical platform from which to create powerful physical spaces that result in better community connectedness. In each case there was a community of citizens that that worked hard to develop the vision and planning required to execute the projects.  This is further evidence of how important the community is in identiying what consitutes heritage and how it can contribute to  community building.

I will elaborate on the Evergreen Brickworks here but for a really great overview of the planning and thinking behind both Evergreen Brickworks and Artscape Wychwood Barns see “Toronto Brownfield Redux”, a speech given by Jo Lobko of DTAH at the ICOMOS Symposium in Paris in 2011.

Evergreen Brickworks, is a community environmental centre that operates from what was a 12-acre abandoned industrial site. It’s the site of the Don Valley Pressed Brick Company which produced bricks here for 100 years until 1989.  The site contains the physical landscape of the former quarry along with the exposure on the north slope of the internationally renowned sequence of environmental change — where one can see debris from a cooler climate covered by debris from a warmer climate, buried beneath another sequence of glacial deposits. In addition to an internationally significant landscape history, the brickworks site contains 16 original buildings, 300-foot brick kilns, and lots of graffiti.  The project to transform an abandoned brownfield site into a centre for urban sustainability centre for came out of the historic legacy of the site itself.

Both the landscape features and the buildings have been restored and adapted, harnessing the power of the story of the site. Evergreen’s vision was that the “greenest building is often the one that already exists” and so the focus was to adaptively reuse the buildings, maintaining the industrial heritage of the site and the sense of wonder people have when they visit an abandoned manufacturing site. It was in that spirit that the graffiti was retained and the industrial artifacts were left on the site.

The result is a hugely popular destination that blends, community, heritage and environmental education. It’s successful at attracting tourists and locals because it has harnessed the power of heritage to make it an authentic place.  In 2009 it was a top 10 finalist in the National Geographic Geotourism awards and runner-up for “Best Public Space in Canada by the Canadian Institute of Planners.

In subsequent posts I will elaborate on how Fort York National Historic Site, Artscape Wychwood Barns, and Roundhouse Park have used heritage as a rich resource from which to build new urban spaces that contribute greatly to the city.

Lets accept that history is a moving target and go from there

I have decided to write this blog as Canada enters its 150th birthday year to explore how we think about and express our cultural heritage whether it be through preservation of the built environment, or through public festivals and events,  public spaces, exhibits, videos, books, talks etc.

For example, many of us are participating in the huge outpouring of emotion and commemoration around the  closing of the iconic Honest Eds discount store. This outpouring is not just about a heritage building being lost; it’s about our fear of losing the spirit of what Honest Ed’s represented: A Toronto that is welcoming and accessible. Those are the cultural values that are at stake here. Not surprisingly, the farewell bash hosted by the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) is called “A Toronto for Everyone” and this includes  “A Town Hall for All”  featuring stories about the neighbourhood and discussions on homelessness and inclusion.  Through the long process of closing and saying goodbye to this landmark building, we as a community have defined the cultural heritage values that are important about the Mirvish site.

There’s also the unprecedented step taken By Toronto City Council in December of placing a one-year freeze on the demolition of 303 heritage buildings in the King Spadina neighbourhood; Then there was the outrage over the loss of the 110-year-old Beaux Art Bank of Montreal Building at Yonge and Roselawn.   There are intense debates at community meetings and in the media about what constitutes heritage and what its value is. But increasingly, as in the case of Honest Eds, responsibility is shifting from the experts to the community.

There are many voices in the debate. Some  complain that trees have more protection than buildings  while others say  we shouldn’t worry so much about heritage and that the city will grow like a natural ecosystem. Even the celebration of Canada 150 is problematic. First Nations groups and others point out that the last 150 years isn’t cause for celebration for everyone and that the word “commemorate” rather than “celebrate” is more appropriate. Nathan Tidridge, speaking at the 7th Annual Historical Gathering & Cultural Series, hosted last week by the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, spoke about the devastating impact Confederation had on the relationship between First Nations and the Crown and how this led to the residential school system.

Heritage museums, especially those operating out of heritage sites are being challenged by funders to prove their relevance to citizens. A relatively new voice in the profession, Frank Vagnone, has written a manifesto called “The Anarchists Guide to the Historic House”. Though many consider it a rant, it is evidence that change is afoot in the world of cultural heritage.

I was at a small conference last May hosted by the Canadian National Committee of the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS Canada) and ERA Architects. The conference title was “Bringing Heritage Out of History and In to The City” and this is precisely what it was about.  Together, conference participants explored the role of heritage conservation in social issues and in community sustainability. There were walking tours of Kensington Market, and the empty space under the Gardiner Expressway that is about to be made into an urban park. The question on everyone’s mind was: How does heritage contribute to these important cultural landscapes in the city?  Discussions revolved around how to decide what heritage attributes are significant and who gets to decide.  I came away from that conference thinking that a broader understanding of heritage was needed and that in fact we should think about heritage as a resource rather than an absolute set of heritage attributes or buildings or facts. The discussions of the conference are recorded in the on-line publication, “A Field Guide to Tactical Heritage Urbanism” by ERA Architects in conjunction with (ICOMOS Canada). It suggests some low-cost initiatives by citizens that can “reveal” and “celebrate the multiplicities of experiences and stores that emerge from communities.”

I have great hope that if we accept that history is a bit of moving target and not a set of absolutes, then maybe we can imagine it as a vast resource of ideas that can energize our communities and our cities.