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)

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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.

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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.