The Fort York area has some of the oldest built heritage in the city, but also has some of the newest real estate as well. And as much as its history is some of the deepest in the city, its emergence as a neighbourhood – as in, the Fort York neighbourhood or Garrison – is only a recent development.
I begin at Bathurst and Fort York. Across the way is the KPMB Architects-designed Fort York Library, opened in 2014. It’s been celebrated as some of the best new architecture in the city. It’s also important to the neighbourhood itself given the changes in the area.
The walk to the Fort is actually quite a long one, considering that I’m technically walking right in front of it. It also passes under the looming Gardiner Expressway, where there’s construction happening.
The entrance to Fort York National Historic Site is the Visitor Centre, which wasn’t here the last time I was at the museum several years ago. Designed by Patkau Architects and Kearns Mancini Architects, it opened in 2014 to great fanfare and great necessity. The shape of the building is an homage to the bluff that once front the shore of Lake Ontario, which was once located in this spot.
My reason for coming to Fort York is to sample the new Augmented Reality (AR) tour which is in beta testing for the month of October. As an educational and interpretation tool, it’s a significant addition for the museum.
Fort York is the birthplace of Toronto. It was founded in 1797, but its buildings date to the War of 1812.
But despite that history, it’s lost a bit of its context given the changes in Toronto over the years. Its historic significance is tied to its geography. The original shoreline, which gave the Fort a strategic location to defend the town of York, is buried under infill. Today, Fort York is landlocked by condos, a highway, and railways.
The AR tour recreates Fort York’s historical environment and instills some of the sense of place that’s been lost. It’s powered by GPS and features audio and visual exhibits which are prompted when you enter particular locations.
My favourite vignettes were the Battle of York, in which British soldiers blew up the grand magazine killing a lot of invading American troops (including the best named figure in Toronto history: Zebulon Pike). The crater in the grass today is said to be from the explosion.
Also, the Gardiner Expressway, which had great audio from the debates of the day. The original proposal for the Gardiner included a plan to route the highway over the Fort. Running it around the site would’ve added eight additional minutes to commuter times (hmm, where have I heard this debate before?).
The AR tour is overall a great experience. I was awed by the ability to look around and see the Fort and its surroundings as it once stood. For a museum goer that doesn’t necessary seek a social experience, it’s an excellent way to take in the site. I look forward to seeing it in the museum’s regular programming.
After finishing with Fort, I return back to the Visitor Centre to take in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. The exhibition is a great mix of didactic and interactive elements, and its messaging is on point.
The Magna Carta is a significant document in human history, and there’s great continuity in Canada’s and Toronto’s past, particularly in the creation of the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms and the fight for Responsible Government. It’s on display until November 7, 2015. (This is also the first exhibition I’ve been to that explicitly bans selfie sticks.)
From there, I make my way out of the fort and explore the neighbourhood. Passing by Garrison Common, which gets forgotten but is a significant part of the site, I come to Fort York Armouries, built here in 1933.
Further down the way is the 1861 Queen’s Wharf Lighthouse. Like Fort York, it’s a bit removed from its historical situation. It was moved here in 1929 after infill no longer had it on the water. Queen’s Wharf was the location of the recently excavated schooner.
Moving around the weird Fleet Street/Lake Shore Boulevard setup is a pedestrian’s nightmare. There’s car traffic and streetcar tracks to contend with. It’s no wonder the nearby intersection is named one of worst in the city.
Coming to Grand Magazine Street and Iannuzi Street, there’s markers in the ground honouring their naming. Grand Magazine references the Fort, but Iannuzi refers to the nearby OMNI building and the station’s founder Daniel Iannuzi. I remember when it was just named CFMT.
The Tip Top Lofts is a highlight on the street and one of my favourite buildings in the city. It was originally built here in 1929 as a garment factory. After sitting derelict, it reopened as residences in 2006 with an addition that, in my opinion, works very well with the rest of its Art Deco exterior.
The Bathurst/Lakeshore/Fleet Street intersection is an interesting one for the landmarks that stand here and once stood here.Standing at the northwest corner, there’s Douglas Coupland’s toy soldiers, known as the 2008 Monument to the War of 1812.
Across the way is a gas station that was once the site of Maple Leaf Stadium, which stood here from 1908 to 1968. It hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball team. As Adam Bunch tells in his Illustrated History of Baseball in Toronto, it’s one of a couple of lost baseball venues in the city, joining Hanlan’s Point Stadium on the islands and Riverdale’s Sunlight Park. Today, Stadium Road is only remnant of its existence.
Rounding things out is the landmark Loblaws Groceterias Warehouse, which sadly, has seen better days. A 1927 design by Sparling Martin and Forbes, it completes the Art Deco row happening here on Lake Shore (Carlton Street has another one going too). 90 years later, ERA architects are going to take their shot at revitalizing the worn out building.
Heading east and up onto Dan Leckie Way, the neighbourhood makeover continues. This is CityPlace, whose towers and the amazing Canoe Landing Park disguise the fact that there were once extensive railway lands here. Underneath the Gardiner there’s a park, akin to Underpass Park in the West Don Lands.
Speaking of railways, at its head I cross at the Puente de Luz pedestrian bridge.
Draper Street is a hidden Victorian gem in the city. Anytime I’m in the area I have to traverse it. Its rowhouses are something else. And there’s a couple of cats that can be found roaming it.
At Wellington & Portland, I like the unexpected juxtaposition between the house-turned-restaurant and the condo beside it. I have to believe there was once a vintage row of homes here, but the present looks pretty nice.
Across the way, Victoria Memorial Square went from yesterday’s military burial ground to today’s quiet park. Although geographically disconnected from it, it’s part of Fort York National Historic Site. For a deeper read into the park and its history, do read Hiking The GTA’s piece on Victoria Memorial Square.
Back on Bathurst, I end my urban hike at King Street. The Otto Higel Piano Co. stood at its northwest corner for the better part of the 20th century before being demolished in 1981. It’s one of my favourite lost industrial buildings in the city, and can’t help but wonder what its use would be today. There’s a Second Cup in its place, which I don’t mind getting a coffee from.
The intersection is also a great bookend for the day because of the Wheat Sheaf, which figures into Fort York and Toronto mythology. Soldiers at the fort were said to have dug a tunnel from the garrison to the watering hole. Great story although not true, sadly!