Tag Archives: industrial architecture

Scenes From Birch Cliff and the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant

3. Warden Avenue Birch Cliff

Arriving on 69 bus, I find myself at the intersection of Kingston Road and Warden Avenue in the Birch Cliff neighbourhood of southern Scarborough. As a northern Scarberian, I’ve never been here before, but it’s a place I at least recognize through my fascination of ‘Before and After’ images.


Warden Avenue and Kingston Road, 1950s-60s to Today. Note the continuity in the bus and bank in both images. Credit: Scarborough Historical Society

I cross the street and stand in front of Taylor Memorial Library. I’m here to see a talk given by Historian Allan Levine on his new book ‘Toronto: Biography of a City’, which is part the Toronto Public Library’s Eh List. It’s 5:50pm. The talk isn’t for another hour and ten minutes, so I get to explore Birch Cliff – or a tiny bit of it, anyways. The first thing that strikes me is the road construction. Kingston Road is seemingly always under perennial maintenance. Must be a headache for Birchcliffians (?).

1. Taylor Memorial Public Library

2. Kingston Road Construction

Warden Avenue south of Kingston is the only portion of the throughway that isn’t served by public transit. It is narrow, tree lined, and entirely residential. Above all, it’s quiet and quiet nice. There are a number of people outside as I walk, and I wonder how they feel about living here and if there’s some kind of Birch Cliff identity. The houses themselves are a mixture of older one-storey homes, bungalows, and post-modern creations.

4. Post-Modern Birch Cliff

5. Warden Avenue

Eventually, I come to the foot of Warden Avenue. It’s not exactly a landmark, but it’s cool enough to me. Where the street ends, a path begins. As I walk, I hear crunching under my feet. There are fallen nuts or something embedded in the sand. I pick one up as a souvenir and place it in my bag.  At the end of the path is a gate – or, at least, was a gate. Past it is, of course, the Scarborough Bluffs. I can hear the waves from where I am. It looks as though someone might’ve attempted this descent or at least part of it, but it’s not an adventure I’m up for, so I turn back.

6. Foot of Warden Avenue

7. Foot of Warden Avenue

8. Nuts

9. Warden Scarborough Bluffs

10. Warden Scarborough Bluffs

I return to Kingston and start heading west. The street was built as a motel lined highway into Toronto – the Dundas Street of Scarborough, if you will. The strip of shops near Warden features a cafe, an empty store, and a bar with karaoke.

As I keep walking, I’m not awed. It’s a rather sad street, and that goes beyond just the construction. Looking across the way, there’s nothing lively – certainly not like the stretch of Kingston that runs through the Beach.

11. Warden Avenue Helene Cafe           12. Warden Avenue Helene Cafe

13. Warden Avenue Closed Store

14. Faded Mural

15. Kingston Road Birch Cliff

Continuing on, to my left is a long fence with trees rising above it. I have no idea what’s on the other side. When the opportunity is right, I peek my head over. A golf course. Further down, I put it all together. This is the Toronto Hunt Club, which is fed in by a private road. It’s a long established organization, and has been here for at least a hundred years.

16. Toronto Hunt Club Kingston Road

17. Toronto Hunt Club Kingston Road

Toronto Hunt Club Kingston Road, Goads, 1913

Oaklands Avenue was Warden south of Kingston. Credit: Goads Atlas, 1913.

Kingston does a curve and turns residential for a bit. At Blantyre, I have to head south. Before that, I stop in at the Petro Canada. It’s a fortuitous break because with all the walking, I forgot to pack water with me (number one rule for an explorer). I refuel and continue. It’s somewhat fitting considering my destination – a great big water temple.

18. Kingston Road Birch Cliff

But first, Blantyre reminds me a bit of Warden Avenue in its array of homes, but it’s clear that it’s a bit more upscale (understandable as I’m closer to the Beach). At Queen Street, for example, are houses that require a stairs to get to.

19. Post-Modern Home

20. Blantyre Avenue

21. Blantyre Avenue

At just after 6:30pm, I cross Queen Street and find myself before the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, a long yellow building with a massive lawn. I get in close to inspect it while a couple dogs (with their owners nearby) come in to inspect me. I amicably oblige them for a bit, but know I don’t have too much time. What I see is impressive, but I know the other side is where the real marvel lies.

22. R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant Back

23. R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant Back
35. R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant dogs

Immortalized in Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, rhe R.C. Harris Plant, named for Roland Caldwell, the city’s Public Works Commissioner at the time of its construction, is one of the most photographed landmarks in the city. I have to join the masses in capturing its grandeur. It is built in the Art Deco style of the 1920s and 30s, the same as Commerce Court North – although it is nothing like that tower. This is industrial architecture at its finest and because of it, I’m pretty giddy.

24. R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant

26. R.C. Harris Water Treatment  Front

27. R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant Front

The facility is located at the foot of Victoria Park Avenue, which is  named for the amusement park and forestland that the treatment plant now occupies. As I meander around and note individuals with their animals and/or human companions, it’s funny how it’s still a gathering place – an odd one if one thinks about it. “Let’s take the dog out for walk to the water treatment plant and we’ll talk as well.”

Victoria Park RC Harris Plant, Goads 1913

Credit: Goads Atlas, 1913

Victoria Park RC Harris Water Plant

Victoria Park Amusement Park, Year Unknown. Credit: Scarborough Historical Society

28. R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant

29. R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant

I head down to the water and capture it from below. It’s a moody day, and part of me was hoping for an animated sunset, but there’s still something appealing with the dreariness and fog. There’s no rain, though – that’s a plus.

30. R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant

31. R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant shore

32. R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant shore

33. R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant

34. R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant plaque

My phone indicates it’s 6:50pm, so I regrettable decide to leave Mr. Harris’ great achievement. I know have to get a move on in order to make Mr. Levine’s talk without being too late. I’m not helped by the fact that it’s almost entirely uphill to Kingston road – from the shore, up to the plant, to Queen Street, and up Courcelette Road. I’d take my time to admire the street, but I’m too winded to give it thought. I haven’t been through such strenuous exercise in a while. When I consider it, I’ve missed it and make a note to put myself through that – under less stressful circumstances. By the time I reach the main road, it’s dark. The fog reflects beautiful on the street lights and I can’t resist one last picture.

36. Kingston Road Birch Cliff

I reach Taylor Memorial Library at 7:10pm. Not bad, although I’m still very gassed. It’s a really cozy branch.

I’m directed to the back meeting room where Mr. Levine has already begun lecturing on his book. It’s a great presentation on the ‘life’ of Toronto – Muddy York, The Toronto Maple Leafs, The Ward, The Orange Order, former mayor Nathan Phillips – a lot of which I know about, but still some that garner notes in my Moleskine.

The audience discussion that follows it is most interesting. There were comments about the inadequacy of Toronto’s infrastructure (the TTC at the centre, naturally), how Torontonians are whiners, and, most notably, how the city is soulless. Thinking of my day today, I argue that city does have a character and soul. The examples of soulful cities given include Montreal, Quebec City, and European metropolises. I suppose their souls are wrapped in long, documented histories. Toronto’s is perhaps less obvious, but I say it’s character lies in its neighbourhoods – like Birch Cliff – and the landmarks within them – like the R.C. Harris Treatment Plant. I think it’s a fair point and very fitting given the evening I’ve had.

It’s worth noting that what I saw today is only a small portion of Birch Cliff. The Quarry Lands at Victoria Park and Gerrard, for example, were a big part of the area once upon a time and now await aan uncertain future. Their exploration also await me.

Scenes From Old Town

Spontaneous, impromptu adventures. They are the best, aren’t they? As a person who overthinks and plans the heck out of things, I’ve realised lately that when you go into something with high hopes and little expectations, things turn out to be more fun.

I find myself at George Brown’s St. James Campus, meeting my brother in front of the Hospitality Building at the top of Frederick on Adelaide. It’s a new state of the art building, but its surroundings for the most part aren’t. Beside it is a trio of heritage buildings: Toronto’s First Post Office, the De La Salle Institute, and the former Bank of Upper Canada Building. Actually, the Hospitality Building was previously occupied by a still existing heritage building that still exists, Campbell House Museum, which was moved to University and Queen in 1972.

0. Bank of Upper Canada Building

0. De La Salle Institute

0. Toronto's 1st Post Office

This collection of structures is important in telling the story of York and Toronto, but the block-wide red brick building across from us grabs my attention the most. Ah, converted industrial buildings: my great interest in this thing called local history. A good chunk of George Brown features adaptive reuse projects. The one across the street is the former Christie factory.

0. Christie Factory George Brown 1902

Christie, Brown & Co., Adelaide St. E., s. side, betw. George & Frederick Sts.; looking s.w. 1902. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

1. Old Christie Factory George Brown

My brother tells me that a pedestrian bridge was planned above the intersection to join the two buildings. It never materialized and after we part, I woefully resign to using the boring old crosswalk. Or maybe not so boring. At the corner I see an inkling of Old Toronto street names. Hello Mr. Duke!

2. Duke Street sign at Frederick

3. Frederick Street sign at Adelaide

As I meander south, it’s like architectural Pokemon – I gotta catch ‘em all. But this is a journey within a journey. I really want to check out the Market Gallery – I just get some trinkets along the way!

This is also a good time to plug my Map of Toronto’s Industrial Heritage, where I am attempting to plot the city’s industrial and manufacturing places – existing and lost, still running and demolished.

4. Old Factory on Frederick Street

Among these is Young People’s Theatre, which greets me at Front Street.  Just as it sounds, YPT is an arts space which puts on performances for young audiences. The building itself, though, was never intended to be a theatre. It started off as stables for Toronto Street Railway Company in 1886 – you know, back when horses used to draw the city’s streetcars. After the system became electrified, it became a power generating plant. It sat vacant for a while, faced demolition (such is the story many old and idle buildings, no?) until YPT moved in. One has to think of the logistics of converting a space like that into a theatre. Industrial buildings into lofts or offices seem like the most common examples of adaptive reuse, so to see a power plant into a theatre is truly remarkable!

5. Young People's Theatre Front Street Old TTC building

Still looking at the south side of Front Street, on the west side of Frederick is another industrial building. This is J&J Taylor Safeworks. As a Toronto Historical Board plaque on the building tells us, the structure was built in 1867 as a meat packing plant. In 1871, it became the home to J&J Taylor. It looks to be office space today.

I didn’t venture over to see it, but there’s a Taylor’s Wharf Lane immediately south of the building which commemorates the wharf that used to exist in the area – when the original shoreline was at about Front. Ironically though, the Taylor and in the wharf and the Taylor in the safe manufacturer are unrelated. More on lanes later.

6. Front and George factory

Continuing westward, I get to St. Lawrence Market and I note the doors are curiously closed. Poor twisted me – it’s Monday! I guess the ‘Toronto Does Her Bit’ exhibition will have to wait. I do get a look down pedestrian Market Street, though. There’s a shiny new Balzac’s there. I continue on to the crazy Church-Wellington-Front intersection, highlighted by the often photographed Flat Iron Building. I have enough shots of it so I opt out of one now and turn north.

7. Market Street

I travel past St. James Church and Adelaide Street again. When I hit Lombard I make a left. Impromptu adventure. One of the random nuggets of knowledge in my head tells me there’s something here that I’ve been meaning to check out: 86 Lombard. Today it’s the Fred Victor Women’s Hostel, but in 1907 it was built to be the city morgue. Imagine that: a house of the dead on our streets! There’s some hidden history for you. Actually, more to that point, a now covered sign high above door even once showed its original purpose.

8. Lombard Street Morgue

Lombard Street City Morgue, 1936

Lombard Street City Morgue, 1936. Credit: City of Toronto Archives

Some former factories catch my attention on Richmond street. Although I cannot find anything on the darker building, the red brick building has a ‘sweet’ past. It is part of a complex of structures that stretch to Queen Street which used to make up Robertson Bros Confection Ltd (established in 1862). If my facts are right, the structure on Richmond was the warehouse and dates around 1906. The purpose of the rest of the buildings and their dates is a little bit more difficult to sort out.

9. Industrial Architecture Richmond Street

Robertson Brothers Ltd from Goads Atlas, 1924

Robertson Brothers Ltd from Goads Atlas, 1924

After capturing them in my phone, I turn around to note my surroundings. There’s some street art dedicated to Nelson Mandela!

10. Nelson Mandela Richmond Street

Finally, just before Queen Street is Ditty Lane. This coloured little alley was named for the Ditty Hotel that stood at Queen and Church (although I can’t say exactlywhere at the intersection). The beauty of our laneways is they commemorate lost landmarks, unknown local personalitiess, and hidden histories. On Adelaide east of Bay, for example, lies Grand Opera lane – a tribute to, you guessed, the now vanquished Grand Opera.

Oh, and I had to look up ‘Ditty’ – it’s a little song. Perhaps it was a musical hotel?

11. Ditty Lane

12. Ditty Lane
On Queen Street, my adventure ends (or continues?) as I jump on a westbound streetcar towards my next destination.