Historicist: An Exhibition in Crystal

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Historicist: An Exhibition in Crystal

Every Saturday morning, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
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Crystal Palace, 1871. Exhibition Place & CNE Archives
Once upon a time, the consort of a queen whose empire stretched across the globe was the president of a society that encouraged the promotion of the finest arts, commercial enterprises, and industrial discoveries in his domain. With other major figures, he organized a grand exhibition housed in a magnificent palace made of crystal. The palace inspired observers so much that cities across the ocean built their own versions to raise the same level of excitement that the consort’s fair generated. All went well with these buildings, except for their penchant for eventually catching fire…
Using Sir James Paxton’s design for the Great Exhibition of 1851 as a model, two incarnations of Toronto’s Crystal Palace served the public as a primary exhibition space for half a century while rotating provincial fairs gave way to the Canadian National Exhibition.


The first Crystal Palace, officially named the Palace of Industry, was built in 1858 on grounds northwest of King and Shaw Streets, south of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum. Designers Sandford Fleming (the inventor of standard time) and Collingwood Schreiber based their plans on Paxton’s Crystal Palace in Hyde Park but incorporated more cast iron into the framework to withstand Toronto’s climate (which sounds like the 1850s equivalent of the construction of the Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum). A contemporary account felt the structure “look[ed] very low, and as if crushed down by the superincumbent mass of roof.” The building was designated Toronto’s first permanent exhibition hall and was inaugurated with the annual provincial agricultural/industrial exhibition that had rotated among several cities in Canada West since 1846.
The building was officially opened by Governor-General Sir Edmund Walker Head on September 28, 1858. Attendees of the event were led in prayer by Bishop John Strachan, then treated to a recital by the Metropolitan Choral Society. Among the prize-winning exhibitors was author Catharine Parr Traill, who was honoured for bringing “the best collection of native plants dried and named.” The site would see four more provincial fairs, house the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) during his 1860 tour of Canada, and provide quarters for troops heading west to put down the Red River Rebellion in 1870.
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Crystal Palace, c. 1906. Exhibition Place & CNE Archives
By the time Toronto was awarded the 1878 provincial fair, the city had deemed the site inadequate to handle increasing crowds. After considering High Park, Bloor and St. George and Woodbine Park as potential sites, the city struck a lease with the federal government in April 1878 for a western segment of Fort York’s garrison reserve that formed the beginning of Exhibition Place. The Crystal Palace was dismantled and most of the ironwork was incorporated in a new main building east of Dufferin Street. The design was maintained with some alterations (an additional story, raised skylights and a cupola). The old site was sold to the Massey Manufacturing Company.
As had been the case two decades earlier, the Governor-General was on hand to open the new Crystal Palace. Lord Dufferin’s speech urged the crowd to draw the nation closer to Great Britain, “live in generous rivalry” with the United States, and to keep a close eye on politicians to ensure their actions rose above partisan shenanigans. The Telegram overheard a visitor declare the new Crystal Palace “ain’t no slouch.” The paper agreed, describing the site glowingly:

The main building is large enough to accommodate the inhabitants of an ordinary township. The buildling, as a building, is admirably adapted for exhibition purposes, being light and airy in appearance and of considerable strength. The internal arrangements are such that no exhibit suffers from want of space or light. When the Philharmonic Society sang at the opening, the acoustics were found to be excellent.

City officials hoped that the Crystal Palace and its surrounding new buildings would convince provincial exhibition officials to keep the fair in Toronto for the next few years. When organizers awarded the 1879 edition to Ottawa, politicians and business leaders mobilized to establish a permanent annual exhibition for Toronto. The first Toronto Industrial Exhibition was held in September 1879 and grew steadily over the next quarter-century. By the time the fair’s name was officially changed to the Canadian National Exhibition in 1904, the Crystal Palace was officially known as the Transportation Building.
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Sketch in The Telegram, October 19, 1906
Crystal palaces elsewhere had proven highly susceptible to fire. Toronto’s seemed to be holding up well until October 18, 1906. Just after 10 p.m. a blaze broke out in the wooden grandstand and, despite heavy rainfall, quickly spread to neighbouring stables. The Mail and Empire described the dramatic events that unfolded around 11:30:

A cry arose from the crowds…that the Transportation Building was alight. A spark had found a lodgment directly under the eaves of the east front. It had gradually eaten into the dry wood of the structure…the old Crystal Palace was soon alight and blazing merrily…all efforts to save it were fruitless, for the numerous panes of glass in the walls broke with resounding cracks and served as draughts to fan the flames.
The old building…furnished to the drenched onlooker a much more striking picture in its destruction than ever before in its history. Every window, and they are legion, was outlined in black against a background of fire. As the flames seized upon the roof they leaped high in the air, scattering embers in every direction, and making a fearsome pyrotechnic display. Finally dull crashes were heard, and the roof began to fall, the girders sank to the ground, and all that remained was a number of scattered black pillars of iron, like giant arms stretched imploringly to the scarlet sky.

Arson was suspected, thanks to two unusual encounters Park Commissioner John Chambers had with a cyclist roaming the grounds during the blaze. Chambers told The Daily Star that a man “with a peculiar foreign accent” approached him from the grandstand area and told him that “the whole place [was] going to be burned.” After Chambers assisted firefighters in saving the Fruit Building, the cyclist reappeared to tell Chambers, “[I]t is no use to save any of these buildings. You might as well leave your hose alone, because you can’t do any good.” When Chambers asked the cyclist to help fight the blaze, the man cursed at Chambers (“oh, go to —-“) and vanished into the night.
The Crystal Palace site did not remain empty for long. G.W. Gouinlock’s dome-topped Horticulture Building was erected the following year and is currently occupied by Muzik. As for the building that provided the initial inspiration, London’s Crystal Palace went up in flames in 1936.
Additional material from the September 25, 1878 edition of The Telegram and the October 19, 1906 editions of The Mail and Empire and The Toronto Daily Star.

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