Photo by khalijkhazar from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
One of the city’s most popular annual events, Doors Open Toronto, returns this weekend for a ninth edition, welcoming the public for free into 150 important, historic, and just plain interesting buildings across the city. It would be virtually impossible for one person to take in all of the participating sites in one weekend, so it’s best to pace yourself and visit a cluster of buildings each day. Although you can generally count on most of the buildings continuing to participate in future years, some seem to disappear off the list—or disappear altogether—each year. If there’s something that you really want to see, get to it while you can.
This year’s theme is Sacred Spaces, Sacred Circles. Places of worship have always featured prominently in the official Doors Open program, but their number has increased this year. You don’t have to be particularly spiritual or devout to admire the colourful and impressive spaces that the faithful have carved or painted into the city.
One of the side effects of Doors Open’s continuing success is that it gets thousands of Torontonians and visitors to engage with the city in a new way. People have grown so accustomed to passing by so many of the city’s architectural gems without stopping to admire them that we frequently wonder if Toronto architecture has any redeeming qualities. The answer, of course, is a resounding “Yes!” and a weekend attending Doors Open sites provides all the proof you need.
Enjoying the weekend requires a bit of advance planning. Most buildings are open both Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. through 4 p.m. Some sites are only open one day or the other, while others have reduced hours, long lines, guided tours, and other specific considerations. Be sure to check the times and details on the official Doors Open list for each site you want to visit. Also check the listings for building accessibility and whether photography is allowed. Some buildings, particularly the religious locations, also have basic dress codes that should be honoured. Wear comfortable shoes and get a TTC day pass.
If you miss this year’s Doors Open Toronto, remember that there are dozens of Doors Open events throughout the year as part of Doors Open Ontario. Some of them, including Mississauga, Oakville, Oshawa, and Whitby, will be reachable by bike on the GO train when they’re held later this summer and autumn.
Torontoist’s picks for this year’s Doors Open weekend are below the fold.
Sure to be the belle of the ball this year is the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (pictured above) in Etobicoke. The building—impressive in every way—was hand-carved by almost 2000 workers from Italian marble and Turkish limestone with no structural steel used to hold it together. Each of the 24,000 blocks were individually carved in India and the whole lot shipped to Toronto in over 300 containers for assembly and final fitting of all of the pieces. Combined with the equally impressive community centre across the parking lot from the mandir—with more intricately hand-carved teak than you’ve seen in your entire lifetime—the complex is a must-see for everyone, despite its relatively isolated location from other Doors Open locations.
The TTC’s Lower Bay subway station (Saturday only) has lost some of its naughty allure since last year, when it served as a pass-through station for several weekends and participated in both Doors Open and Nuit Blanche. Nevertheless, it’s still worth a visit for both transit fans and “hidden Toronto” aficionados.
Returning this year after a spectacular debut in last year’s Doors Open, the TTC’s Harvey Shops (at right, Saturday only) are a veritable smorgasbord of workshops and vehicle repair facilities under a single roof at the TTC’s Hillcrest Complex. It was easily the best-run and most informative site in eight editions of Doors Open, staffed throughout by TTC employees who rightfully took tremendous pride in their work. There’s something here for everyone, from repair bays where streetcars are completely rebuilt to the TTC’s custom fabrication workshop, where parts no longer available on the commercial market are fabricated from scratch.
The Harvey Shops are home to so much expertise and tooling that the TTC recently studied building its own streetcars rather than buying from established manufacturers. Tool geeks and kids will be impressed by the 34″ band saw, 12″ jointers, and table saws bigger than many downtown condos. Even better than the sights are the sounds: dozens of TTC employees explaining what they do, answering the most arcane questions, and demonstrating their incredible knowledge of the machinery that runs Toronto. There’s one big change this year: photography will be allowed inside the facility. Power up your DSLR batteries, but leave your tripods at home.
Continuing with the transportation theme, this could be your last chance to see the old Don train station in Todmorden Mills, where it was moved in 1969 from near Queen Street and the Don River after being saved from demolition. The only surviving station from the Belt Line Railway, it’s slated to be moved down to Roundhouse Park later this year or next, where it will become a central part of the Toronto Railway Historical Association’s planned permanent miniature railway. A temporary version of the Roundhouse Park Miniature Railway runs each year at Doors Open, complementing interior tours, model displays, and historic rolling stock in the John Street Roundhouse. Also inside the roundhouse, Steam Whistle Brewing offers guided tours of its facilities. Steam Whistle has a special relationship with Doors Open, having officially opened to the public during the first Doors Open event in May 2000. Although last year’s announcement that a Leon’s furniture store would be taking up residence in the roundhouse generated a lot of criticism, the move does mean that the historic turntable has been restored and will be in operation for the first time in two decades this weekend. The city will also finally get a proper—if diminished—railway museum at the national historic site. It won’t be Travel Town, but it’s a start.
Speaking of Todmorden Mills, it’s just one of the small museums representing communities that used to be well outside Toronto. North York’s Gibson House, Etobicoke’s Montgomery’s Inn, the Scarborough Historical Museum, and York’s Lambton House and York Museum all offer glimpses into the old villages and settlements that ringed Toronto 150 years ago. Now in neighbourhoods that are firmly embedded in the Megacity, the historic taverns, houses, and industrial remnants are reminders of a time when a trip to Toronto was measured in hours, not minutes. Although not nearly as flashy or well-known as their downtown counterparts, all of Toronto’s outer museums and historic houses are worth visiting and have stories to tell about the unique cultures they still represent.
If you’re one of the cultural philistines that refuse to go to an opera or ballet, Doors Open is your best bet to explore the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (Sunday only), which is much nicer on the inside than the outside. While you’re in a theatrical mood, head a couple of blocks east to check out the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres, the only operating double-decker theatre in the world. The theatres were meticulously restored in the 1980s. The Elgin remains one of Toronto’s most elegant theatres, but the unique and spectacular Winter Garden never fails to elicit oohs and ahhs from awed crowds. Details of the restoration project, which you’ll hear about on the tour and see in the souvenir books, are almost unbelievable.
Educational institutions are well represented this year. As usual, the University of Toronto leads the charge with no fewer than a dozen buildings on the downtown campus taking part. Of these, the best vista is provided by the view of the stacks inside the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library (left, Saturday only), the head of Robarts Library’s peacock complex. The Chef School at George Brown College (Saturday only) is new this year. The 140-year-old single-room Zion Schoolhouse in North York will provide actual demonstrations of nineteenth-century corporal punishment and student discipline. Or so we always hope.
Horse lovers should gallop straight to Exhibition Place, where both the Toronto Police Mounted Unit and Horse Palace Riding Academy will feature opportunities to meet and greet our equine companions. Bring carrots. The Toronto Animal Services facility in the Horse Palace will be open as well, no doubt in the hope that the extra traffic generated by Doors Open will result in a few additional cats and dogs leaving for new homes. The Horse Palace’s green roof, featuring solar arrays and a 2500-square-foot meadow will also be open for visitors.
At the other end of Exhibition Place sits Scadding Cabin, built near the Don River in 1794 for John Scadding. It owes its continued existence to what was probably Toronto’s first act of architectural conservation: recognizing its importance, the York Pioneer and Historical Society moved the cabin to its current location in 1879. The Society still maintains the cabin. You’ll be able to pick up a copy of Mrs. Scadding’s Receipt Book, which features period recipes for “Governor Sauce” and “Johnny Cake,” among other, less suggestive, dishes.
And to put your weekend-long jaunt through Toronto’s current and future history into perspective, stop in at the Toronto Archives (Saturday only) to see the “miles of files.” Public access in the Archives is usually limited to exhibit areas and the research hall, but the conservation lab will be open and some rarely-seen treasures will be on display.
Above all, enjoy the weekend and ask questions of all your tour guides and site volunteers. Many of them are experts and their enthusiasm about the smallest (or largest) detail can give you a whole new perspective. And that’s kind of the point of the whole venture.
Top photo by khalijkhazar from the Torontoist Flickr Pool. Middle and bottom photos courtesy of the City of Toronto.