It would be great to be able to walk into any private building in our city on any day, at no fee, stick our nose into any crevice we come across, and demand that those who work there answer all of our questions, no matter how minute or irrelevant.
Unfortunately, there are laws against this.
But, for one weekend each year, rules be damned. This past Saturday and Sunday, for Doors Open Toronto 2010, thousands of Torontonians braved the heat, marched straight into their favourite buildings, and explored until they decided they were done.
Eyes were opened, secrets were revealed, but most importantly, doors were opened. Here are some highlights from this year’s event.
Inglenook Community High School
At first glance, Inglenook Community High School looks anything like a place of learning. The dark grey brick of the Victorian School house and its surrounding chain-link fence blends in with other industrial buildings tucked away in a rarely visited area of Corktown off Eastern Avenue. Walking through a virtually empty courtyard spotted with dry grass, one is especially unprepared for what is inside. The tiny schoolhouse lobby explodes with the colour and movement of student-painted murals, hundreds of photo collages of student events, and posters displaying inspirational words from Martin Luther King Jr., Bob Marley, and John Lennon.
Yes, at first glance no one would guess this place is a school beloved by kids who hate school. Each year Inglenook welcomes about one hundred grade eleven and twelve students who “just didn’t fit in” at a traditional public school, including a large population of gay, lesbian, and transgender teens.
As one of Toronto’s first public alternative schools, the school follows Ministry guidelines, but with its own personal style. Discussions all take place in intimate, bright classrooms with desks and couches arranged in U shapes. There is no hierarchy—students know each of the six teachers working at Inglenook by their first name, and the staff room was turned into a communal kitchen and gallery for student work and guest artists. Inside, Curriculum Leader Rob Rennick, who has taught at Inglenook for thirty-three years, teases one of his students, R.J., about going into advertising, among other topics less common in the teacher-student discourse. Much less common.
Before the school was built in 1887, the site was originally used for fishing and hunting by First Nations people, and the word “Inglenook” literally means a small, comfortable place beside a warming fire hearth. That’s what a lot of students don’t get from their high school: a warm, comfortable place. But, by looking past first impressions, that’s what Inglenook students are getting.
The lineup waiting to get inside the King Edward Hotel. Photo by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.
The King Edward Hotel
So, stomping around Toronto in running shoes, drenched in a sticky mixture of sweat and sunscreen on a blistering weekend isn’t your idea of glamour? Well, this year, Doors Open let Torontonians travel back to more refined times, when the city’s wealthiest man, George Gooderham, and architects E.J. Lennox and Henry Ives Cobb, celebrated Toronto’s burgeoning status as a financial and social icon by building its first luxury hotel—The King Edward.
Though the rich and powerful flocked to rest their weary heads among treasures such as seventeenth-century tapestries and Greek statues when it opened in 1903, there are some telltale signs that Eddy ain’t what he used to be. High-flying financiers can no longer dine within the original white carved walls of the Victoria Café. Around the lobby are postcards and clippings depicting the excitement over the hotel at its debut, overcome today by incoming Trump Tower and The Ritz. An exhibit at the Vanity Fair Ballroom dwells on the 1964 visit of the Beatles to the King Edward, and other noteworthy guests of the past.
The landmark’s former glory, and also its decline, is best seen through its rooftop jewel, the Crystal Ballroom. The paint is chipping and the wood is cracking in what used to be the city’s most sought-after venue for elite weddings, state dinners, and the hippest parties. The size of the room, its impressive windows, and its carved embellishments where three elaborate crystal chandeliers gave the ballroom its name, sing of its former lavishness, lost in over thirty years of neglect.
But the King Edward’s new owners intend on restoring the hotel’s status as the place to see and be seen, where the Queen Mum took her high tea, where Liz Taylor received the Krupp Diamond from Richard Burton, where Jon Lennon and Yoko Ono staged a bed-in for peace. Working with the Ontario Heritage Trust to maintain its historical details, construction will turn the icon into a condo-hotel, refurbish the lobby and exterior façade, and at some point, restore the Crystal Ballroom, starting next January. Torontonians may not have to wait for one weekend a year to join the ranks of the old-school rich and famous. But in today’s economy, is anyone willing to pay like them? We’ll see in mid-2012 when the renovation is completed.
Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto—the Lombard Street Firehall
While technically Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto has been restricted to the general public up until this past weekend, it doesn’t take much to gain access all year long. Gilda’s Club is open to any man, woman, teen, or child who has either been diagnosed with cancer, is undergoing treatment, is a friend or family member of someone with cancer, or who simply knows or knew someone who had. In other words, pretty much anyone. Free of charge.
Originally built in 1886, the Lombard Street Firehall, also known as The Old Firehall, was once a scene of frenzy, helping extinguish the Great Fire of 1904. Today, the closest to flames you’ll get at Gilda’s Club is in the faux-fireplace in the comfy, country living room. The warm yellow walls are the first to invite you in, and the plush leather couches are hard to resist after a long day of pounding the pavement, especially with Gilda Radner herself rocking out on the television as Candy Slice on Saturday Night Live.
While we settle for a DVD, from 1974–1997, many got to see her kick off her comedy career live here when Toronto’s chapter of Second City owned the space. And though the Kitchen and Community Room now fills the space where her stage once stood, her impact on the Old Firehall has been immeasurable. The entire Gilda’s Club organization was started after she died of ovarian cancer in 1988, and is based on her desire for a relaxed, open, cancer community.
Opened in 2001, Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto was designed to be a home away from home, the rooms filled entirely with donated furnishings. Members of all ages are welcome to the ’70s-themed Billiards Room; the Teen Room stocked with video games, instruments, a TV, and computer; and Noogieland, a child’s paradise with crafts, toys, games, and stuffed animals. The Art Room and Library offer quieter moments.
Gilda once said “Having cancer gave me membership in an elite club I’d rather not belong to.” We don’t think this club sounds so bad.
City Hall’s Podium Green Roof
This weekend, what is perhaps the most significant opening didn’t involve doors at all. Anticipation was tingling as City Hall’s new green roof officially launched, eight months after a preview of half-completed work promised visions of a lush oasis of relaxation in the downtown core.
Visitors were greeted by a gaggle of little kids on stilts in bird costumes, a jazz band, green people (no, not that green person; actual people covered head to toe in leaves), and thirty-six thousand square feet of green strips of grasses, mosses, chives, echinacea, and prairie smoke. First impressions are a little disappointing. Of course, plants are better than the former grey pavers any day, but it’s hard to imagine anyone seeking out the space for a short getaway from the downtown distress below.
But Chris Pommer and his teammates of PLANT Architects, who won a contest in 2007 to tackle the roof and helm the Nathan Phillips Square Revitalization, have a few more surprises up their greensleeves. Because of careful plant selection, at every point in the year, something will be in bloom. And with time, the harsh lines of the plant trays will soften as the grasses and sedums intermingle and creep over the edge of their containers. By then the Kentucky Coffee trees in a planter near the front of the podium roof will have filled out, providing shade for loungers on the roof, and also acting as a beacon to entice those in the square below. And, as any hangout spot requires, tables, chairs, and a food kiosk will arrive shortly.
Originally, Pommer and his team considered the green roof to be an afterthought to the larger revitalization project, the last thing built if time and funds allowed. But before long, the city’s largest public green roof was underway as a teaser of what’s to come, including new buildings with similar planted roofs, glass bridges leading to the podium, and LED lights to highlight the beds at night and illuminate the City Hall towers much like the CN Tower.
As of this weekend, the roof is open to the public from dawn until dusk, and until 6 p.m. on weekends, which may still change. But Pommer says the reason behind the project is to give the space back to its rightful owners—the public—after fifteen years. And as a woman lies languidly across one of the wooden benches with the Sheraton Hotel and Financial District skyscrapers behind her, it looks like we’re willing to accept.
Diamond & Schmitt Architects Inc.—Ellis Building
If you’re reading this right now, you probably: 1. Live in Toronto, 2. Like buildings in Toronto, and 3. Sometimes go out to buildings in Toronto. And if so, you’ve probably come into contact with the work of Diamond and Schmitt Architects, the firm responsible for Museum Station, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, and the University of Toronto’s Bahen Centre.
The firm’s airy Ellis Building office at Adelaide and Spadina streets could have Freddy Kruger in control of its furnace, and it would still be as refreshing to enter. Light green walls lined with tall windows make the narrow aisles feel wider than they are, and accents of wood on tables and desks and glass partitions combine to balance the industrial and the natural. But what else would we expect from those behind some of Toronto’s biggest design projects (and leaders in sustainable architecture)?
The simplicity of their office reflects their architectural philosophy. No starchitects like Gehry or Libeskind here; Diamond and Schmitt are not interested in flashy, dramatic exteriors. Instead they strive to create buildings that fit within the city, that respect the culture and history of the site, and that will work as real, physical solutions for the people within them.
For example, the new Bridgepoint Hospital at Gerrard Street East and Broadview Avenue, where the current hospital shares its lot with the Don Jail. For this project, the focus is on how the long-term patients inside will use it. Highlights include creating raised therapeutic gardens accessible by wheelchair, a labyrinth for patients to practice walking, and a trail linking Gerrard Street to the park, integrating the hospital and its patients into the Riverdale community.
But their understatement hasn’t deterred their worldwide impact—their biggest project right now is the new Mariinsky Opera House in St. Petersburg, a $430 million project.
John Street Roundhouse/Toronto Railway Heritage Centre
As Bob Dickson explains, “train people” are generational. The Toronto Railway Historical Association volunteer can trace his interest in trains back to when his great-great-great-grandfather immigrated from Scotland in 1856. Since January, he has spent every weekend restoring the bright red caboose on display at the newly opened Toronto Railway Heritage Centre back to its original condition, and the job’s only about two-thirds finished. In total, about sixty volunteers have logged over twenty-two thousand hours of labour to make the rail museum a reality. And most of them, like Bob Dickson, probably won’t be able to explain what draws them to the “romance of the rail.”
The crowd on Sunday was a varied mix between families, eager “railnuts” there for the thrill, and indifferent Blues Jays fans dropping by after the game. The appeal for children is clear—they can explore the gears of Locomotive #6213, take a spin on the John St. Roundhouse turntable, or chug across the park on a mini train. Even a beer garden with poutine and a folk band provides some excitement for the older crowd. But for the locomotively inclined, just seeing the “high nose” of Canada National #4803, or the rare passenger car Cape Race is enough to rev their engines.
Their passion lies in their understanding of the impact the railway has had on Toronto’s current status as a world-class city. In the 1930s, about 40% of adult males in the city made their living off the railroad. And countless lives were reborn as immigrants arrived at Union Station. And if Toronto had lost out to Hamilton to become the centre of Canada’s railway, we’d all be living in a much different city today.
Preserving the history of the railway may not seem like a priority to some. But as an old man suffering from Alzheimer’s touches the original counter in the Don Station, and tells how he caught the train at that station in 1946 to go to his first job as a graduate of U of T’s law program (apparently there were lots of cockroaches at the Don Station in 1946), it seems that trains can mean something to more than just “train people.”