Is the CNE a charming anachronism that has provided generations of Torontonians a final taste of summer fun, or an outdated relic that has little reason to continue?
Amid the lines starting today for doughnut cheeseburgers and deep-fried cola at this year’s Canadian National Exhibition, you might hear an eternal argument: is the CNE a charming anachronism that has provided generations of Torontonians a final taste of summer fun, or an outdated relic that has little reason to continue?
Back in 1967, compared to the stylish, imaginative concepts on display at Montreal’s Expo 67, the CNE seemed so old-fashioned that it prompted one local media outlet to survey Toronto-based architects, designers, and filmmakers involved with Expo: how would they revitalize the old fair two weeks before it opened?
Flipping through the articles about the CNE in the August 5, 1967, edition of the Telegram, it’s clear both writers and interviewees weren’t impressed with the current state of the fair. Nearly all felt the CNE was a tatty, lowbrow, Victorian-era embarrassment lacking a compelling vision for the future. As architect Robert Fairfield (who designed the Festival Theatre in Stratford) noted, the CNE “failed to enter the 20th century, by clinging to the idea that it’s an institution. Like a beloved friend, it has been allowed to grow old, sentimental, eccentric, and untidy.” One major problem was finding solid financing to allow for innovative and interactive exhibits, especially from large industrial sponsors. Another issue was how to better utilize the grounds during the other 50 weeks of the year, with ideas ranging from a longer summer schedule of concerts and events to year-long exhibits. Restaurant designer Chet Borst proposed turning the grounds into a year-round restaurant district with eateries at all price ranges offering menus that represented all regions of Canada and themed after different Ontario cities or time periods (a rough-and-tumble bar from Windsor, a stately government house from Ottawa, a futuristic cocktail lounge, etc.).
For designer/Marshall McLuhan associate Dr. Daniel Cappon, the CNE should have moved forward as a national fair like Expo, not a northern version of Coney Island. “Use the psychedelic stuff of Expo, the participating stuff, and not just be passive and visual,” noted Cappon. “Involve the public in half an hour of playing soccer. Involve them with sculpture, with music. Install IBM machines, ask the people a lot of questions, get them involved in the answers. Let them know we’re interested in how they react.” Other suggestions from the interviewees ranged from tearing down the viewed-as-a-boring-gateway Princes’ Gates (which we think is one of the site’s highlights) to building internal transportation systems like monorails. One of the few people to admit liking the CNE was industrial designer Morley Markson, who enjoyed the energy of the midway and its pitchmen and wished the displays captured that excitement.
The Telegram also asked architect Harvey Cowan to write a two-page spread on what was wrong with the CNE (which he compared to an old lady on its deathbed) and how he would fix it. High among the liabilities: dismal streetcar stops that should have been sold to the nearby Canada Packers plant. “It should be inherent to the design of an arrival station that the space says ‘Welcome,’” Cowan noted. “The CNE stations say ‘Go home, who needs it.’” Cowan also found the existing buildings an aesthetic mishmash, the displays dull, the central location of the midway a bottleneck, the entrances mundane, and the formal restaurants displaying “all the gaiety and excitement of open house at the City Morgue.”
So how would have Cowan improved it? Via various methods that, had they come anywhere near reality, would have dramatically altered the western waterfront and made a few people unhappy. Cowan’s vision saw the demolition of all buildings at Exhibition Place except for the Grandstand. Their replacements would have included terraced, well-landscaped parking garages, a domed stadium, and a sports centre. Down by the water, an aquarium and Olympic pool would rise. Fort York would have been moved to the shore by the Western Gap, with a public marina beside it. Existing yacht clubs would have been relocated further west along the shoreline. Over on the Toronto Islands, Cowan envisioned the airport moved, with the help of infill, to what would have no longer been Algonquin and Ward’s Islands (at the time, Metro Toronto was determined to remove the remaining residents). The airport’s former location would become the main exhibition area, covered in a plastic, tent-like structure similar to the Ontario pavilion at Expo 67. The midway would have found a new home on Muggs Island. To handle visitors, the Yonge subway line would have extended along the railway lines to the new mainland sports facilities, with a stop at the foot of Bathurst that connected to a monorail service to the islands.
Some suggestions in the Telegram articles may have lingered in the minds of CNE officials. A master plan approved in 1971 called for the demolition of 12 major buildings to make way for new facilities for trade shows and conventions, though only a few, like the Shell Tower, were torn down. While the same year saw Ontario Premier William Davis announce provincial funding for a monorail or other public transit link between Union Station and the CNE, a permanent link didn’t exist until the Harbourfront streetcar line reached the grounds in 2000. Design ideas from Expo 67 were utilized for an exhibition and entertainment space close to the CNE grounds but not part of it: Ontario Place.
Despite the criticisms aimed at the CNE during 1967, the fair broke the three million visit mark for only the third time in its history. Though attendance has dropped to an average of around 1.3 million visitors per year over the past decade, and the fair now relies on gimmicks like novelty caloric nightmares to draw customers, something wouldn’t be right if the CNE wasn’t around as a nostalgic link to Toronto’s past or to argue about the quality of over time.