Terminal A Lives On
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Terminal A Lives On

The past and future of Billy Bishop Airport's nearly 80-year-old terminal.

Undated photo of the Toronto Island Airport terminal. Image courtesy Toronto Port Authority.

As one of the few surviving airport terminals of its vintage, Terminal A at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport is overdue for some respect. Earlier this week, it was announced that the 75-year-old structure at Hanlan’s Point will be converted into a multi-purpose public space housing an art gallery, aviation museum, and restaurant.

Designated by the federal government as a national historic building in 1989, the old terminal has sat in limbo since its decommissioning in 2010. As part of preparatory work for the building of a pedestrian tunnel from the mainland (the concept of a fixed link being as old as the airport), the terminal was moved off the runway in early 2012. Ignobly placed nearby on blocks atop grass, it has slowly rotted.

The terminal’s origins can be traced back to city council’s 14-to-7 vote on July 9, 1937, in favour of constructing airports at Hanlan’s Point and Malton (now Pearson). By the end of that year, site clearing had begun in earnest, and the City had approved a plan to move the homes of Hanlan’s Point residents over to Sunfish Island (now Algonquin Island).

The Toronto Harbour Commission (THC) oversaw the development of the airport. General manager E.L. Cousins visited major American airports to assess their facilities. Based on his findings, Cousins and supervising architect J. Gladwin Hedges designed similar terminals for both Hanlan’s Point and Malton. THC officials balked at the cost of tenders involving concrete and steel, and, upholding the great Toronto tradition of thriftiness, settled for a lower bid based on a wooden building.

Cousins outlined the plan for the terminal in an October 17, 1938, memo to the THC:

The Building as presently designed, provides for the minimum of accommodation necessary to give the required facilities anticipated and will cost possibly between $35,000 and $38,000. There is nothing elaborate in any way about its construction; it is a plain building and with the proper treatment in the manner of landscape gardening will make a presentable structure and a credit to all connected with the undertaking but naturally nothing like as attractive as the building on which the original tenders were requested.

The building’s form—rectangular, with two storeys and a control tower projecting from its centre—was modelled on standard British terminals of the era.

Opened for service on May 22, 1939, the terminal was used by the military following the outbreak of the Second World War later that year. Rapid changes in air transportation technology following the war quickly turned the terminal into an antique—its twin at Malton was expanded in 1949, then demolished in 1964 to make way for the futuristic Aeroquay One.

Toronto Island Airport terminal, circa 1970. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 331, Item 2.

The island terminal remained open through the decades amid endless debates over the airport’s future. Regular passenger service was introduced in 1975 by Otonabee Airways. Plans to build a replacement terminal provoked heated discussions among city councillors sitting on the THC. “The terminal we have right now is the pits,” THC chair Betty Disero observed in October 1989. “The washroom facilities are a disgrace … the sickening terminal we have now has to be replaced.” Fellow THC commissioner Jack Layton opposed a new building on the grounds that it might increase the number of carriers using the island. “I don’t believe the people of Toronto want a relief valve for Pearson on the waterfront,” he noted in February 1990. “If they didn’t like the condo towers on the waterfront, they’re not going to like a major airport.”

The possibility of the old terminal’s replacement brought out defenders like Star columnist Michele Landsberg, who appreciated its time-warped qualities:

Here at the Island airport, little charter planes and yellow fuel trucks are parked at random, like Tinkertoys. The wooden terminal building, with its white paint and sagging porch, is endearing: the last human-scale airport terminal. And this is the last place you can walk across the tarmac and feel the excitement of flight, the last place where bopping off to Montreal or New York can feel impromptu, adventuresome and romantic. The blessed ferry, a little sacrifice in convenience, is what keeps the numbers down to a manageable level.

While replacement plans remained unresolved, Air Ontario launched its passenger service from the island in 1990. Rather than use the terminal, it operated out of trailers until a new structure was built in 1994. The old building continued to house airport offices, air traffic control, and passenger handling until Porter Airlines opened its new terminal in 2010.

Image courtesy of the Toronto Port Authority.

“I would have expected it would’ve been easier and cheaper to tear the building down,” Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly reflected during this week’s press conference. “This new arrangement will create an exciting new opportunity on the island.” No projected costs have been announced for the planned renovation and relocation (it will be moved 100 metres east), but backers predict the mixed-use building will be ready by spring 2016.

Additional material from the June 3, 2014 edition of the Globe and Mail; the October 4, 1989, February 14, 1990, and February 24, 1990 editions of the Toronto Star; and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada Agenda Paper on the Air Terminal Building, Toronto Island Airport (published 1989).