Campaign Launched to Save the McLaughlin Planetarium
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Campaign Launched to Save the McLaughlin Planetarium

U of T plans to replace the underused landmark with a cultural complex, but an architecture prof is fighting to save it from the wrecking ball.

On September 9, the University of Toronto announced plans to tear down the McLaughlin Planetarium building on Queen’s Park Crescent and put in its place a complex housing a multi-disciplinary performance hall, a Centre for Jewish Studies research facility, and gallery space for a Jewish museum. University president Meric Gertler stated in a press release that the new development would “make a significant contribution to this cultural precinct and the entire city.” But not everyone is ready to raze the old planetarium. Jeff Balmer, professor of architecture at the University of North Carolina, has launched a petition to save the seemingly doomed structure.

Toronto-born and raised, Balmer helped lead a similar, and ultimately successful, campaign to save the Sam the Record Man sign. As a passionate native of the city, he wants to see the McLaughlin building saved for architectural posterity and, ideally, converted back into an operational planetarium—“a platform for science education … contributing to the discussion about ideas in science.” Balmer said the petition has received over 600 signatures so far.

Opened by the ROM in 1968, the planetarium was closed to the public in 1995, stripped of its equipment, and then used primarily for museum offices and storage. U of T acquired the property in 2009, but has been leasing it back to the ROM for continued use as an auxiliary space.

The Ontario Science Centre has its own working planetarium uptown, but news of U of T’s proposal has inspired public interest in seeing the McLaughlin building reinstated as a place of astronomic learning.

“The best possible use of that building is as a planetarium, but if there was some other means that allowed it to survive, that would certainly be worth looking at,” Balmer said.

From an architectural standpoint, he added, the McLaughlin Planetarium is part of a trail of breadcrumbs that traces Toronto’s development back through pre-Second World War buildings and Victorian architecture—all the way to the Scadding Cabin, a 1794 log construction on the Exhibition Place grounds.

“The idea is that we keep the best of every era,” said Balmer. “With post-war architecture, there are a lot of folks who are not convinced that it is history yet. The problem is that the post-war buildings are disappearing so fast that we may not have very much good stuff left down the road.”

And while he believes many of Toronto’s mid-20th-century buildings appear austere and economical, Balmer said the McLaughlin Planetarium is one of the top specimens of its era, designed with the ambition and prestige generated by the space-travel buzz of the 1960s.

“It just has a very iconic form,” he said. “Because of its visibility, because of its public role, it’s a building that is known and has a place in the lives of millions of people.”

Local architect Michael McLelland, a specialist in heritage conservation, planning, and urban design who discussed the issue with Balmer recently during a live chat with the Star, is not strictly against keeping the McLaughlin Planetarium, but says the issue is not black and white. “As much as much I like the building—and I like the building—I think we should be open to the idea that there could be something else happening on that site,” he told Torontoist. “As an architect, I don’t know how easy it is to adapt the building. It’s a bit like adapting a drive-in theatre, or stadium,” he added. “Some building types are very difficult to adapt to other uses. I think [that]’s part of a discussion. I think the value of the building, and interest in the building, should be part of the discussion, but I’m open to the idea that something fantastic could be up on that site.”

U of T’s development proposal is still in its early planning and approvals stage, and Balmer is committed to protecting the planetarium—not for the sake of protecting any old building, but because he believes in the site’s value to the city. “We can be very selective in terms of what we preserve,” he said. “But I think once we’ve identified buildings that have special significance, we ought to make the effort to see if we can save them.”

CORRECTION: September 24, 2014, 1:17 PM This post incorrectly referred to the Exhibition Place grounds as the CNE grounds. We regret the error.