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The art of history

Big-time Toronto still wants to remember

By Paul French
Globe Correspondent / May 2, 2010

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There’s not a lot left here for urban archeologists to explore. In a rush to grow quickly, and fueled by pressure to accommodate all who want to live here, Canada’s largest city has turned its back on its past — and kept demolition crews busy in the process.

Beyond today’s crane-filled skyline, however, a few preservation-minded projects have emerged that seek to rekindle an interest in the city’s earlier industrial life. A railroad roundhouse and former brickworks will soon join a streetcar repair barn in creating public spaces that pay homage to how the city once lived and worked. They are free to visit and well worth seeking out.

The Artscape Wychwood Barns opened last year near St. Clair Avenue West in midtown. The former Toronto Transit Commission garage maintains its long, featureless sheds, complete with dates of construction from the 1920s etched over the wide barn doors. Only now the traffic is purely pedestrian with an off-leash dog park, a playground, and grassy fields that host al fresco cinema on summer nights.

Saturday mornings from 9 to 1, a year-round farmers market brings the area’s bounty to those eager to live by a 100-mile diet. Fresh and smoked lake fish from Georgian Bay, foraged edibles from the forest floor, Mennonite meats, artisanal cheese, and heritage vegetables are all available.

The market is run by The Stop, a sustainable food production and education center that also operates a greenhouse, bake oven, community kitchen, and classroom on site. The combination of meals, talks, and advocacy on food issues has quickly made the Barns one of the most popular foodie destinations in Toronto.

The other attraction here is the two dozen artist studios whose occupants not only live here but also mount exhibits, host tours, and keep the energy of the place buzzing beyond the busy weekends. Having an artist colony was part of the plan to put a cultural agenda into the mix of urban renewal, and it seems to be working.

St. Clair Avenue is undergoing a revival with new restaurants, galleries, and shops following the completion of a contentious right-of-way for streetcars, which no longer turn into Wychwood for repair.

“The barns have brought a focus to the neighborhood,’’ said resident artist John Coburn. “For 30 years, I’ve had studios in the backs of warehouses and never encountered anyone who might buy my art. Now when I paint I leave my door open, people stop by, and relationships are made.’’

Sometimes efforts to preserve the past can make for strange bedfellows. It took a combination of beer and sofa salesmanship to finance the Toronto Railway Heritage Center in the John Street Roundhouse at the foot of the CN Tower downtown. The Steam Whistle Brewery and a Leon’s furniture showroom occupy all but three stalls of the large 32-bay engine depot built in 1930. The remainder will form the nucleus of the museum when it opens on May 29 to coincide with Doors Open, an annual city-run program that features free access to architecturally significant buildings.

Steam and diesel locomotives are on display in the adjacent Roundhouse Park along with an operating turntable and restored railway buildings, including the 19th-century Don station. Steam buffs will be able to ride the miniature 7.25-inch-gauge train that will puff around the park against a backdrop of rising skyscrapers. The museum took seven years to realize and is run by volunteers eager to share their enthusiasm about the city’s railroading past. “We welcome more help as we near opening day,’’ said Michael Guy, as he cleaned the tracks for the little train to pass.

If railroad lore is not to your taste, the microbrewery offers tours, hosts art exhibits, and pours generous samples of its one beer, a Czech-style pilsner. It’s a popular pre- and post-game destination for Blue Jays baseball games at Rogers Centre across the street. And even if you’re not in the market for a recliner, the furniture store is an attractive showcase that has preserved many architectural features of the roundhouse bays.

The most ambitious of the industrial revival projects is the Evergreen Brick Works in the Don Valley. Few cities can claim such a centrally-located example of open-pit mining in their midst and this clay quarry, which closed in the 1980s and supplied a good portion of the bricks that built Toronto, is about to transform into a center for sustainable living.

Local architecture firm Diamond and Schmitt has built a showpiece of environmental design in what once was a drying room for freshly minted bricks. The Center for Urban Sustainability opens in September and will feature “a living billboard,’’ explained architect Michael Leckman, that functions both as climate control for the interior space through louvered screen mesh windows, as well as a canvas to promote the Evergreen movement’s message of environmental awareness through changing art work and window boxes. It will be the only heritage site designated LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum in Canada.

This 40-acre park with a restored wetland, boardwalk, organic community gardens, farmer’s market, and active educational program is open every day and, as of September, will include guided tours of the rusting remnants of heavy machinery and kilns used to make bricks. The setting is highly symbolic for the green movement replacing former industrial models of urban living. It is also an inspiring and calming oasis in the heart of the city. “Now ideas are coming out of the quarry to remake the city where bricks once did,’’ said Leckman.

Paul French can be reached at paul.french@sympatico.ca.

If You Go

Artscape Wychwood Barns

601 Christie St.

www.torontoartscape.on.ca/places-spaces/artscape-wychwood-barns

To tour The Stop’s Green Barn, including the greenhouse and sustainable food production center during the week, visit www.thestop.org/green-barn.

Toronto Railway Heritage Center

255 Bremner Blvd.

www.trha.ca

Open weekends as of May 29.

Steam Whistle Brewing

255 Bremner Blvd. 416-362-2337

www.steamwhistle.ca

Evergreen Brick Works

550 Bayview Ave.

416-596-1495

Doors Open Toronto

www.toronto.ca/doorsopen

May 29-30, free access to 150 buildings of architectural significance, with talks and tours from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.