Doors Open offers rare up-close look at history

Visitors to the Beach during Toronto’s annual Doors Open event on May 25 and 26 got a rare peek inside five historic  buildings, from the Kew Beach Fire Hall at Woodbine to the R.C. Harris Water Filtration Plant at Victoria Park.

Anyone who dropped by the fire hall,  a.k.a. Toronto Fire Station 227, got to hear its story told by one of the city’s top fire history buffs.

An emeritus curator of the World Cultures gallery at the ROM, Corey Keeble is best known for work on Gothic architecture, Medieval stained glass and the arms, armour and sculpture of Renaissance and Baroque-era Europe.

But several years ago, Keeble’s interest was sparked by firefighters who happened to invite him into the No. 8 Hose Station at College and Bellevue for a look at a 1928 fire truck. Built by American LaFrance, one of the longest-running fire engine manufacturers, it looks something like a long red Model ‘T’ Ford with no roof and pinstriped fenders over its spoked wheels.

“The firefighters actually put me up in the front seat,” Keeble said. “I felt like an eight-year-old.”

Any eight-year-olds at Station 227 for Doors Opens would have liked to hear Keeble compare firefighters’ modern Kevlar helmets with the leather ones worn by their forebears in 19th century New York and even with the helmets and visors worn by German knights of the 1400s.

In terms of Toronto history, Keeble pointed out that Station 227 followed one of the biggest catastrophes to hit the city – the Great Fire of 1904 that gutted Bay Street from north of Wellington down to The Esplanade. The station, at Woodbine and Queen, was the second of five built in Toronto between 1905 and 1916 as a response to the blaze and to urban growth.

Built in 1905, the station’s tower looks like a giant grandfather clock, and its single bay originally housed horse-drawn fire trucks.

With its red brick, Keeble said the station was meant to be seen at a distance, but if you look at it close up you can see stone facings of hand-cut limestone that have been punched with a chisel to create a detailed, layered effect.

A lookout and a useful way to dry wet hoses, the station’s tower is said to hold another historic detail – a board where every firefighter who has worked at the station signed his or her name.

Along with the city architect’s decision to design Station 227 with an exciting mix of Dutch Renaissance and Arts and Crafts style, those signatures show how the building is much more than just a necessary place to store trucks and hoses.

“This is in a sense a monument to the community values of the neighbourhood,” Keeble said. “It’s a symbol of civic pride.”

Beach Hebrew Institute

Another lasting symbol of the Beach community  is the Beach Hebrew Institute on Kenilworth Avenue, one of Toronto’s oldest synagogues.

Originally built as a Baptist church, the building was moved south and rotated to face west before serving first as a community hall before it finally became a synagogue in 1920. A new facade added in 1926 was designed in the traditional ‘Shtibel’ style seen in small European towns, and a larger upstairs gallery was added at the same time for a religious school.

Usually open only for Saturday morning services, the synagogue not only hosted Doors Open visitors on May 26 but also a standing-room-only concert of vocals, piano and clarinet by Cantor Katie Oringel, whose performance was one of the closing pieces of Jewish Music Week.

R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant

Made famous by Michael Ondaatje’s novel In The Skin of a Lion, in which a scuba diver swims up its intake pipe with dynamite, not to mention its cameo as a prison in movies like Half-Baked and as an insane asylum in the Robocop TV series, few Toronto buildings can top the unlikely high-low star power of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant.

Built on the former grounds of the Victoria Park amusement park, the filtration hall in the  ‘palace of purification’ gleams with marble and brass fixtures done in Art Deco-style, even as it sucks up and filters nearly half the drinking water for Toronto and East York.

Rowland Caldwell Harris, Toronto’s public works commissioner from 1912 until he died in 1945, is remembered for his foresight in championing a plant that still runs well below its maximum capacity of 950 million litres per day.

 

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