On any given morning, the joggers, dog walkers and tandem cyclists who regularly circle the RC Harris Water Treatment Plant can peer in a window and see the plant at work.
Besides its art deco features, architect Mark Wronski says that is the glory of Thomas Pomphrey’s design.
“One of the great experiences is looking through that filter building, through the two banks of filters and the two sets of windows, and in the distance, over the shimmering drinking water, you’re looking at the source of that, which is Lake Ontario.”
Since 1997, the city has funded five major restorations to preserve that vision – a striking shift from a time when the filter building windows were covered in steel plates.
Nominated for a Heritage Toronto award, the latest was a six-year, $19 million project to restore the plant’s masonry, roofs and windows.
Wronski, who led the project along with Charles Hazell of Taylor Hazell Architects, says years of deferred maintenance and easterly storms were taking a toll, along with a few defects in how it sheds rainwater.
Most of those updates are not visible from outside, Wronski said, but people will see new copper roofs and rain flashings on Alum Tower that shine like pennies now but will gradually age green.
“We make sure that before we put things back together again, we tip things a bit so that we address some of the latent defects in the assembly, without changing it dramatically,” he said.
Walking around the plant, the most obvious change is all the new “buff” brick, which has the yellow-brown colour of a Manila envelope.
True buff brick is impossible to find in Ontario, where the source clay is exhausted, and in the U.S., the plants that made it were shut because of emissions problems.
Finding another brick with the same colour and structural properties was a years-long project in itself, Wronski said, but it was key to the building’s preservation.
Quality brick absorbs water well, he explained. So as long as its walls are well designed, a brick building should dry out evenly.
“That allows it to withstand our Februaries, where it’s raining midday under a warm sun and then goes down to minus 10 that night, and does that several times,” he said.
In the end, the new buff bricks for R.C. Harris were made to order by a brickmaker in Southampton, England.
Replacing worn parts of the plant’s Queenston limestone, which came from a spent mine in the Niagara escarpment, also required extra work. Masons retooled all the new limestone faces to recreate the original texture.
Besides the north-south view to the lake, Pomphrey’s design called for windowed entrances at the east and west ends of the filter building so people could look in and see the clock and water gauge standing in the long marble hallway.
Before they were redone in May, both entrances were bricked in with small steel fire doors, said Henry Polvi, the plant’s senior engineer.
Opening the east door, he pointed to an assembly of pins and hinges that allow it to open multiple ways, wide enough for a person or for large equipment, all while retaining Pomphrey’s original design, with its careful framing of the hallway lights inside.
Polvi said there are still a few touch-ups to do – the fountains on the top and base of the main terrace will flow again, and the recast metal canopies need painting underneath – but the restorations are largely done for now.
Other work, like the fresh anthracite coal in the filter beds and a new roof for the settling basin buried just south of Queen Street, will focus on the plant’s main job – treating some 450 to 650 million litres of water a day.
Going to work at the R.C. Harris plant every day can feel like stepping out of the city, Polvi said. Especially on the lake side, he said it looks just as it did 80 years ago.
Regarding its architecture, Wronski called the plant “a beautiful, restrained piece of work, very subtle in its articulations of stone and masonry, but very powerful.”
But it’s also because of the way Pomphrey’s design compliments the plant’s engineering, he said, that it represents the City of Toronto at its best.
“In the midst of the kind of hubbub that we have about other important infrastructure, it represents something that all councils should aspire to.”
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