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New Use, New Life: Rehabilitation of Toronto’s Historic Places

As cities continue to grow, many conservationists are turning to the rehabilitation of our historic places to reduce urban sprawl and promote environmentally responsible development. Rehabilitation, the sensitive adaptation of a historic place for a continuing or compatible contemporary use, can better guarantee the long-term existence of a historic place and limits deterioration caused by human activity and the environment.

However, new uses must be carefully chosen to ensure the continued protection of a place's heritage values, including the aesthetic, historic, scientific, social and/or spiritual importance of the place for past, present and future generations. Heritage value is embodied in character-defining elements which must be retained in order for a place to keep its heritage value. A historic place's heritage value and character-defining elements are identified in a statement of values, referred to as a Statement of Significance, and made available to the public through the Canadian Register of Historic Places. When character-defining elements are properly protected, rehabilitation can conserve heritage value and bring new life to a historic place. Three successful rehabilitation projects in Toronto make apparent the advantages of this approach. John Street Roundhouse, Parks Canada / la Rotonde-de-la-Rue-John, Parcs Canada

The John Street Roundhouse National Historic Site of Canada is the best surviving example of a roundhouse in Canada. It was designed by Chief Engineer J.M.R Fairbairn of the Canadian Pacific Railway's Engineering Department and was built by Anglin-Norcross Ltd. of Montreal between 1929 and 1931. Comprising of 32 stalls, the Roundhouse facilitated the inspection, servicing, cleaning and repair of steam passenger locomotives. While it continued to operate for the Canadian Pacific Railway and subsequently VIA Rail Canada, the utility of the Roundhouse declined with the introduction of diesel engines. The Canadian Pacific Railway donated the Roundhouse to the City of Toronto in 1986.

Subsequently, the turntable was removed and bays one through 11 were disassembled. To ensure the conservation of the building, the roundhouse was repurposed into a brewery, museum and retail outlet. Bays one through 11 were rebuilt from 1994 to 1997 and, in 1999, were leased by the Steam Whistle Brewery as a downtown tourist venue. Three bays in the middle of the building were reserved for the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre and now serve as a museum dedicated to the history of rail in Canada.  The area east of the building is a municipally owned park featuring a miniature railway for children. In 2009, a Leon's Furniture store opened in the remaining bays of the station. Partnerships with the private sector allowed for the creation of an educational public space and the renewed use of a previously dilapidated building.

Wesley Building, City of Toronto / Édifice Wesley, ville de TorontoThe Wesley Building at 299 Queen Street West was constructed in 1913 by the Toronto architectural firm of Burke, Horwood and White to house the administrative offices, presses and book rooms of the Methodist Book and Publishing Company. The majority of the building's character-defining elements relate to its distinctive Neo-Gothic style including its striking white-glazed terracotta cladding and exterior decorative detailing. The Methodist Church was absorbed by the United Church of Canada and the Wesley building served as its national headquarters until 1959.

Allen Waters acquired the property in 1985 with plans of turning it into the headquarters of CHUM Limited, a media company. Quadrangle Architects were then faced with the challenge of balancing stringent mechanical, electrical and acoustic requirements with conserving the building's character defining elements and heritage value. The solution was to meticulously restore the facade while updating the ground floor with sliding glass partitions and retrofitting the interior to accommodate broadcasting, office and public areas. CTV Television Network acquired CHUM Limited in 2007 and now CTV's entertainment news program "eTalk" is produced in the building. The ability of this building to successfully accommodate the needs of its new owner speaks to the sustainability of heritage places. Since the rehabilitation, thanks in part to national television exposure, the appreciation of the Wesley Building as a downtown landmark has only increased. Gooderham and Worts, www.thedistillerydistrict.com

The Gooderham and Worts Distillery National Historic Site of Canada is a large complex of 30 brick and stone industrial buildings constructed between 1859 and 1927. The complex was built to produce, package, store, develop and market spirits for the Gooderham and Worts firm; by 1877 the Gooderham and Worts distillery had become the largest distillery in the world. The site, comprising 13 acres of land on the eastern edge of downtown Toronto, was designated a National Historic Site in 1988.

In late 2001 Cityscape Development Corp. and Wallace Studios purchased the property and began a major rehabilitation of the district. They employed hundreds of craftsmen specializing in nineteenth century timber, stone and brick-work in order to preserve as much original material as possible. Older fabric was blended with new materials and green technologies to maintain the character of the property while making it viable for new uses. The new district opened in 2003 as a picturesque, pedestrian-only village, housing over a hundred tenants. This trendy district now hosts theatres, galleries, boutiques, restaurants, artist studios and workshops. The oldest remaining building on site, the Stone Distillery, constructed between 1859 and 1860, has new life housing galleries, shops, a restaurant and an event space. There is an active community life at this place which includes outdoor exhibitions, markets, fairs and special events year-round.  The redevelopment of this district created not only an attractive new neighbourhood but also a vibrant community while continually respecting the site's heritage value, that is, as a place which speaks to the evolution of Canada's distilling industry.            

Rehabilitation brings together the architecture of yesteryear with the needs of today. The use of these buildings in everyday life also raises awareness of the importance of historic places in defining our urban landscape. Through rehabilitation, our historic places serve not only to celebrate our past but to carry us into the future.


Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada, 2nd ed., Parks Canada, 2010.

"C.P.R  John Street Roundhouse." Toronto Railway Historical Association, accessed January 12, 2012.

"History of the Distillery District." The Distillery Historic District, accessed January 12, 2012.

"299 Queen Street West: The lead story on broadcast architecture." Quadrangle Architects Limitied, accessed January 12, 2012.