Why Preserving the Symes Road Incinerator Matters More than Ever

Not much of our built heritage remains in the upper Junction, at least not in terms of older heritage buildings. Home to the Ontario Stock Yards and a substantial meatpacking district for nearly a century, there were large industrial plants in the district but also office buildings from the early part of the 20th century. The Canadian Pacific Railway’s West Toronto Yard had a roundhouse and machine shops on West Toronto Street, where Rona now stands, and also where the Keele Centre at 500 and 530 Keele Street stands. The site of the Staples store at Keele and West Toronto Streets had an interesting modern office building from the 1970s in the Brutalist style. A look at archival photos reveals several handsome midrise office buildings along St. Clair Avenue West; however, no buildings were spared when the industrial area was redeveloped in the 1990s.

This industrial era largely ended in 1993 when the Ontario Stock Yards moved to Cookstown, Ontario. The demise was dramatic: the stock yards, the historic roundhouse, and the large Canada Packers site on the north side of St. Clair between Gunns Road and Symes Road were wiped to a blank slate with the all buildings destroyed. Some smaller-scale commercial buildings around the district also disappeared at this time. Some residents without ties to the disappearing industries might have been too pleased by the development to really consider its fuller implications. The buildings lost often met the street in a dignified way like the old warehouses preserved in Liberty Village. They were meaningful markers of a long and interesting history of industrial activity on an impressive scale, were thousands of people made a living—many of them immigrants. Though its smells might have been foul and the district dirty in its final years, the end of this era in the early 1990s was an opportunity to preserve and commemorate the meaningful past with the benefit of distance from the problems created by the industry.

This opportunity was not seized, and most markers of the meatpacking district are gone, save for a small group of slaughterhouses on the edges of the district which do not convey the scale of the industrial heritage. With the exception of street names like “Old Stock Yards Road” and “Gunns Road” (named for Gunn’s Abattoir, an early abattoir in the area), as well as the murals on the West Toronto Street facade of Rona and the roundhouse relics in the back of its large parking lot, almost nothing is commemorated. Even in the case of Rona, most shoppers probably don’t walk the length of the store’s West Toronto Street facade to admire the murals. Many might not even notice the pieces of heritage in the parking lot let alone walk across the deck beside the turntable from the roundhouse that stood on the site. In the 1950s-1970s, great heritage buildings were destroyed in Toronto for crude redevelopment projects, but it’s hard to believe that so much history was handled so poorly in the 1990s.

Symes Transfer Station

The Great Depression meant that public works projects could be exalted in Canadian cities. Employing the unemployed and improving society through government initiative, it was worth producing bold and attractive buildings in the contemporary Art Deco style to emphasize the significance of public works projects, even for such humble purposes as incinerating garbage. Toronto’s Symes Road Incinerator, built during the ambitious tenure of R.C. Harris as Commissioner of Public Works and later known as the Symes Transfer Station, is seen in this City of Toronto Archives photo upon completion in 1934. The main facade facing Symes Road is visible, showing its architectural flair: a pronounced carved stone entrance, boldly contrasting horizontal striping in the brickwork, well proportioned setbacks, and large, circular windows on the top level providing visual relief from the tall rectangular windows.

The City of Toronto’s Symes Road Incinerator is a rare old building in the area, completed in 1934 with interesting Art Deco architecture. It is one of the few pre-World War II buildings left in the immediate area of heritage value from an architectural perspective. Renamed Symes Transfer Station when it was converted into a waste transfer facility in 1977, it is a survivor of the industrial era, a clear and fascinating marker of the area’s history. The city used to have small incinerators in different neighbourhoods in the early part of the 20th century, but the Symes Road Incinerator proved to more resilient, operating alongside the Don River Incinerator, the Wellington Destructor, and the Commissioners Street Incinerator into the second part of the 20th century.

Its attractive architectural features are perhaps unexpected for a building built with the humble purpose of incinerating the city’s garbage. For instance, the sculpted grey stone and brick front entrance is pronounced and distinctly Art Deco in design down to the streamlined look of the entrance canopy. The building’s taller section was designed with a well proportioned setback from the street level facade and has large circular windows, which are unusual and outstanding among any kind of building in Toronto. Sections of more conventional rectangular windows have a monumental industrial scale and create a sense of contrast that allows the circular windows to stand out more. Copper flashing was used extensively on the exterior, though a lot of it seems to have stripped in recent years, presumably in acts of criminality. The building also features a bold motif of horizontal bands of brick in a lighter, contrasting colour, which made it appear more imposing upon completion. Unfortunately, these bands are presently hard to discern because of the layer of pollution that has uniformly darkened the brick. Restoration of the facade would reveal them once again.

A garage was built with the incinerator at 150 Symes Road and is still standing on the site. With the same bold horizontal striping and windows seen in this City of Toronto Archives photo from 1934, its architecture compliments the main incinerator building nicely. A large Art Deco medallion over the main door proclaims the year of construction to have been 1933, though records indicate that completion was truly 1934. Inside is a large, pillarless hall with skylights. Notice also that even the hut next to the garage has the stripe motif. The garage is now in poor shape, but restorable to its interesting original design.

There’s also a one-storey municipal works garage that was built at the same time as the incinerator building in the early 1930s on the site. It features the same bold motif of horizontal bands of lighter coloured brick, though pollution has also darkened its facade to be more monochromatic. Its design was meant to compliment the site’s main building, the incinerator. The connection is quite strong as Toronto Archives photos reveal. The garage constitutes an additional dimension of heritage to the site.

The City of Toronto still owns the Art Deco incinerator at 150 Symes Road, though it’s presently poorly maintained and frankly, derelict. It was much cleaner even six years ago, when power was on and it was used for storage of City of Toronto Solid Waste Management items like garbage bins. A glow of yellowish white and orange light radiated from its large, industrial scaled windows in the evenings and at night. Save for its twin 175-foot smokestacks built of brick which were demolished in the 1980s or early 1990s, its interesting architectural features are still intact, though the weathering, graffiti and urban decay in the area makes an unflattering impression at first glance. Nonetheless, the building can be made striking again and the urban decay addressed with a revitalization scheme.

150 Symes Road is a rare heritage site in this neighbourhood built prior to World War II, a neighbourhood that has already lost many of its most valuable anchors of its industrial history in its evolution away from Toronto’s major meatpacking district. Its Art Deco architecture is attractive with distinguishing features like the large circular windows on the setback, the bold brick motif, and the stone entrance. Such a heritage building should be recognized as an asset for its contextualization of local history and for its great industrial Art Deco architecture; however, the building is now derelict and badly undermaintained by the city of Toronto, to an unreasonable degree neglecting even basic groundskeeping at times. In the interim, calls to 311 will mean removal of graffiti, illegally dumped garbage, and overgrown weeds. But it should be restored and repurposed. Discussions will need to take place.

There are many options for cleaning up and restoring the building for real preservation and successful adaptation to new uses. It’s already a frequent venue for television and film production, being a shooting location for TV shows like Flashpoint and Hollywood movies like Cinderella Man. (The Torontoist blog examines scenes from Cinderella Man shot in Toronto including at 150 Symes Road in this post.) Artscape Wychwood Barns near St. Clair and Christie is an interesting precedent as a similar kind of historic industrial building which was recently restored and adapted into a multi-use facility for arts and cultural production, housing, urban agriculture and the development of sustainable practices. Evergreen Brickworks is also an inspiring example. Both were derelict industrial properties owned by the City of Toronto that were turned into excellent community and cultural centres with a focus on sustainability. A dialogue with the city will be important because the building seems flexible, with potential for a variety of uses such as self-storage, offices, maintenance, new commercial uses, or even housing. The rarity of such heritage buildings in the community, however, compels a plan to be found for adaptive reuse that engages residents with the building.

The formal entrance facing Symes Road is a great feature with quality construction and distinctive 1930s details. Composed of large, smooth, grey stone blocks, with narrow sections of brick for accentuation and to maintain the horizontal striping motif, it conveys the impression of solidity, grandeur, and elegance, with a sense of restraint appropriate for the context. The stone blocks are nicely rounded around the doorway in a muscular fashion and have a set of sculpted “t” emblems on both sides of the entrance canopy. The entrance canopy itself is interesting because it has a streamlined appearance in the offshoot of Art Deco architecture known as Streamline Moderne. The year of construction is sculpted in stone in a complimentary font and framed with another Art Deco design motif. Lastly, the railings are also evocative of the era, and the two narrow windows on the sides of the doorway contribute an engaging sense of duality—functional like the grill of a machine, yet also private like a temple window. (Click on the photo for a high-resolution version.)

Such a project may be realized in conjunction with efforts to revitalize the Glen Scarlett Road commercial area, which needs to gradually transition its present grim state with a few remaining industries from the meatpacking era and many empty or underutilized lots to a different commercial economy with more mixes of uses, perhaps related to creative industries. Its ravine location is attractive and it’s near the revamped St. Clair West streetcar line and frequent transit on Keele, in addition to being relatively close to major highways. These are presently underutilized merits, and the area seems marginalized, not least by the severing of Symes Road and the city of Toronto’s inattentiveness. (Years after the division of Symes Road for instance, seemingly temporary orange signage used for road construction notices still hangs at Glen Scarlett as the only alert to drivers of the severing of Symes Road.) Even if a few operations remain, the meatpacking era is clearly over, and a transition needs to be encouraged. If successful, the large barrier at Symes Road may eventually no longer make sense as noise levels start to fall and can be replaced with some conventional bollards for traffic control.

We must move past these crude redevelopment schemes that raze our past for oversized parking lots and single-use commercial buildings of no architectural value. The past is interesting, meaningful, and a potential source of identity. We’ve seen a generation of such redevelopment in the Stock Yards, and what we have today is large volumes of traffic, little interesting architecture, big-box retail buildings with parking lots or blank walls along our main streets discouraging walking and transit use, lots of land wasted on surface parking lots (often half the site), and little employment beyond low-wage retail jobs. If we don’t embrace these last opportunities for pre-World War II heritage preservation, then we may see another generation of clumsy redevelopment that does neither makes our community a more functional place to live nor makes it more attractive.

Taggers have not been kind to the building, seen here from the back in late 2010. But the Don Valley Brickworks looked similar until Evergreen’s recent completion of a sustainable adaptive reuse project to international acclaim, engaging communities with farmer’s markets and other events, with interesting post-industrial public spaces, and green office space.

Moving forward means seizing these opportunities for more sophisticated approaches to construction and land use, embracing interesting and potentially attractive heritage buildings, and having a vision of quality urbanization, rather than ambiguous suburbanization in the heart of the city. The redevelopment schemes we’ve seen so far won’t result in a great urban neighbourhood if allowed to continue. With hindsight from the nearly complete clearing of a century’s worth of history and replacement with a poorly functioning and unattractive big-box retail zone gained within the past generation, it is more critical than ever to preserve this great gem of industrial Art Deco architecture and to revitalize in a more functional and sophisticated manner as we begin to move forward.

To see more photos of the construction of the Symes Road Incinerator, visit the Toronto Archives online, click on “Search the Archives’ database”, type in “Symes Road” as the keyword, and check off the box which reads “Scanned photographs only” before searching. There are approximately 121 photos uploaded online which captured the construction of the project from beginning to end.


6 thoughts on “Why Preserving the Symes Road Incinerator Matters More than Ever

  1. Planning Application for 150 Symes Road

    An application has been submitted to the City to permit additional non-residential uses on the lands at 150 Symes Road. A range of uses are proposed including office, light industrial, brewery, commercial school, clinic, indoor recreation uses such as rock-climbing, fitness and dance, as well as multi-purpose rooms for an art gallery and private event uses, including food service (indoors and outdoors). The proposed development would include the reuse of the existing heritage building (former City incinerator and transfer station) and existing service garage, plus the addition of three new buildings on the west and north portions of the site. A community consultation meeting to discuss the application will be held on November 26th at the Luso Canadian Charitable Society (2295 St. Clair Avenue West) at 7:00 pm.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s