Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada
Railway Station Report
Former St. Clair
Heritage Railway Stations Division
The St. Clair
West station, at 1550 St. Clair Avenue West, Toronto (Figures 1 and 2), was part of the Newmarket Subdivision of the Canadian National Railways (CNR). It was designed and built in 1930-31 as a suburban commuter station, in connection with a general upgrading of the lines, which involved work to eliminate level crossings. It was accompanied by a concrete overpass, also built in 1930. As no specific architect has been identified, the design is presumed to have been executed in-house. The CNR engineering and architecture departments were responsible for construction supervision. The station has been closed since the mid-1980s.
The St. Clair
West station illustrates the early, though unsuccessful, attempt of the CNR to provide true commuter rail service in a major urban centre. In its elegant, if smallscale, Beaux-Arts design, the station further reflects the optimism of the CNR based on a decade of progress.
Between 1917 and 1923 the Canadian government acquired five financially troubled railways and amalgamated them as the CNR. The new company was burdened from the start with high operating costs and enormous debt but, under the leadership of Sir Henry Thornton, the 1920s were a period of great innovation and increasing solvency for the company. Through such initiatives as decent pension packages and cooperative work plans, sending Red Cross cars to remote areas and using CNR facilities to develop a network of radio stations which inaugurated such programs as
Hockey Night In Canada, Thornton was able to change the public's perception of the railways. Rather than a problematic and political amalgam of several over-extended, bankrupt and semi-bankrupt lines, the CNR had become a strong operating surplus of $58 million in 1928.1
This revitalization and the optimism it engendered are reflected in the architecture of the CNR. The Hamilton station of 1930-31, built in an elaborate Beaux-Arts style, complete with a panoply of allegorical sculptural ornament, is among the grandest examples of buildings constructed by the company during this period (see RSR-38). It was very clearly
public in character, and was meant to establish that the CNR had both its own identity and a pronounced optimism regarding the future. The St. Clair
West station and the concrete overpass that serves the station are both part of the same period of CNR development. The station, despite its standard materials and its difficult setting, employs Beaux-Arts elements to aggrandize and dignify what is, in fact, a very small building. The overpass is proudly monumental, designed to be seen and appreciated, not merely to serve as a functional background element. Clearly, the intention was to make known the CNR presence in the community and to create a local landmark.
The station also illustrates the CNR's attempt to expand its local markets and overall importance in Toronto by a venture into true commuter railway service. Outside Toronto, companies such as the Halifax Tramway Company and the British Columbia Electric Railway Company had some success with suburban/downtown commuting. The CPR had been moderately successful in Montréal with suburban connections to downtown from Westmount and elsewhere on the Island. In Toronto, schemes for commuter rail services had been part of the rationale behind a series of radial railways: the Toronto and York Radial Railway, the Toronto Suburban Railway, and the Metropolitan Railway. But these lines had failed to solve the problem permanently and effectively. It is against this background of demand and rather limited success that the CNR, perhaps rashly, decided to extend its passenger service specifically for commuting.
Several of the suburban communities that had attracted speculative development as they were absorbed into the city's sphere of influence had long been served by stations on the major railway lines. These stations had been used for commuting from downtown to suburban villages and residences.2 But in most of these stops, for example Parkdale, West Toronto, Sunnyside, Weston and Mimico, the station buildings dating from a period before full suburban development continued to be used without apparent change. All evidence suggests that even the Belt Line Railway (
BLR) stations followed the established patterns of
way side station design. No station in Toronto had been built specifically to attract and serve suburban commuters. The design of the St. Clair
West station was, therefore, an attempt to establish a new formula for commuter facilities and to establish suburban commuting as a CNR function in Toronto.
Toronto was not created by the railways and much of its 19th and 20th century character has little to do with the effects of the railways. There can be little doubt, however, that the late 19th century railways and the industry, communication and population movements which they supported were decisively influential in the growth and prosperity of the city. The lines that worked their way into the centre of the city were not always benevolent corporate citizens which treated the city fabric gently and creatively. The competition for business and access by the large number of early lines, which by the end of First World War had boiled down to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and the CNR (to which VIA Rail and GO Transit were later added), was responsible for the industrialization of the city's waterfront. But in many areas of the city the railways built subsidiary and commuter stations that were, as they were in smaller cities and towns across Canada, both local landmarks and the centrepieces of much local life and industry.
The development of buildings to serve the St. Clair West/Davenport Road area, on the Northern Railway
Line of Canada ( NRL) which was later taken over by the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) and then by the CNR, began with the Davenport station, built in 1866 on Davenport Road west of Caledonia Road a short distance south of the current station site.3 Considerable expense was incurred in its construction because Davenport Road was the principal east-west route out of the city. The residential character of the design was appropriate, since the station served a large suburban area then developing north of Bloor Street West. The NRL ran northwest-southeast through this area and maps from the 1870s show it crossing St. Clair Avenue at an unregulated level crossing. Initially such a crossing would have caused few problems of traffic congestion and danger, because there was virtually no through traffic on St. Clair West beyond Caledonia Road, and almost no development, either residential, commercial or industrial in the area.
During the 1880s and early 1890s, however, the increased population in the area, the greater number of factories, the expansion of the Toronto Stock Yards, and increased traffic on the
NRL, which was now the GTR system, made an unregulated level crossing at St. Clair Avenue West increasingly dangerous and inconvenient. Increased rail development went hand-in-hand with land speculation, one encouraging and supporting the other. In 1892 the BLR was founded to provide commuter transportation for the spreading developments. The most heavily trafficked part of the BLR loop was in the Don Valley where industrial companies required freight services; but the company built a line across North Toronto in the area of Eglinton Avenue to connect with the GTR main line at Eglinton Street, west of Dufferin Street.4 It also obtained a right of way for a loop (unbuilt) called the Humber Loop which cut away from the GTR tracks at St. Clair West, with the intention of serving the area to the west and rejoining the GTR main line at the waterfront.5 Though traffic on this portion of the BLR was not heavy it still added to the urgency to do something to regulate the St. Clair West crossing. By 1906, in a period when Toronto was booming as never before, the traffic situation at the St. Clair level crossing was obviously more serious.6
The problems at the St. Clair West crossing were only part of a much larger problem in Toronto of accommodating the great increase in both freight and passenger traffic on the lines in western Toronto in the years just before and after the First World War.7 After 1910 the problem of the St. Clair level crossing was further aggravated by the city's building of an electric tram line along St. Clair West from Yonge Street.8 Initially, rather than accommodate the new tramline to the rail traffic, the city opted to end the line at the level crossing, even though there were potential riders in the area further west. But by the mid-1920s it had been extended west across the level crossing, further complicating the situation. Shortly before the First World War, plans had been made for what was called
The Northwest Grade Separation9 to solve the overall problem in the west part of the city. The decision to begin the grade separation was made in connection with the opening of Union Station to both double track the lines that led into downtown, and to raise their levels on extensive embankments. The project was completed very slowly, particularly along the GTR lines and along the line crossing St. Clair Avenue West, which was not given priority because of the expense of raising the tracks over the street, the economic situation of the GTR and the stringencies of the First World War. It was not until after 1923 that the impetus for facilities and trackage improvement was re-established, when the GTR had been purchased by the Canadian government and absorbed into the CNR.
The Northwest Grade Separation project, which continued until at least 1930-31, had two distinct though related effects of importance. The first was the destruction of the former Davenport station, since the new embankment overflowed its site. The second was the solution of the level crossing problem at St. Clair Avenue West. In 1931 a monumental concrete overpass was completed that lifted the through tracks about twenty feet above the street. The viaduct project also included the building of a new station to replace the old Davenport station. The building of the new St. Clair
West station was part of a larger series of projects to improve rail facilities on all the lines serving Toronto. In the city, interest was concentrated on Union Station and the CPR's North Toronto station. But with the St. Clair West station, the CNR hoped to accomplish more than just the provision of new facilities.
After 1892 the officially franchised electric street railway, the Toronto Railway Company (TRC), provided service in the centre of the city, but refused to expand its routes to accommodate the growth of the city in the first two decades of the 20th century. The city tried to improve the situation by building its own lines, notably one along St. Clair Avenue West from Yonge Street to the
NRL level crossing, the site of the St. Clair West station. But even after the TRC franchises expired in 1921 and the whole system came under city control,10 travel from most of the outer suburbs remained inefficient, uncomfortable and slow, while many suburbs had no connections to the main system.11
The 1920s, like the 1880s, were a period of real estate boom and new suburbs were projected on the north side of St. Clair Avenue. At the same time, the north and south sides of the street were being developed with two to three-storey commercial buildings, many of which had apartments on the upper floors.12 As it is today, the entire area from Bathurst Street west was also served by public streetcars, though it was necessary to spend an inconvenient amount of time travelling east to make southbound connections to the business centre at Spadina or Yonge. Much as the building of the Spadina Subway Line was to do later, the CNR hoped to provide faster, more comfortable connections to downtown via a new St. Clair
Local rail commuting had been attempted unsuccessfully in 1892 with the establishment of the
BLR. The BLR failed badly by 1894, leaving several of its stations abandoned, and its circle routing through the city either abandoned, unfinished or devoted to freight traffic. The BLR was the first Canadian railway to loop around an urban core to provide commuter service to the centre.13 But its principal legacy was a great extension of speculative land subdivisions north and west of the existing city,14 that aggravated the original problems. As the city expanded before and after the First World War, the need for faster and more comfortable commuter connections to the suburbs became increasingly more pressing. Local rail commuting was again discussed during the First World War, but Toronto never really accepted the principle of commuting by rail from the suburbs to the city centre. It was already well supplied with small stations along the main lines, that could have served such a commuting market, but the railway companies seem to have generated little income this way. At the time the St. Clair West station was built, the CNR made a corporate decision to enter the market with a railway commuting service. In retrospect, the CNR's ambitious project to cultivate an urban commuting market in addition to its cross-country business seems unlikely ever to have been destined for success. But in the late 1920s and the early 1930s, Toronto was forecasting tremendous population growth in its northwest quadrant and a related growth in commuter traffic into the downtown. Before the later popularity of the car, only streetcars and railways provided possible means of transportation. Since the streetcar system reached only slightly further west than the proposed new station, the commuter rail project seemed both logical and potentially profitable. It was a very ambitious project, and an important event in the development of suburban Toronto. The CNR clearly hoped to reverse the pattern of commuting in Toronto, to encourage passenger traffic from the western suburbs on the main line into Union station and, above all, to open a new realm of profit when it was most needed. Ultimately, however, it became evident that the station would not really repay the investment. This was largely due to the fact that the surrounding area developed as a commercial and industrial district with only small working class houses. Such a neighbourhood did not provide the passengers the CNR anticipated. Nevertheless the CNR operated the St. Clair West station until the late 1970s, when it was transferred to the VIA Rail network. Between 1983 and 1987 the station was returned to the CNR and closed.15 It is still owned by the CNR.
The St. Clair
West station (Figures 3-9) was planned in the optimistic late 1920s. Built as part of what was essentially a corporate experiment, the station received substantially more architectural attention than might have been expected of a station designed during the worst years of the Depression21.
Despite its small scale, the station makes reference to Beaux-Arts principles of design in its smooth wall surfaces, symmetry, classical decorative vocabulary and careful siting. At the time of its design and construction, the station site was encumbered and views of the building were restricted by neighbouring structures. Nonetheless, the front or trackside façade, which is visible from the street, is given greater visual impact by its siting at the top of a steep incline (Figure 10) and its proximity to the vaguely classical concrete overpass (Figure 11) which spans St. Clair Avenue West. Considerable care and talent were applied to the architectural character of the building though only one size, type, and colour of the most common local brick was used, with no carving and only two touches of cast stone detailing. All of the façades are generally symmetrical, although this can only be appreciated on the east and south façades. The arched motif framed with brick mouldings and filled with tripartite windows16, more readily associated with large railway stations, is carried through in different forms on all four façades. The arches are framed with a triple row of brick headers, the inset second row creating a channel that makes a shadow line to emphasize the arches (Figure 12).
The arched design makes its grandest statement on the broad east façade (Figures 3 and 6). The five-bay wide façade is based on a stylobate or base of brick laid in common bond. This stylobate is also visible on the south façade (Figures 4 and 8) at ground level and in effect stands for the foundation of a classical building. The three arches on the east façade group the ground and second floor windows into impressive vertical features. At each end of the façade the stylobate or base of the façade is interrupted by two very simple double doors. The string course moulding that caps the stylobate is extended up and over these doors to unify the whole design. Above the doors, at each end of the façade, the central arches are balanced by two blind oculi or blocked circular windows, filled with brick headers in common bond, and they are edged by a moulding band of stretchers set off with large key stones of grey artificial stone at the points of the compass.17
The details of the east façade underline the care that was devoted to the station. The arch motif was repeated with changes on all of the façades of the station to frame both windows and doors. The only break in the regularity in the design is the agent's office which, following standard practice, steps forward slightly from the platform façade (Figures 5 and 7).
The arched motif and the broad, almost Italianate eaves employed in the station's design, were common features in single and multi-storey buildings of all types from apartments, to the rundown Milne Coal buildings still standing next door to the station, to the administration buildings of the Prospect Cemetery a few blocks to the east on St. Clair Avenue. All of these forms and the brickwork were fashionable in and of themselves and very much a part of the architectural vocabulary of the period. Still, it seems likely that here the designer or designers used them deliberately as part of the basic program of the station, to give it an identity with its neighbourhood while giving it its own formality and character.
The brick used for the building is a greenish beige brick, commonly known as
Leaside Green because it was used extensively in the Town of Leaside, northeast of Eglinton and Yonge Streets. It was made in the Don Valley by the Toronto Brick Company. The brick was used for residential and commercial construction all over North Toronto. It may have been chosen for the station because it was economical and of the highest quality. But it seems likely it was also chosen because its colour, and the patterns with which the brick was laid, would blend into the existing architectural fashions of St. Clair Avenue West and North Toronto, and accord well with houses and commercial buildings which it was assumed would be built on the street and in neighbourhoods adjacent to the station in the near future.
The design of the station was carefully worked out to accord with the specific needs of a commuter station. The variety of sometimes contradictory functions fulfilled by a small-town station—the short and long distance passenger travel, heavy freight, freight marshalling, and mail and express services—dictated differing and not always harmonious spatial requirements. These potential functional complications could be put aside to concentrate, rather, on emphasizing the image of the station as it was approached from the street; providing fast, easy access from the street to the trains; and providing comfortable space for waiting. Freed from certain functional constraints, the designer or designers had the opportunity to be very attentive to the popular architectural taste of the North Toronto/Forest Hill area. They worked carefully to make the new station attractive according to the standards of contemporary taste in the hope that it would be seen as part of the fabric of the neighbourhood and commercial district it was meant to serve.
Authorship of the design is uncertain and it may have been completed in-house. The major railways maintained extensive, inventive and talented departments of engineers and working architects, who were more than equal to the challenge of designing a station such as this. It was an arrangement that served the railways' needs quickly and economically, though without the apparent prestige of an association with a well known independent architect.
The St. Clair
West station is a small-scale Beaux-Arts design with none of the grander elements such as the extensive use of stone or the elaborate approaches and porticos that conferred architectural prestige on larger railway stations such as the Winnipeg (1908-11, Figure 13, see RSR-4) and Toronto (1914-27, Figure 14, see RSR-3) union stations, and the Hamilton CNR station (Figure 15, see RSR-38). The use of the Beaux-Arts style in a station of this modest size is certainly unusual and possibly unique in Canada. Neither the CNR/VIA Rail nor the CPR heritage property inventories for Ontario contain other examples.18 Classical references, notably the round arch, appear in early GTR stations as well as those late 19th century stations influenced by Henry Hobson Richardson, but it is only in major urban stations such as the Toronto and Winnipeg Union stations, and the CNR stations at Vancouver, Hamilton, and Halifax that Beaux-Arts inspired classicism was adopted. The scale of these structures, however, prohibits direct stylistic comparisons with the St. Clair West structure.
Despite the somewhat down-at-heels appearance which results from being boarded up and overrun with weeds, the station seems to be in sound structural condition, with no discernible evidence of cracks, water damage, or other signs of wear.
The St. Clair
West station was built as a commuter passenger station to serve a growing residential district. Unlike earlier stations in Toronto and elsewhere, it was not intended to have more than a minor function as a depot for freight services. The only freight processed through the station would have been express, small parcels and passenger-connected freight or heavy luggage.
The planning of the station is inventively expressive of its role as a commuter station in several ways. The embankment along which the new tracks ran did not provide enough space for the building of the new station. For the few other stations built next to raised track embankments, the most common arrangement was to locate the station and all its passenger and freight facilities on the adjacent land and provide stairs up to a platform. Union Station in Toronto and the North Toronto CPR station are among the grandest statements of the type. At St. Clair Avenue West, where the land immediately east of the station site was occupied and not available for development at street level, the station was built into the side of the embankment. Only the narrow south façade facing the street and the broad east façade could be seen from the pedestrian approach. The non-public areas—the boiler room, fuel storage room, and a storage area—were located at ground level for easy staff access (Figure 16). All the passenger facilities, baggage and express, and staff areas are on the second level with direct access to the tracks. A simple stairway, now rebuilt in concrete with a metal pipe railing, leads up to the platform from street level. This is an unusual arrangement because of its innate lack of security, and because the plan does not lead passengers automatically past the ticket counter. It assumes that commuting tickets could be bought in advance, as they often are today, or could be purchased on the train. This plan allows passengers to reach the platform and trains quickly without going through the station building first.
Inside the station, the commuter function directly affected the arrangement of the plan (Figure 17). One quarter of the main floor area is taken up by the baggage and express area. This is only slightly less space than usual but its location on what is in effect a second floor level without a service elevator and only a narrow stair clearly underlines the insignificance of freight services within the overall plan of the station. Only easily portable baggage and express shipments could be handled conveniently through this service area. The remainder of the floor area of the station is dedicated to passenger service and waiting areas. There is a large, well-lit waiting room, measuring approximately 37 feet by 21 feet, with men's and women's washrooms at the north end, steam heat, comfortable benches and easy access to the ticket office and platform. Like the downgrading of the freight area in the plan, the enhancement of the waiting room indicates that a different type of station, one devoted to passenger traffic, had been conceived of for St. Clair West.
The interior of the station is particularly attractive and almost completely intact with original flooring, panelling, fenestration, door and window surrounds, and light and heating fixtures.19 The walls and ceiling are clad in three inch vertical wood panelling and the large, elegant, arched windows contain textured glass panes. Now boarded up, these windows would have provided abundant natural light. An interesting component of the plan is a cage-like wood and glass agent's office set against the platform side of the waiting room and surrounded by it on all sides. This office was not separate or private as were most agents' offices in other station plans. It is still arranged to command the view of the tracks that safety demanded, but its small size (only about 12 feet square), and position, with the waiting room wrapping around three sides, indicates that most of the traditional management functions performed by a station agent have been eliminated to concentrate on providing information and tickets to passengers. If passenger traffic had not been the prime purpose of the St. Clair station, this arrangement would have been almost uselessly inefficient.
The site available for the St. Clair
West station was on the edge and upper level of the new embankment, making the new station a relatively prominent feature in the streetscape of the area. The immediate streetscape was, in 1930-31, and has continued to be, unattractively dominated by the Milne Coal Company's silos, billboards and other light industrial facilities. It was also a site that allowed little in the way of the landscaping that enhanced many stations in Canada. In the midst of the optimism of the late 1920s, when the station was being planned, there would have been little worry about the unprepossessing character of the site or that the area would remain permanently blighted by inappropriate buildings and enterprises. This type of blight had existed in west Forest Hill and at the time was being replaced gradually by more attractive development. At the same time, the station rose high enough to be seen and identified from a considerable distance over the adjacent buildings. Unfortunately the improvement in the physical character and economic status of the St. Clair/Caledonia Road area has not been as great as the optimists hoped. In recent years at least, and probably since the late 1930s, the space between the street and the east front of the station has become a rather unkempt parking lot, compromising the architectural character of the station. The retention of the nearby overpass has continued to reinforce the functional and stylistic character of the station.
As the setting has been only marginally improved in the last sixty years, the station, despite its prominent elevation, remains relatively unknown. Still, from both east and west, it remains the only building of recognizably monumental character in this section of the St. Clair Avenue West neighbourhood, visible with the overpass from a considerable distance. The neighbourhood has not been actively involved in the issues of preservation as they relate to the station and the surrounding area; however, the station was listed in 1984 by the Toronto City Council on a recommendation from the Toronto Historical Board that recognized its historical associations, architectural quality and landmark significance. This listing is an important informational statement, though it has no real legal force.
Blue Bookspublished as Grand Trunk Railway System—Bridges and Buildings, 5 volumes (A-E) privately published by the railway in 1907, probably in Montréal, with one volume for each major GTR operating area (hereafter cited as
The Blue Books).
Blue Booksthat record the buildings of the GTR system indicate that in 1906, two pairs of Pawtucket Safety Gates, each with four arms, were installed to stop east-west traffic when trains were going through. There were similar level crossings on all rail lines in the best a very tentative solution to the problem of traffic.
thermal window. It derives from the architecture of the Imperial Roman baths; and in Beaux-Arts design in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, the form was often used in larger or more important railway stations.
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