Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada
Railway Station Report
Former Canadian National Railways Station/
Anne M. de Fort-Menares, Toronto
The former Canadian National Railways (CNR) station at 15 Church Street West in Brampton, Ontario, represents the optimism of 20th century industrial and municipal boosterism, even as the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) was sliding into irreversible bankruptcy (Figures 1-3). The building, which in photographs has the visual presence of a small chateau, was more impressive looking than most stations in towns of comparable size (Figure 4).
Built in 1907 by the GTR, the station was operated by CNR until passenger services were taken over by VIA Rail. It has been renovated twice, and currently serves as a passenger station for Government of Ontario (GO) Transit and VIA Rail.
In the early 20th century, railway companies had less than one good decade of profits before the war forced permanent changes in how the companies were run. A depression in 1907-08 put nearly 14 per cent of GTR employees on short time and left over 8000 freight cars standing idle, but the company continued with hundreds of improvement activities, notably the construction of car shops at Stratford and London, the challenging Sarnia tunnel, and new Montréal headquarters. The Brampton station was one of 20 new stations proposed for construction in Ontario in 1907, but was seemingly so routine a project that it never merited specific mention in the industry journal.1
In the portfolio of GTR properties, however, the design was not routine, and it represents the importance that architecture had assumed in promoting the identity of the railway. Unlike the standard designs for rural stations that had been built at a moment's notice as late as 1904, the Brampton station looks to design sources that are at once more monumental and industrial than typical stations had been. It is well within GTR planning standards, however, and not up to the level of finesse brought by more accomplished designers. The quality of workmanlike, anonymous design is a consistent theme of the GTR, which set it apart from its chief rival, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). By contrast, under the direction of an avid architectural amateur, that company hired the best talent it could locate over several decades.2
The expansion of the architectural repertoire in the GTR coincided with a slight corporate shift toward recognizing Canadian markets. These efforts reflected a nascent sensitivity to Canadian nationalism, and, more to the point, financial ability. Just as railway finances almost never seemed rosy except in retrospect, what appeared to be a depression in 1906 turned out to be
exceptional prosperity and
great profits from the perspective of 1909.3 Although federal intervention had always been a condition of business, in 1907 the GTR was still run from London by a British board of directors. Company president Sir Charles Rivers-Wilson reacted impetuously when a Canadian shareholder suggested Canadian representation by retorting,
I do not suppose that anything more insane than that was ever made, and proceeded to berate the assembly for the mismanagement of the board by Canadians in 1861, from which, he asserted, the company suffered
even to the present day.4 Ultimately, however, a Canadian advisory board was established as a compromise that same year.
The grudging responsiveness to Canadian concerns may also be apparent in the design of the Brampton station. Although the company had developed a series of standard designs for various classes of station and yard buildings in these years, Brampton deviates stylistically from any of the ones known. One of the benefits of standardized designs was a perception of equality among status-conscious towns.5 This station, and the circumstances of its construction, indicate the possibility for negotiating a consideration of local interests. In the intersection of municipal promotion with narrow corporate priorities, the community won for itself a symbol of consequence.
On the local level, the GTR provoked political and economic activity in Brampton. The first station was built on land owned by the regional MPP, and the second was the result of lobbying by local politicians. The arrival of the railway coincided with, and partly enabled, the commercial and industrial expansion of the town. The present station dates from the highwater mark of Brampton's local economy.
The city of Brampton developed from an agricultural service centre that was settled in the 1820s. Until its incorporation as a village in 1853, it took its name, Buffy's Corners, from William Buffy's tavern at the intesection of Hurontario Street and the 45th side road.6 The new name was introduced by an earlier settler in the area who hailed from Brampton in England. This man, John Elliott, laid out village lots for sale along the Etobicoke Creek in 1834. A little commercial cluster including mill and distillery buildings formed the nucleus of the village, gradually attracting other stores and businesses. Growth was slow: 48 names were assessed in 1837, 78 in 1850. The railways have been credited with bringing prosperity to the community, but it was the construction of a local feeder line in the 1870s that supported Brampton's economy.7
Brampton was reached by a plank toll road built on Hurontario from Port Credit on Lake Ontario, and by a stage line from Orangeville, but its water access was unsuitable for navigation. Shipment of agricultural products was correspondingly laborious. When railway fever hit Ontario in the early 1850s, Chinguacousy township was lured to support the Toronto and Guelph line with a £10,000 pledge, in return for a Brampton depot. Before the line was completed, however, the GTR bought up the company and paid off the municipal stock issue that had floated it.8
Planned as a transnational line linking the western grain markets to the east coast ports, the GTR was notoriously indifferent to local freight and trade needs. Although Brampton was connected with Hamilton, Toronto and Guelph, freight rates favoured the long-distance shipper, and few localities identified with the British enterprise. Brampton business eagerly welcomed the Credit Valley Railway (CVR) when it was announced in 1871. The company was like most local lines, in that it connected a number of county villages with the port of Toronto. Ultimately these lines, as much as the transcontinentals, depleted the rural markets in favour of the largest manufacturers in Toronto. In the beginning, however, every aspiring village reeve and councillor dreamed of the prosperity the rails brought within reach. In Brampton, the political element was unusually catalytic.
Two years after the announcement of the railway in 1871, Brampton incorporated as a town. It was another six years before the CVR was finished, and the line was finally acquired by Canadian Pacific in 1884,9 but in the brief critical period of the 1870s and 1880s, Brampton made the most of its rail connections. Services were so popular, in fact, that Toronto merchants posed serious competition to local businesses. Brampton merchants eventually petitioned the GTR to abandon multiple trip discounts to discourage frequent commuting to Toronto.10
The first railway era in Brampton coincided with the provision of social institutions: the construction of a grammar school in 1856; the establishment of a Mechanics Institute in 1858; the consolidation of church congregations; and upon the selection of Brampton as the county seat, a splendid stone court house was built to William Kauffmann's designs in 1865.11 Flower growing, a business that would become identified with the town, had its start in the 1860s as a market produce business. Sales were initially local, but flowers were also shipped by rail to more distant markets. In 1901 the future King and Queen were presented with floral displays at the GTR station in Brampton, and the town called itself Flower Town in recognition of the industry. The Dale greenhouse was the city's largest labour employer in the first quarter of.this century.12
During the second railway era, additional social and municipal infrastructures emerged, as did large scale industry. After Brampton incorporated as a town in 1873, its civic and social dimensions became more complex. Masonic and Oddfellows lodges were formed in the 1870s; plans were proposed to divert the Etobicoke as a means of flood control in 1873; electrical generation commenced in the 1880s.13 Significant industries established themselves in this time as well. An iron foundry and agricultural works that produced implements and steam engines employed over a hundred workers in the city in the 1870s.14 Especially indicative of the role of the railway was the cluster of warehouses and businesses around the station grounds through the middle of the 20th century (Figure 5).
Brampton continued to be what boosters would call a
pushing kind of place right up until 1914. A grain market was revived in 1907, and the local paper praised the
progressive values of the various tiny communities that fringed the town of Brampton.15 The present Brampton station was built in response to the agitation,
constant and continued, of a local councillor named J. H. Boulter. Boulter had been elected in March 1907 on a platform of promises that included better train service, more manufacturing industries, and the construction of a $10,000 GTR station on Main Street.16 Less than a year later, Boulter proudly set his accomplishments before the electors, among them the completion of a new station, a Main Street entrance, and a plan, at least, for the laying out and beautification of the grounds.17 Nothing came of the latter, but the convenient and well-appointed Brampton station was proof of the efficacy of constant and continued agitation. Main Street was lowered for an overhead bridge to eliminate the grade crossing, and today two prominent railway bridges cross main streets into the downtown.
Industrial output in Brampton slackened after the war. Flowergrowing and horticulture continued to be strong local businesses, but the town's best-known export was lawyer William Davis, who served as Premier of Ontario for 14 years (1971-85). The city was by-passed when Canada's first limited access highway, the Queen Elizabeth Way, opened in 1947 along the Lake Ontario shoreline, which also dealt the final symbolic blow to sharply decreased rail passenger traffic. Brampton expanded as a town and as a commuter suburb following the population and immigration booms of the 1950s and 1960s, when a number of manufacturers also located to the city. During Premier Davis's government, extensive new highway connections were built to Brampton, and GO Transit revitalized rail service to dozens of municipalities in the Toronto commuter region. The parking lot expansion of 1983 was one physical manifestation of the increase in rail use by Brampton commuters, and with GO and VIA services now in place, the station is again the rail passenger centre for the city.
The Brampton station has a deceptively monumental appearance; in reality it is quite a small building with grand gestures. Built of vitrified brick on rockfaced granite foundations, there is great deliberation in its detailing and composition.
High hipped roofs delineate the three main components of the building, and provide strong, pagoda-like shapes for the clustering of forms in mass. A square entrance gate on the north entrance elevation is flanked by shorter cylindrical towers with conical roofs, all standing out from the front wall plane (Figure 6). The Germanic Carolingian origins of the composition are confirmed by the corbelled Romanesque arcading on the entrance tower and the small brackets of the narrow eaves. These brackets, a consistent theme on GTR stations throughout their history, are carried over around the deep soffits of the station, where they achieve a more informal quality than they suggest on the towers.
Stylistically the station combines the Rundbogenstil (
round-arch style) Romanesque with a gritty but surprisingly domestic quality suggestive of the Arts and Crafts. These characteristics are perceived at different scales: the Romanesque in the long view, and the domestic in the closer interaction. The building is not symmetrical—the east end has a covered waiting area, the west end a closed office—but it is organized symmetrically, with dominant centre axes. The materials are carefully employed for maximum effect. A standing header course around the great semi-circular arches of the east piazza economically but effectively emboldens the arch, just as the neat courses of foundation stones emphatically ground the building through texture, colour, and form. The bricks are laid with a deep mortar joint so that each irregularly-coloured unit is individually visible (Figure 7).
On the south track elevation, the operator's bay projects as a Hanseatic gabled dormer jutting in front of the station wall (Figure 8). Tall doors with semi-circular transoms and tripartite arched windows on either side gave access to the waiting room, on the east, and the agent's spaces, at the centre, but all doors are now used by passengers (Figure 13). Air conditioners have been inserted into several transoms and new doors installed, but these were done in a somewhat make-shift way that clearly marks them as temporary measures. More intrusive are the flat GO and VIA signs, fire-rated doors of heavy glass and aluminum on the parking lot elevations, and the platform furniture. Externally, the aesthetic impact of the station is little damaged; the constituent materials and design factors that give it much of its distinctive character, such as the original wood sash, soffits, and masonry, are all intact.
The greatest changes have occurred on the interior, where the public spaces have been completely gutted and rebuilt to current standards using ceramic floor tile, laminate counters and glass enclosures.
Finally, the roof, originally tiled but now clad in black shingles, curves gently where the eave sweeps out as an awning to shelter passengers. The tiles contributed a rugged texture that accorded with the qualities of massiveness inherent in the arches and the stone. Together with the short towers and strong massing, the roof indicates a barely-acknowledged debt to French medieval sources that were informing the designs of contemporaneous railway hotels, such as the Empress in Victoria and the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa.18
The general organization of the façades adheres to a pattern that GTR station designers were exploring in the 1904-10 period. At Whitby, for example, the entrance on the wall plane appeared recessed between two fantastical apparitions in the form of semi-octagonal towers with pointy witch-hat roofcaps (Figure 9). The classical treatment of the porte-cochère and the square transom lights are typical Edwardian details of the 1900 period, still rooted in the eclecticism of the 1890s. Variants were built at Petrolia, Kitchener, Kincardine, and St. Marys; only Kitchener and St. Marys still stand beside the tracks in their towns (Figures 10-11). Each has an element of compositional planning or the dominant roofline that come together compactly and powerfully at Brampton.
The Romanesque Revival was a short-lived style in Canada. It was imported as an American influence in Richard Waite's design of 1886 for Queen's Park, and had an immediate impact on architecture in Toronto. The style percolated through to common rural domestic architecture in the conventional semicircular arched front window, but disappeared quite abruptly around 1900. When George Gouinlock built the north wing of Queen's Park in 1910, it was in a reluctant and unconvincing version of the original Romanesque. The use of the style in a building of 1907, even with the tentative allusions to medieval Germanic sources that grace the front elevation of the Brampton station, can hardly be considered progressive.
Characteristically, the GTR was neither blindly following nor bravely innovating in architectural style. Nevertheless, the result was fresh, comforting yet current, and successful in meeting the fairly stringent functional and maintenance requirements of the company.
The plan of the station has been through at least three phases. At present the interior of the passenger space is entirely modern, having been remodelled in 1991 as part of GO Transit's ongoing amelioration of its properties (Figures 12-13).19 The first room of the western section retains the narrow beaded boarding on its walls and ceiling that is characteristic of work of the period, and that was found on all the vertical surfaces of station interiors of the time. The second room, on the far west end, has been completely modernized, with linoleum flooring, dropped ceilings and new wall panels.
GO Transit and VIA both have separate ticket offices in the station, and most of the remaining space is an open waiting area. Washrooms occupy the east tower. In 1987, the whole western end of the main pavilion was given over to baggage, including the tower space (Figure 14). In 1963, the waiting room comprised a small part of the interior, but both tower volumes were dedicated to men's and women's lounge areas. The operator occupied an office roughly equivalent to the present VIA ticket office, and the freight office adjoined it along the south wall (Figure 15). The present storage room in the western section was originally a baggage room, and the renovated
leased area was an express office in 1963. This plan, which has the most logic and functional utility of any, was probably closest to the original use.
In a town prone to frequent floods, the railway engineers astutely chose high ground for their line. The station building occupies a ridge slightly north and west of the centre of town. Unlike so many early station sites, it is now well within the ambit of the downtown.
Residential and industrial land uses border the station site. The station itself fronts a large, level parking lot which was expanded to its present size in 1983 to serve the commuting population.20 Vestiges of the industrial character of the area are apparent in industrial buildings on the western edge of the lot along Mill Street, and as late as 1983 a lumber yard still occupied part of the site (Figures 16-17). Residences front the tracks on the south, and a new 15 storey housing development is under construction on a property abutting the northeastern corner of the station ground. In 1989 a pedestrian tunnel was built at the eastern end of the track.
Historic paraphernalia around the station is almost nonexistent. Since 1963 the site has undergone at least three modification campaigns, and GO Transit has extensively altered the station platform, grounds, and interior for commuter use (Figure 18). The station building is difficult to see from the main roads of town, but the railway presence is prominently manifested through two overpasses on the principal approaches and on the main street.
Brampton council is advised on heritage matters by a Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee, and the city has full-time heritage resources staff. A first draft inventory of historic buildings that has been compiled lists 800 buildings; it is expected that the final inventory will identify up to 300 buildings. Approximately 25 buildings have been designated under The Ontario Heritage Act, including the former Canadian Pacific Railway station, and the city is undertaking heritage conservation district studies as part of an expansion programme. The CNR station has not been designated, although staff are monitoring the plans of GO Transit for the building.21
railway stylefor Canada. See Harold D. Kalman, The Railway Hotels and the Development of the Chateau Style in Canada (hereafter The Railway Hotels) (Victoria: University of Victoria Maltwood Museum, 1968).
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