John St. Roundhouse

HISTORY

Construction of the John Street Roundhouse, built for the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, began in 1929 and was completed after the demolition of the existing CPR Roundhouse in 1931.  The site includes the 32-stall Roundhouse and Machine Shop, adjacent to Stall #25, as well as the turntable, water tower and sand and coal loader.  Built for the servicing and repair of passenger steam engines, the John Street Roundhouse was the first and only roundhouse in Canada to use the “direct-steam process”.  This technology allowed an engine to drop its firebox outside of the Roundhouse and enter the Roundhouse under the power of the remaining steam.  Once inside the Roundhouse, the engine would be connected to the steam lines within the Roundhouse.  The steam which was generated at a plant located at York Street and Lakeshore Boulevard also provided steam heat to Union Station, the Royal York Hotel and, later, the Canadian National Railway Spadina Yard.  The “direct-steam” technology allowed for improved maintenance and fuel consumption, improved the conditions within the Roundhouse due to the reduction of the smoke produced and the danger inherent in engines which retained their fireboxes during servicing and allowed for much faster servicing of the steam engines.  The Machine Shop was vital to the function of the Roundhouse and contained the lathes, drills, boiler tank, boiler washer room, compressor room, fan room, blacksmith shop and workers’ facilities.  The existing compressors and electrical panels remain in situ while much of the other equipment remains in storage.

After World War II and the decline in passenger service, the passenger yards were converted to allow for freight repair and the Roundhouse was adapted to service diesel-fired steam engines after the use of coal-fired steam engines came to an end during the 1950’s.  During the 1960’s and 1970’s, a number of the site’s obsolete buildings were removed.  The last diesel engine was serviced at the Roundhouse in 1982 and the facility was ultimately closed in 1986.  The Canadian Pacific Railway Company donated the John Street Roundhouse to the City of Toronto in 1988 for its adaptive re-use as a municipal rail museum.

The John Street Roundhouse was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1990, notable as “the best surviving example of a roundhouse in Canada”.

“While the Board believed that the Roundhouse itself was of sufficient interest to merit federal designation, it emphasized the fact that the Roundhouse was a part of a railyard complex increased its significance and it urged those entrusted with the future of the Railway Property to strive to ensure that the Roundhouse survives in the context of the important companion structures that surround it.” ….. Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Minutes, February 1990

“The Board first noted that it had only recommended the commemoration, on grounds of national historic and architectural significance, of the John Street Roundhouse, in Toronto, arguably the finest surviving roundhouse in Canada.” – Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Minutes March 1991

 The John Street Roundhouse was designated a national historic site in 1990, as the best surviving example of a roundhouse in Canada.  The site’s heritage values include the roundhouse and machine shop annex, a turntable, coal and sanding tower, and water tower.” – Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Minutes, 1999

 The Commemorative Integrity Statement, January 2005, identifies the values of the Historic Site as follows:

  • It is the best surviving example of a roundhouse in Canada
  • It enhances the understanding of the organization and functional processes of a railway roundhouse operation
  • The place survives in relatively good and complete condition
  • Its industrial character
  • Its integral relationship to the age of railway steam locomotion in twentieth-century Canada and the introduction of direct-steaming technology
  • It speaks to the development and expansion of Toronto during the apogee of the railway era in twentieth-century Canada

Specific to the Roundhouse-Machine Shop Building, the Commemorative Integrity Statement identifies the values of the built structure as follows:

  • Its interior layout – the scale and volume of open spaces – speaks to its industrial character and function
  • Certain features of the building – such as the rear knock-out walls, the tracks and drop pits, the machine shop and elements of the direct-steam system – speak in detail to the repair function and processes for which the structure was built
  • The extent and completeness of surviving hardware and other operational details, such as door mechanisms, pipes, duct work, direct steaming lines, the air compressor, and other in situ machinery

According to the Commemorative Integrity Statement, the built structures are not considered to be impaired or under threat when “the massing, form, and fabric of their character-defining elements are respected; new and evolving uses respect the machinery, features and hardware that enhance understanding of the industrial processes of the site” and “their national significance is effectively communicated to the public”.

In addition to the characteristics and values of the site and built structures, the Commemorative Integrity Statement identifies the resources connected to the Roundhouse, including archival material, tools and machinery, which are classified as Level One Historic Objects valuable as representative of the operations and functional processes.

In 1996, the CPR John Street Roundhouse was designated by the City of Toronto under By-law No. 1996-0385.  The by-law identifies the Roundhouse, including the Machine Shop, turntable, sand and coal loader, and water tower for architectural and historical reasons as “important surviving reminders of steam technology and the role of rail transportation in the City of Toronto”.  The Roundhouse, including the Machine Shop, is also identified as a “contributing building” of the Union Station Heritage Conservation District: a “contributing building” being one which contributes to the character of the district and/or is historically, architecturally and/or culturally significant.

The City of Toronto entered into the Hydro Purchase Option Agreement with Ontario Hydro (Hydro One Networks) in 1992: this agreement allowed Ontario Hydro the option to purchase the land adjacent to the CPR Roundhouse (below the Machine Shop), known as the Hydro Option Lands, until 2013.  In 2008, Ontario Hydro, now Hydro One, notified the City of Toronto of its intention to purchase the land and construct a transformer station at this location.  As a requirement of the Hydro Purchase Option Agreement, the City of Toronto was required to transfer the land encumbrance free: therefore, the City of Toronto repealed and amended the designation by-law to remove references to the Machine Shop to allow for this transfer.  Although the revised by-law No. 1143-2008 has removed references to the Machine Shop, its importance to the interpretation and communication of the Roundhouse and rail history is not in question.

The Machine Shop, an integral part of the Roundhouse, remains architecturally, culturally and historically significant at both a local and national level; this significance is not subject to revision.

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