The 43 acres in Toronto’s downtown west end that make up the Fort York National Historic site is of huge civic significance in Toronto’s founding landscape. Built in 1793, the site remains Canada’s largest collection of original War of 1812 buildings. But despite it being considered the birthplace of urban Toronto, it isn’t the easiest place to get to.
“It is glaringly obvious how difficult it is to find Fort York and it has been like this for years,” explained David O’Hara, Museum Administrator at Fort York .
But, with construction underway on a new visitor centre at the site, that is set to change. The new building, O’Hara said, will enhance the visitor experience and elevate the site to become the key part of the broader public realm in Toronto’s parks system.
The new visitor centre will serve to orient visitors and expand public programming by providing enhanced facilities.
O’Hara said the building will also open space to the public in the historic structures, which were being used for administration.
The building will house washrooms, a gift shop, food service, and multi-purpose rooms. It will contain multimedia programming, permanent and changing exhibits, a Battle of York immersion experience, as well as facilities for education, research, staff and community use.
“It’s a museum and a visitor orientation centre, but it’s also meant to be a community hub or a community centre in nature,” said O’Hara, adding the building is designed so after hours, when the museum is closed, the building can still be used by community groups.
“The site is located outside the fort walls so as not to negatively impact the collection of historic buildings, but also to give it a street presence on Fort York Boulevard with 200 Fort York Boulevard, as its municipal address.
The entrance of the building will be along what would have once been the original shoreline of Lake Ontario.
To the north of the visitor centre, a 13-acre open space known as Garrison Common will be significantly improved. The surface parking, which is currently sitting on the original battleground, will be gone, making way for more green space.
“We are trying to clear parking and everything else out to make this into usable space for interpretive purposes, for programming related to the fort and also for programs like concerts and community festivals,” O’Hara said.
The need for a visitor centre has been talked about for more than 30 years, he continued.
“But we really started to move into major planning five years ago with a needs assessment, to determine exactly what it is the site needs with a visitor centre,” O’Hara said.
When the city moved into the design competition for the building there were a number of architects short-listed who submitted their designs anonymously and a jury unanimously selected the winning design.
The building was designed by Patkau Architects of Vancouver with Kearns Mancini Architects of Toronto.
“It was the one scheme that interpreted the landscape in the site on its own,” O’Hara said. “It is meant to pick up on the fact that there was a 15 to 18 foot clay bluff in the area. It essentially picks up on the original shoreline and the colour and the texture of the clay.”
The $18-million construction contract was recently awarded to Harbridge + Cross.
Karen Black, the city’s manager of Museums and Heritage Services, said she believes it will be Toronto’s greatest new public space.
“It has been one of these hidden places for years and years and is just now emerging out of its cocoon,” Black said. “(The visitor centre) will make the site and the history and the museum much more porous,” Black said. “It opens the whole site up to the city and the fort embraces the city now.”
Black explained that Fort York, like most museums, only has about 10 per cent of its collection on display at any one time.
The new space will allow them to display the militia colours, the flags sewn by the Ladies of York and presented to the militia unit in March of 1813, just a month before the invasion.
“This is going to be amazing to be able to show them,” Black said.
Expected to take about 18 months to build, the new Fort York Visitor Centre is scheduled to open in 2014.
Access to Fort York (at 250 Fort York Blvd.) by car during the period of construction must be done via Fleet Street and Garrison Road. For more details regarding site access or any other enquiries, call 416-392-6907 or visit http://www.toronto.ca/fortyork