From Alan Crossley’s flying saucer to Noel Harding’s Elevated Wetlands, Toronto is home to some mind-bending public spaces, some made by humans, others carved by nature.
“I live in Toronto,” begins the voice-over of the Oscar-winning short Ryan, “a city in Canada where I see way too many shades of grey for my own good health.”
It can be difficult to live in a place whose very aesthetics are a constant reminder of our inability to do better. Where too many streetscapes are defined by indifferent condominiums and the same handful of banks and pharmacies at their bases. Where cuts to transit make rush hour an increasingly degrading experience but even hypothetical inconveniences to drivers are considered unacceptable. Where we’re told by our politicians that nice things are beyond us and that the “TORONTO” sign in Nathan Phillips Square is unworthy of even the modest funds necessary to keep it around for another year.
Where public investment is treated as a privilege and not a right, to be doled out on the basis of political expediency rather than need.
Thankfully, there are the buttons.
In each of the basement washrooms at Otto’s Berlin Döner in Kensington Market is a button on the wall. Oversized and unmissable but wholly unmarked, there is no need to press them, but you can. And in the midst of the sweltering heat of August or the endless winter of March, you will be delighted.
Easter eggs like these are what make the city – any city – worth living in. They are the bursts of creativity or beauty, oddness or whimsy, that make it possible to get through the days during the greyer months when doing so would otherwise be a challenge. Sometimes they are destinations, but often they are unexpected. They are physical indicators that someone, in a distant or very recent history, took the time to care, to contribute something to the urban fabric that would intangibly improve the experience of it.
The Peter Pan statue in Glenn Gould Park, for example, is not unique. It is one of six identical copies of Sir George Frampton’s original in London’s Kensington Gardens. It is not even the only one of its kind in Canada.
But with its nine fairies, seven mice, five rabbits, three birds and one each of a snail, squirrel, salamander and frog – all circling Peter and Wendy – it brings a splash of childlike aspiration to the northwest corner of Avenue and St. Clair.
There is no inherently logical reason it should be there the park’s pianist namesake wasn’t even born when it was installed. That it was donated by something called the College Heights’ Association “to the spirit of children at play” is a quirk of history, and that it persists to the present is a peculiar gift.
The value of a city is measured, in part, by its capacity to deliver the unanticipated and to present itself as a place where such surprises are welcomed.
It’s about the city as source of nourishment and stimulation – the city as playground, the city as theme park, the city as place that encourages exploration. The city as a home that makes you grateful to receive its treasures.
In the late 2000s, I was a member of the Toronto Psychogeography Society, which is a fancy way of saying I went on weekly evening walks typically organized by Spacing editor Shawn Micallef. The excursions generally fell into two categories: venturing through parts of the city that we’d never otherwise experience on foot, or wandering through areas we considered familiar but that still had secrets to reveal.
There was also a third kind of walk: ones that trekked through places well known to just one of us. Back then, I was living with my family at Yonge and York Mills, a location I resented for its distinct lack of things. On the second coldest night of the winter, the group came up to my area, and we headed off through the empty Don Valley Golf Course.
Held in the air by towering concrete supports, the 401 crosses the ravine there via a massive bridge that soars over the greens. We climbed the steep hill at the west side of the bridge until we found ourselves adjacent to the highway, at the protected tip of a fork in the road.
Cars zipped past on both sides.
I had known about the bridge and the awesome industrial-ruin feel of its base. I didn’t know you could safely come eye to eye with the highway, staring down traffic on one of the busiest routes in the world. I had never done anything like it before.
In that moment, Toronto in February was okay.
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Almost 60 years after it fell to Earth near the south end of the Humber bike trail, you’ll find a folly with a practical function: a flying saucer attached to a stone-faced public washroom. Architect Alan Crossley’s playful mid-century modernist masterpiece is a forlorn object today. Grubby, neglected, tagged with graffiti and much in need of a cleanup, it was recently added to Architectural Conservancy Ontario’s (ACO) list of buildings at risk. ACO says a plan to demolish the washroom (it’s attracting what local councillor Justin Di Ciano describes as “illicit deals and behaviour”) and wrap the steel posts with stone from the washroom walls will “undermine its architectural elegance.” That plan is being re-evaluated thanks to a campaign led by ACO president Catherine Nasmith and a change.org petition launched by Stephanie Mah of ACO’s NextGen. Sign the petition and visit the Oculus. Marvel at its elegant asymmetry, test the echo, then lie on your back and look up into its eye to the sky and wonder.
This 34-storey limestone classic, part of the four-building complex that anchors the city’s financial district, was the tallest building in the British Empire when it was finished in 1931. But the gold-coffered ceiling and art deco styling made it a showpiece in its time and now a treasured heritage building.
Tiny and secluded, Gibraltar Point Beach has a witchy vibe. Perhaps it’s the giant dream catchers in the trees or because it’s beside Toronto’s oldest (and spookiest) landmark, the nearby Gibraltar Point Lighthouse. Built in 1808, its original keeper, John Paul Radelmüller, was murdered on a cold night in January 1815. Legend has it he was thrown from the top of the lighthouse by soldiers from Fort York and that his ghost is still searching for his body. The tale grew in popularity following the discovery of parts of a human skeleton some years later. Worth seeing: Michael Davey’s rotating Rogue Wave art installation of materials washed up on the shore, in niches in the pavilion wall at the western edge of Gibraltar Point.
This bridge goes by several names, but what we can agree on is that it’s one of Toronto’s most beautiful. Designed by Montgomery Sisam Architects and opened in 1996, the cycle- and pedestrian-only bridge across the mouth of the Humber River is part of the Martin Goodman Trail and connects the eastern and western halves of Humber Bay Park. Its dual white arches and symmetrical design were inspired by “an abstracted version of the Thunderbird, an Aboriginal icon of the Ojibways, who occupied the site for almost 200 years.” Most magnificent view: when entering and exiting on either side.
In 1921, Clarence Chant, president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, gave a lecture about a comet. In his audience, mining executive David Dunlap was enchanted. He died three years later, but his widow, Jessie Dunlap, offered to finance the construction of an observatory that would contain the second-largest astronomical telescope in the world. In 1971, Tom Bolton measured wobbles in the orbit of a star as it circled an invisible X-ray-emitting object so massive that it had to be a black hole: Cygnus X-1, the first to be confirmed by observation. In 2009 the observatory was acquired by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Proceeds from the sale of its land financed the founding of U of T’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics. Eighty-one years after it first saw light, the observatory continues to inspire astronomers and thousands of visitors. Interested? Contact the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. You won’t discover a black hole, but you will see stars – and much more.
The Globe’s culture and film critic, Kate Taylor, wrote in May 2015 that Aga Khan Park, part of the complex that includes the Aga Khan Museum and Toronto Ismaili Centre, “bears many of the characteristics of a white elephant.” She meant that figuratively, of course, pointing out the “long trip from downtown Toronto” and other disadvantages (e.g., scarce parking) of its location next to the DVP north of Eglinton. Certainly, the 6.8-hectare park overlooks Don Mills from a lofty perch, and as a cultural destination it aspires to even higher goals – namely, “to encourage intercultural dialogue and exchange… in a time when the world of Islam and the Western world need to work together much more effectively at building mutual understanding.” Aga Khan Park has quickly become a popular landmark.
Reports of strange noises and “screams” (the ghost of a young girl murdered at Old Finch bridge down the road, or animals at the nearby Toronto Zoo?) continue to swirl around this 1877 Methodist church and cemetery in a remote wooded corner of the Rouge Valley.
Anchored by Moriyama’s Kubrick-esque space ship, this ode to Scarborough’s long-deferred big dreams is coming into its own as a people place with the addition of a new public library, the first significant addition to the precinct in 25 years. Cool distraction: the waterfall (when it’s working) running from inside the Civic Centre to a wading pool. Interesting sidelight: Swedish sculptor Carl Milles’s The Hand Of God, dedicated to former Scarborough mayor Albert Campbell, juts out from the orchard across the street.
The former village known for its Masonic history also features some of the city’s loveliest century-old homes mixed in with its funky circa-1970s architecture. Little Avenue Memorial Park above the Humber marks the spot where Weston’s first settlers lived until a catastrophic flood washed out the west bank and sawmill in 1850.
The remains of 472 native souls, believed to be 13th-century Iroquois, were discovered here in 1956 during construction of the nearby subdivision. ROM archaeologists say the graves were part of an ancient reburial that followed the relocation of a native village. The bones were reinterred in 1961 in a ceremony organized by the city of Scarborough and attended by representatives from the Brantford Six Nations reserve and other First Nations.
When you pass the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, take a minute to look at what’s left of the brick and stone wall that once surrounded the entire complex. The wall was built in stages by patients of the hospital between 1851 and the 1880s. More than a century later, the site is undergoing massive redevelopment that is mindful of honouring its past while physically opening up the space to break down barriers between clients, health care workers and the general public. Only a portion of the wall remains.
St. Anne’s Church near the corner of Gladstone and Dundas was constructed in 1907 in the Byzantine Revival style. Shortly after it was built, the church interior was decorated with mural paintings by artists who would later be known as three of the founding members of Canada’s Group of Seven. Artwork by J. E. H. MacDonald, Frederick Varley, and Franklin Carmichael depict the life of Christ and events from the Old and New Testament. The paintings were created on canvases in each of the artists’ studios and then fastened to the church walls. They are the only known religious works by the Group of Seven.
Michelle da Silva
Built in 1822, Campbell House is a heritage house and museum. It’s one of the few remaining examples of Georgian architecture in Toronto and the oldest remaining house from the Town of York. The building was actually constructed at a different site, at Adelaide East and Frederick Street, by Upper Canada Chief Justice Sir William Campbell and his wife Hannah. It was used as a private residence and then an office building for more than a century before being auctioned off in the 1970s to whoever could remove it from the property. A group of lawyers purchased the house and moved it 1.5 kilometres to its current location, where it’s now owned by the City of Toronto and used as a museum, art gallery and event space.
The grand pillars that run alongside the Lakeshore East bike lanes just west of Leslie once supported a 1.3-kilometre track of highway that, in the 1960s, planners hoped would eventually connect to Scarborough. But in 1999, council voted to destroy that elevated section of the Gardiner – but retained some of the pillars for posterity. Now, they pass as found art in addition to marking local highway history.
Adjacent to High Park’s Dog Hill with its rough and tumble of unbound furry bodies, the statue of Larissa Kosach — “The Greatest Ukrainian Poetess,” who wrote under the name Lesya Ukrainka — rises in quiet dignity. Larger than life and clutching flowers in each hand, she gazes in contemplation across her own private garden. Donated in 1975 by the Ukrainian Canadian Women’s Council, the group still gathers at the monument each September to honour her. A tribute to the idea of poetry and literature as a force for liberation, this verse appears on the sides of the pedestal in English and Ukrainian: “By own hands freedom gained is freedom true / By others freedom given is a captive’s doom.”
Just north of Christie Pits on Yarmouth, a life-sized elephant named Sally lives in James Lawson’s front yard. The nearly three-metre-tall sculpture has made the nabe her home since 2003. Lawson inherited her from his friend, artist and industrial designer Matt Donovan, who designed the beast as part of his thesis project at OCAD. Made of fibreglass, chicken wire and plywood, the oversized lawn ornament stops people in their tracks. “I still hear exclamations of surprise and giggles from passersby,” says Lawson. “She’s increasingly hidden by my cherry tree, which means that in the summer most people in cars miss her unless they’re moving slowly.”
This little-known oasis of calm in what may be Toronto’s least appreciated public square sits atop the buried course of Taddle Creek and is approached via Tibetan arches. Like the 13th-century stone labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France, it inspires artful meditation in those who take the time to walk it. Also a great place to people-watch.
A Canadian water landmark, Rosehill Reservoir was built in 1873. During the Second World War it was enclosed by a barbed wire fence for fear of sabotage, much to the chagrin of locals who’d come to enjoy the occasional dip in the water. It was covered in 1966 to protect it from encroaching development – and reportedly due to continuing Cold War worries. A fountain, wading pool, 1.6 hectares of reflecting ponds and a waterfall were added as surface features, although these days the reservoir operates more as a park than a connection to Toronto’s water history.
Like a great editorial cartoon, this public sculpture by Eldon Garnet uses just a handful of symbols to distill a weighty concept into a profoundly simple image. A lamb and a lion, both life-size and cast in bronze, balance perfectly on opposite ends of a scale, its imposition of equality transcending nature and physics. On its site behind the 361 University courthouse, where the city’s most serious criminal cases are heard, the work is a firm and explicit reminder of the ideal of justice expressed in Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination.”
UK street artist Phlegm takes public art to new heights with a just-completed eight-storey mural. Depicting a crouched figure and Toronto landmarks, it’s “a metaphor for the living and breathing nature of the city,” according to the artist. Organizers hope the work, which is funded through the city’s StreetART program, marks a new chapter in appreciation of more adventurous public art.
It’s easy to miss this work dedicated to “the spirit of children at play” underneath the chestnut boughs. This replica of the Peter Pan statue in London’s Kensington Gardens has been at the nexus of one of Toronto’s most prominent neighbourhoods since 1929, erected by the local ratepayers’ association with the help of commercial real estate magnate turned philanthropist Herbert Hale Williams, who is better known for his dedication of Amsterdam Square across the street.
Renowned street artist Faith47 was commissioned in 2013 to create a mural capturing the spirit of Toronto’s ravines. The result graces the underside of Metrolinx’s Bala Subdivsion rail line.
A series of outdoor artworks dedicated to the 2015 Pan Am Games punctuate some 80 kilometres of multi-use trails from Claireville Reservoir in Brampton to the shore of Lake Ontario south of Rouge Park. Art installations created in the months leading up to the Games connect 13 of the city’s priority neighbourhoods and play on the themes of art, nature and diversity. Noteworthy: Underpass Park (pictured) the mural collaboration between UrbanArts and artist Dan Bergeron under the St. Phillips Bridge in Weston exploring the legacy of Hurricane Hazel. There’s so much more to the Path! Check it out.
Credit to the National Post for first pointing out that the quartet of bronze squirrels raised on hind legs before a giant acorn at the south end of this new Riverside park resembles nothing so much as a cult. When the paper asked artist Mary Anne Barkhouse why the squirrels would genuflect before the nut, she simply answered, “Why wouldn’t they?” Commissioned by the city, the squirrel sect is one element of a triptych called Echo that Indigenous sculptors Barkhouse and Michael Belmore created for the park. (The other pieces are a somewhat more conventional beaver and fox.) On a recent visit, someone had left a partly eaten bagel as an offering.
In a condo-cluttered patch of midtown between Yonge an Mt. Pleasant, odd pieces of bronze and steel have been collected in tribute to some of Toronto’s avant-garde sculptors of the 60s and 70s.
Working-class hero and poet Al Purdy rode the Depression-era rails west for inspiration. “Voice of the Land,” as he was dubbed, is also the title of the statue by artists Veronica de Nogales Lepre-vost and Edwin Timothy Dam, which was commissioned in 2001 with a little help from Toronto’s first poet laureate, Dennis Lee, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. It’s only the second full-length statue of a poet in Toronto, the other being of Robbie Burns.
The former Imperial Oil headquarters is now the Imperial Plaza condo, with an LCBO and Market by Longo’s at street level. Flanked by York Wilson’s massive The Story Of Oil murals, they’re the most beautiful liquor and grocery stores in the city. Both lovingly restored and frozen in time, the murals represent that kind of postwar optimism where things that turned out to be disastrous for the planet were thought to symbolize the best hope for humanity. The vestiges of civic grandiosity remain evident in the giant clock faces built into the shiny marble walls at opposite ends of the ground floor, and a third springing from a matrix of golden-hued tiles in the centre.
Artist Laurie McGugan’s 2000 Millennium Project at Woodbine Park, Circle of Trees, didn’t go entirely as planned. The piece consists of seven maple trees in a circle, one of them cast in bronze (in four parts, then welded together as one). As the trees grew, the bronze piece would stay the same, demonstrating time through nature. “Although planted with optimum care, the living trees did not thrive as expected after about five years, but were struggling to survive,” McGugan says. “With some attention, by the Parks Department and the Conservator of Public Art, to the soil around the trees, they seem to have rebounded. The intended design may still unfold over time.”
Standing amidst concentric rings of bricks that seem to ripple outward like water, Ilan Sandler’s The Vessel cuts a distinctive profile at the corner of Bedford and Lowther. Installed in 2011 as part of a park rejuvenation funded by Section 37 money from the nearby One Bedford development, the sculpture is intended to evoke the long-buried Taddle Creek that traversed the downtown core through the late 1800s. Its four kilometres’ worth of stainless steel rods would, in theory, stretch along the former river’s route to Lake Ontario if unfurled. And in warmer weather, it serves as an avant-garde public fountain, with water trickling from the rim down along its wiry surface to a subterranean cistern that irrigates the park.
The swing on chains behind YYZ Gallery – the work of local artist Corwyn Lund, part of a group show on guerrilla projects – is gone. But Graffiti Alley, aka Rush Lane, is still one of the coolest place to decode the best of Toronto street art.
This two-kilometre stretch of abandoned rail line that used to serve industry in the west end was converted into a pedestrian and cycle path in 2010 in a piece of groundbreaking civic planning. Too bad plans to extend the path south to Union Station are still in limbo. Notable features: painted bollards, John Dickson’s Frontier sculptures and the view from the Wallace Avenue bridge.
Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major for unaccompanied cello is one of the best-loved pieces of string music. Yo-Yo Ma recorded it in 1997 for a six-part film series, Inspired By Bach, exploring the visual qualities of this music. He worked with Vermont landscape artist Julie Moir Messervy to design a botanical garden that would reflect the sense of the piece. When the Music Garden initially planned for Boston fell through, Toronto stepped in, and our lakeside garden opened in 1999. A spiral walkway winds through the garden, with markers along the way explaining the connections to different sections of Bach’s Suite. Concerts take place through the summer most Thursdays at 7 pm and Sundays at 4 pm. Entrance is free and wheelchair accessible, with guided tours offered until late September and $6 audio tour rentals available year-round at the Marina Quay West office (539 Queens Quay West). Music to our ears.
Architect Jonathan Kearns and sculptor Rowan Gillespie carved out a spiritual masterpiece on the lake to commemorate the arrival of refugees from the Irish famine who landed on Reese’s Wharf in 1847. An awe-inspiring beacon on our waterfront.
Near the Children’s Centre and Teaching Garden sits a massive and rare find – a dawn redwood (aka metasequoia), believed to be one of the oldest deciduous conifers in Toronto. It was a winner in the uniqueness category of LEAF’s Great Toronto Tree Hunt, submitted by author Jason Ramsay-Brown. It’s said to have been planted in 1960 on a plot bathed in early-morning sunlight on June 20 each year – the birthday of the wife of the gardener who planted it.
The Peace Garden didn’t used to be a hidden treasure at all, plunked in the middle of Nathan Phillips Square as a burst of greenery in an otherwise concrete expanse. It was opened for Toronto’s sesquicentennial in 1984 at the ceremony, Pope John Paul II lit the eternal flame with an ember from Hiroshima and poured water drawn from a Nagasaki river into the pool. As the most prominent local symbol of nuclear disarmament, the garden’s relocation to a less visible position on the square’s western flank was the most controversial element of the square’s revitalization. But it’s never looked better. Already marked by fire and water, the new environs add earth and air, with local plant species rustling in the wind, like Mother Nature reclaiming the land in a post-human world.
Corktown’s Percy could easily be Toronto’s most adorable street, a narrow cobblestone dead-end lane that leads to a city-run parkette with a distinctive Secret Garden vibe right beside the Richmond ramp off the Don Valley Parkway. A row of small houses that once belonged to workers at the nearby breweries and distillery in the late 1890s are now nestled between some of the city’s largest redevelopments: Regent Park to the north, the Distillery District to the west and the massive West Don Lands residential development to the south, which housed Pan Am Games athletes. Percy’s other claim to fame is that it’s one of 715 “private streets” in Toronto. If you live on one, you and your neighbours have to sort out snow clearing, road maintenance and in some cases garbage pickup separately from the services most of us take for granted.
Toronto’s earliest Jewish immigrants, among them Eastern European Orthodox Jews escaping the pogroms of Czarist Russia, are buried here. Visitation is by appointment only, but a key has been left in a hiding place known to relatives.
It appears on the left-hand side when you drive north on the DVP from Bloor to Eglinton. It looks like three oversized planters, giant grey moose teeth with greenery growing out of their tops.
From the front of one tooth a spout waters a second tooth, and again a spout waters the third tooth. Yes, an ecological system.
Powered by solar panels, the planters take water from the Don River and filter it through growing plants using waste plastic as soil. The water that goes in is polluted and the water that emerges is clean. The artwork brings ecology and science to the forefront and makes us question and “see” the river below.
Elevated Wetlands by Noel Harding (who passed away recently) is, like the sculptor, an oddity.
He once floated an elephant on a barge down a river in Holland. He made Canadian Arte Povera (an Italian art movement making use of poor material, “impoverished” art). Harding didn’t only get his materials from hardware stores, but from junkyards. How does one describe a clear plastic bag filled with crumbled white paper hanging from a ceiling as anything but Arte Povera?
But what is Elevated Wetlands, his sculpture built in the late 1990s?
The aesthetic quality of a public sculpture is of paramount importance. It reflects back to viewers a sense of quality – call it excellence – that allows them to feel comfortable in the urban space they occupy.
Elevated Wetlands is in many ways the opposite. It doesn’t make you feel at peace with your urban environment, but the converse. It doesn’t seem to belong, but it does. It asks viewers to question, to ask why, to enquire about the existence of the work itself. It’s the perfect oddity for a highway landscape. It’s an aesthetic work outside the domain of what we usually associate with modern classical sculpture. It appears chunky and heavy but simultaneously elegantly organic.
Harding was able to imagine and create a public sculpture outside of the complex competition system in which the more radical the scheme, the less likely it was to win.
I was outside his home in Caledon. He was watching the barbeque, and I was watching a model, Elevated Wetlands in miniature. I remember coveting it, wanting one for my garden, my elevated roof deck. We ate red meat, drank and argued into the night, but it’s the sound of its drip, the water from one spout into the next plastic container, that persisted.
Elevated Wetlands is not just uniquely anti-aesthetic, but intelligent. Not just the filtering – it fruitlessly filters polluted water that it can do little to change – but that it is a sculpture as system.
The artist is displaying a mechanized system for betterment. He’s used sunlight to power pumps that circulates water to grow plants and purify the water.
When I drive the DVP, I don’t just see Harding’s sculpture. I see an amateur scientist at work. I see the oddity of the sculpture’s shape as a reflection of the sculptor’s madness. I can’t help but smile and wonder if the sculpture is working, are the trees alive, is the river clean.
– Eldon Garnet
A plan to (maybe) build a signature park over the railway lands stole headlines recently. But Sherbourne Common, where art meets innovation, is one of our best examples of thinking big on the waterfront. It’s not just a park. It’s a stormwater treatment facility: Light Showers, Jill Anholt’s nine-metre-high sculptures, double as giant filters.
The Rouge, Canada’s first urban national park, is also home to one of the city’s best-kept secrets: Glen Rouge Campground has 125 spots for pitching tents or parking your RV.
Dedicated to the poet/composer who wrote the The Maple Leaf Forever in 1867, the gardens were first planted across the street in 1933. But construction of the Yonge subway in 1951 caused the garden to be moved to its present location, where it forms a natural gateway into the west Don Valley ravine system.
Hear ghost stories of Toronto’s past during a walking tour at Necropolis Cemetery.
World champion rower Ned Hanlan pioneer ex-slaves Lucie and Thornton Blackburn the city’s first elected black politician, William P. Hubbard and the restless souls of those hanged for their part in the Mackenzie rebellion of 1837 lie here. The best place in the city to commune with the dead and take in what’s thought to be the country’s finest example of Gothic Revival architecture: the Necropolis’s pavilion and chapel.
Yonge-Dundas Square designers Brown+Storey Architects’s lesser-known contribution to downtown public space has slowly come into its own along with the burgeoning neighbourhood. Notable: artist James McLeod’s trellis of figure eights.
In the early 19th century, Bellamy and Kingston was home to an inn built by Jonathan Gates on top of the Scarborough Bluffs. On December 5, 1837, it served as a rallying point for the militia aiming to defend Toronto against William Lyon Mackenzie and his rebels. Their forces were mar-shalled nearby, in a gully that today bears Gates’s name and wends through some of the Bluffs’s most impressive wilderness and geological wonders. It’s also one of the best trails for getting from the lake to the top of the Bluffs.
Some buildings in the city sport biowalls. U of T’s Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research has a microclimate. Designed by Germany’s Behnisch Architekten and Toronto’s architectsAlliance, the university’s decade-old home for genetic research boasts the most vitalizing atrium in the city – a winter garden of bamboo trees that have formed an impressively dense canopy some four metres high. At the base, wooden platforms and benches allow students and visitors to immerse themselves in the fantasy of being elsewhere.
A favourite hangout of birders, the steep rises and curving paths of one of the city’s most impressive stands of Carolinian forest have attracted wildlife of the two-wheeled variety, too – stunt-loving mountain bikers looking to literally push themselves to the edge.
In 1914, General Charles Bickford built a manor house called Ranelagh Park on the Scarborough Bluffs. In 1932, Rosa and Spencer Clark made it the home of their arts and crafts collective. The Clarks were lovers of architecture, too, and starting in the 1950s they made room on the grounds for the ornamental relics of some of our Beaux Arts buildings demolished during the modernist building boom. Among the ruins are bits of the Bank of Toronto reassembled into a Temple of Heaven.
Part of the old village of Chester that, along with Todmorden, made up present-day north Riverdale, this little slice of Torontopia offers one of the best views of the city skyline (and the Brick Works) you didn’t know existed. It’s easy to get to by bike: it’s on one of the few streets with a contraflow lane, although it seems city planners never intended this dead end to become a local attraction. BlogTO calls it one of the top 10 places to make out in Toronto, but it could use a little cleaning up – a bench and a garbage can wouldn’t hurt either. There used to be one but it was removed, causing visitors to toss their empty water bottles, coffee cups and cigarette butts over the side. Don’t miss the astrology wheel chalk-work by local artist Victor Fraser and the secret foot trail leading into the valley on the lookout’s north side. But don’t step on a neighbour’s front yard if you’re inclined to explore!
Marooned by rapid development, and squeezed between highway ramps, Richview Cemetery, which contains the graves of many of Etobicoke’s founding families, is Toronto’s oddest resting place. The oldest monument records the death of Ann Garbutt in 1856, but one anonymous headstone marks the remains of someone born in 1778 and buried in 1853, the same year William and Sarah Knaggs donated property just south of the cemetery to build the Richview Methodist Church. Both church and cemetery would eventually be overwhelmed by construction of the 427.
The original resting place for the city’s Irish Catholics, St. Michael’s is the city’s oldest Catholic cemetery as well as one of the Toronto’s least known. Consecrated in 1855, it was filled up quickly after the Irish potato famine. Hidden behind storefronts on Yonge just south of St. Clair, the grounds extend west to Avenue and are accessible by appointment only – unless you happen by when gardeners are working. Distinguishing feature: the octagonal “winter vault” used to store dead bodies in winter when ground was too hard to bury them. It was designed by architect Joseph Sheard, the 19th mayor of Toronto whose other designs include the Cherry Street hotel.
On a street full of Victorian-style brick, it stands ornately covered in terracotta tiles. Terracotta House was built in 1905 by John Turner, who owned a construction business in the late 1800s and reportedly covered the house with leftover materials from another project as a way to promote his business. “The display seems not to have had the desired effect,” states an excerpt from Terra Cotta Artful Deceivers, published by the Toronto Region Architectural Conservancy in 1990. As tacky as the house might seem, it won’t be demolished any time soon. It’s on Toronto’s Inventory of Heritage Properties.
Based on the cubes made famous by Dutch architect Piet Blom, this replica erected at Sumach and Eastern was intended to be incorporated into an affordable-housing project in the port lands back in 1996. Ben Kutner, the Ottawa-based architect who bought the rights to Blom’s design, tried to sell the idea as a way to build affordable housing on too-small, hard-to-develop spaces. The “cube-on-its-point” design resembles a tree (hence the name UniTri) and works on the same thermal chimney concept that keeps forests cool. But the idea proved too radical for city planners. And a court fight has turned the property around the site into a parking lot – which in Toronto can only mean condos are imminent.
Leslieville’s doll- and stuffed-animal-covered house is so famous it was written about in the UK’s Daily Mail (in fairness, they’ll write about anything). Owner Shirley Sumaisar reportedly began showcasing the collection after the death of her husband. And the neighbours? Well, some have been able to snag lower prices on their homes on account of the display.
The Cork House
While recovering from a serious construction accident in 1994, Albino Carreira decided to embellish the mailbox in front of his house. He’d collected pieces of cork and coins, and a friend who worked at a pool-cue factory gave him warped sticks that couldn’t be sold. After completing the mailbox, Carreira moved on to other parts of his home’s exterior, eventually covering the entire porch, front door and fence. Along with thousands of cork pieces, the house displays plastic toys, painted wooden ornaments, framed art, beaded garlands and pretty much whatever Carreira can get his hands on. It’s undoubtedly made Seaton Village a little more colourful and magical.
Before Vancouver-based Fluevog moved to its current location in 2015, the building housed a TD bank with a vault in the back. After brainstorming about the nine-square-metre space, designers decided to turn it into a gravity room (aka an upside-down room) based on a vintage photo of store founder John Fluevog that hangs in every store. Featured: a Victorian-style loveseat and a bookshelf turned 90-degrees counterclockwise. “Everyone has a phone nowadays, and the vault really invites people to get creative with it,” says Fluevog’s Alison Tan. Feel like floating? The room is open to the public. See the photos on Instagram using the #VogVault hashtag.
The Biblio-mat at the back of the Monkey’s Paw could be mistaken for something from a Wes Anderson movie set. It’s actually a coin-operated vending machine that dispenses randomly selected old books. Created by Craig Small, it was specifically designed for the antiquarian bookshop as an alternative to the ubiquitous discount bins found at most second-hand stores. Every book is $2, and when a coin is inserted, the machine vibrates as mechanical pulleys are set in motion. The sound of a vintage telephone ringing is followed by the thud of a book being ejected.
Each of the two single-user, gender-neutral washrooms at this year-old Kensington Market shop features a lone unmarked button affixed to the wall. Were this not a guide to Toronto secrets, to describe what happens next would constitute a spoiler. So, spoiler alert: each button temporarily transforms the washroom into a nightclub, cutting the overhead lights and blasting songs from wall-mounted speakers. The disco-themed washroom on the left becomes bathed in blue light refracting off a spinning mirrored ball. The house-music-themed washroom on the right is illuminated by sinister red neons that throb in time with the beat. Fans of urban whimsy will be moved in ways you didn’t know a washroom could move you.
This cheerful, reassuring sign that hangs over an empty storefront at the Galleria mall is by artist Fraser McCallum, and it was part of Gallery Galleria, an art show and seniors’ fashion show, curated by Aisle 4, that happened at the mall in May. Because photos of that show now hang inside, the mall’s senior property manager, Peter McCallion, says the sign will stay up until another business leases the space. “It’s sort of an upbeat message, so we decided to keep it up,” he says. “It applies to everything – life in general.”
Bizarre vestiges of a time when then-mayor David Miller thought it’d be a good idea to outsource Toronto’s pedestrian infrastructure to a billboard company, Astral Media’s self-cleaning pay toilets were supposed to fulfill a genuine need. But like many elements of the Astral street furniture contract (including those waste receptacles with the pedals that don’t work), things did not go as planned. The automatic toilets are challenging to maintain, freeze up in the winter and are difficult to accommodate on the sidewalk. They cost 25 cents to use, when they function at all. Originally, 20 were supposed to be installed, but the rollout fell behind schedule. In 2013, the city reduced Astral’s obligation to a total of nine toilets, in exchange for a $5 million payout that was used to rescue Toronto’s bike-share program. In theory, the remaining six are still on the way.
Streets Are for People, the now dormant group dedicated to “engaging citizens and governments through creative and playful street actions,” made points about the absurdity of car culture via some of T.O.’s most imaginative street theatre. It all start-ed in 2006 with the Kensington garden car, built from the hull of an old sedan and filled with soil and donated plants. Put out to pasture in 2012 after a number of brushes with the law and a local tow truck, the original was donated to the PACT Grow-To-Learn Schoolyard Gardening Program and was replaced by a newer garden car (it cost only $200, according to organizers) that sits proudly at the south-west corner of Augusta and Oxford reminding passersby that the revolution will not be motorized.
Want to add to our map? Get in touch: email email@example.com, tweet @nowtoronto or leave us a message in the comments below! This piece was originally published on August 17, 2016. It was updated October 25, 2016.