Hidden Toronto: CNE Coliseum

One of the first buildings erected to showcase events at the CNE, the Coliseum remains an architectural standout, albeit a blemished one


Nick Lachance

What 

The CNE Coliseum

Where

Manitoba Avenue, CNE grounds

Why you should check it out

The Exhibition Place grounds rarely gets its due when it comes to architectural heritage. Candy floss and amusement rides? Sure. 

But the grounds dedicated to the Canadian National Exhibition is home to perhaps the most impressive collection of turn of the 20th-century Beaux Art buildings – and some modern classics – you’ll find within a few blocks radius anywhere in the city.

Among the more impressive examples is the CNE Coliseum, which was originally constructed in 1921 as a showcase livestock competitions. 

It was one of two buildings – the other was the Pure Food building – erected at the time to when it was known as the Toronto Industrial Exhibition.

Back then, most events were held in smaller buildings and tents on the fairgrounds. The Princes’ Gates wouldn’t be completed until five years later.

Today, however, the Coliseum forms part of the Enercare Centre, part of a massive redevelopment of the grounds in the late 90s that has added to the mix of buildings and, in the eyes of critics, has taken away from the distinctive character of the architecture of the original CNE grounds. 

To be sure, there was much fanfare surrounding the Coliseum’s construction, which was approved by a plebiscite of Toronto voters in 1920. 

cocacolacoliseum.com

At the time, the city was looking for an architect who could design and build the facility for under $1 million. It was a big ask, even back then. The project had to be scaled back to meet the financial target.

The Montreal firm selected for the project worked with the city’s in-house architects G.F.W. Price and J.J. Woolnough to come up with design. The result was the largest indoor exhibition grounds on the planet at the time, covering more than 4 hectares. The name was meant to evoke the grandeur of the ancient ruins in Rome of the same name. The detailed brick work and towers rising above either side of the main building announced its presence on the west side of the grounds. A wooden boardwalk and park benches out front made for a picture perfect scene.

Its official opening in 1921 was attended by 5,000 people. According to a Toronto Star article at the time visitors were treated to an “athletic meet” put on by the Sportsmen Patriotic Association.

The ring at the centre of the original building sat some 6,200 people. On April 4, 1922, it was the venue for the Johnny Dundee and Jimmy Goodrich boxing match that set an attendance record for sports events in Toronto. Some 12,000 spectators packed the building to standing room only to take in the event. (Goodrich lost in a 10-round split decision.) Additions would be built in 1926.

During the Second World War, the Coliseum was used as a training base for the Canadian Air Force. Bob Hope, Spike Johns and Wayne and Shuster performed for the troops.

Post-war, the arena played host to some of the best-known rock acts of the day. The Doors, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Genesis, Vanilla Fudge and Eric Burdon and The Animals all played the venue in the 60s. 

The building has undergone a number of name changes and incarnations since, including the refurbishing of its southern facade in the late 1990s to its original state after it was clad in siding. The roof was raised and the floor lowered in 2004 to increase the seating capacity in the building to 9,700.

More recently, windows were replaced. It’s also acquired a corporate name. It’s now known as the Coca-Cola Coliseum and the home of the American Hockey League Toronto Marlies. It’s one of three corporate names it’s had in recent years.

In 1997 it became part of the newly built Enercare Centre, whose opening marked the arrival of large-scale development on the CNE grounds, including BMO Field opened in 2007 and Hotel X in 2018.

The trend has been worrying for architectural critics and heritage preservationists for dwarfing older buildings and bringing more car-oriented development to the grounds. A master plan for the entire CNE is currently under discussion. The city had been planning to tie redevelopment of the site to provincial plans for Ontario Place. Now that those have been released, what it will mean for the Ex grounds remains to be seen.

The Coliseum continues to be home to various events held during the CNE as well as the Royal Canadian Horse Show during the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. It remains a standout, albeit a slightly blemished one, 100 years after it was erected. 

cocacolacoliseum.com
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Hidden Toronto is a weekly feature exploring the city’s alternative history through contemporary landmarks.

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2 responses to “Hidden Toronto: CNE Coliseum”

  1. I saw the Jam and Elvis Costello there in separate shows in the 1980’s. Talk Talk was the opening act at one of the shows but I can’t remember for whom.

  2. I’m enjoying your Hidden Toronto columns and their history content. (Perhaps this subject would make a good book?)
    Your mention of the RCAF using the Coliseum during WWII reminded me that my father told us that he had stayed at the CNE for a short period. I think that it was between signing up and being sent to Clinton for training in radar. I’m pretty sure that he said that he slept in the Horse Palace. He found it quite amusing.

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