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This low-key architectural gem is a monument to an era when city builders thought civic infrastructure should have character
By Kevin Ritchie
Aug 22, 2021
Parkdale Pumping Station
71 The Queensway at Glendale
The R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant is an Art Deco icon and an architectural landmark on the eastern waterfront. But on the other side of town stands another, lesser-known water station designed by the same architect, Scottish-born Thomas Canfield Pomphrey: the Parkdale Pumping Station.
Built in the early 1950s as part of the city’s decades-long Water Works Extension, the minimal, red-brick tower is a monument to changing attitudes around civic infrastructure in Toronto.
R.C. Harris, the longest-serving works commissioner in Toronto’s history, is credited with shaping much of the city we still recognize today. He’s remembered as a driven yet self-absorbed city builder whose tendency toward visionary grandeur left a distinctive mark.
He died of a heart attack in 1945. So he would never lay eyes on the Parkdale Pumping Station – nor would Pomphrey. Originally designed in 1938, it would be the architect’s final project for the Water Works Extension before he returned to Scotland in 1947, years before the tower’s completion in the early 1950s.
The Parkdale Pumping Station consists of the cylindrical surge tower, which was designed by Pomphrey, and the pumping station building, which was not.
“The pump station is total 1950s bland, no imagination,” says Katherine Taylor, a writer and blogger who has spent several years documenting Toronto buildings. “All they did was match the brick to the surge tower. Harris’s great civic vision of beautifying the civic infrastructure is evident in the surge tower but the pump station is what the city would do on its own.”
The author of the forthcoming book Toronto: City Of Commerce 1800-1960, Taylor believes a focus on contracting out streetscape projects to low-cost bidders who don’t experience Toronto on foot is filling the city with “street junk.”
In contrast, Parkdale’s surge tower was a visual marker for the water works extension, albeit a low-key one.
It was part of a filtration tunnel that ran via another surge tower on John Street (later demolished to make way for the SkyDome) to the water treatment plant on Victoria Park. Each tower looked different: Parkdale was round and John Street was octagonal.
“There’s no reason they should’ve been different but that’s another great detail,” explains Taylor. “Each is distinctive in its own way. [Harris and Pomphrey] were highlighting each tower’s importance to its site. They’re not just lining the street with the same lamp post.”
In case you need further evidence of Toronto’s bureaucratic blandness, she suggests comparing the original Pomphrey-designed John Street surge tower (below) with this image of the one that later replaced it.
he four towers designed for the R. C. Harris Toronto Water Works Extension project,
“You can see the contrast between what our modern city has done with these projects and what the original plan was – even for a bare-bones surge tower.”
Plans for the Parkdale Pumping Station date back to 1913 but the project was continually delayed. Eventually, population growth in the late 1940s forced city council to prioritize building it as demand for water threatened to outstrip capacity.
The tower would expand Toronto’s water capacity from 85,000,000 gallons daily to 185,000,000 gallons – enough to supply the entire city for “several years,” the Globe And Mail reported at the time.
Today, Taylor describes the visual appeal of the surge tower – which conceals a regulating chamber for water pressure variations – as mysterious.
“I grew up in the west end. It’s maybe the first building that appealed to me as a building,” she says. “It looked like a monument from a different culture. It’s quite striking even though it’s minimal in details and ornamental flourishes.”
Where Taylor sees monument, others see ad dollars.
In 2002, the city denied an advertising company’s request to wrap the Parkdale Pumping Station tower in vinyl siding that would have made it look like a giant juice can to passing motorists on the Gardiner Expressway.
In refusing the request, Heritage Preservation staff wrote that it’s important this unassuming water tower retain its low-key status: “This unique structure will be obscured by the proposed signage and will cease to exist as a heritage landmark.”
Hidden Toronto is a weekly feature exploring the city’s alternative history through contemporary landmarks.
Kevin has worked in journalism for 20 years, first as a general assignment reporter before being sucked into the glamorous life that is arts and entertainment coverage. Kevin now contributes to music, tv, film and culture.