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Visiting Union Station, Toronto, Ontario: pillared, Beaux Arts splendour ... and disgrace averted

Updated on May 14, 2012
Provincial flag of Ontario
Provincial flag of Ontario | Source
The Great Hall of Union Station, Toronto
The Great Hall of Union Station, Toronto | Source
Union Station, Toronto, Ontario
Union Station, Toronto, Ontario | Source
Cloudy CN Tower, Union Station, Toronto
Cloudy CN Tower, Union Station, Toronto | Source

Joint creation of G. H. Ross & R. H. Macdonald, Hugh Jones and John M. Lyle, now dwarfed by the CN Tower

5AM at Toronto's Union Station. It's a time for almost unconscious reflection and for the obscure entertaining of subliminal reverberations, when the night comes full circle. When the mumbled, reflexive responses of rail and catering staff: 'Have a nice night!' become: 'Have a nice day!' again.

Planning and work began on Toronto's Union Station during World War One, with completion in 1920 formally marked by its official opening in 1927. Edward, Prince of Wales presided over its inauguration; in attendance also were Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, Ontario Lieutenant-Governor W D Ross, Ontario Premier Howard Ferguson, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, and many other dignitaries.

The partnership of G. H. Ross and R. H. Macdonald (1), from Montreal, the Canadian Pacific architect Hugh Jones and John M. Lyle of Toronto were the architects who shared responsibility for this great building, designated a National Historic Site of Canada. A combination of Bedford, Queenston and Indiana limestone was used in construction. A noted feature is a series of 22, 12-metre pillars at Union Station's Front Street main entrance. A tunnel walkway connects the Station with the historic Royal York Hotel, which stands opposite the building. The Great Hall, as the ticket lobby has come to be known, has Tennessee marble flooring and is 76 metres long and, at its highest, its height is 27 metres. The walls of the Great Hall are faced with Zumbro stone and its vast ceiling has Guastavino tiling. The main access from the Great Hall to the train departure area is through an ornate, pillared entrance.

Tours of Union Station are regularly available, and I was fascinated to walk with a tour around many areas of this remarkable building and see it from angles which regular passengers would find unusual.

The Prince of Wales's comment about Union Station being on a scale of splendour comparable to a British cathedral, is often recalled. The edifice is indeed cavernous; and more travellers pass through Union Station every day than through Toronto Pearson Airport, Canada's largest. Annually, with the combined GO Train, VIA Rail and TTC (2) passenger numbers, the station has over 68 million passengers.

If Canada's motto is 'From sea to sea', then this great terminus for rail links reaching two oceans is, I suppose, a kind of symbolic, permanent fulfilment of good old Sir John A. Macdonald's Continental aspirations. I still do not cease to be impressed by the arrivals board at Union Station indicating the expected arrival of the Vancouver service.

Right, so the writer has done the 'splendour' part, some readers will be thinking. What about the 'disgrace' bit in the title?

Herein lies the disgrace: concerning this splendid and historic example of Canadian architecture, the now unbelievable proposal was made in a prominent Toronto newspaper that it should be demolished, and something in concrete be put in its place. In the 1970s, even the boards of the railway companies using the Station thought this cathedral-sized act of vandalism would be a good idea. Only a public outcry averted this sorry outcome.

But these proposals gave true evidence both of an iconoclastic and inward-looking strand of thought locally, and of the failure of administrators to grasp the national heritage element of their vocation, as stewards of such an architectural gem of historic importance to Canada. Such thinking — or failure to think — leaves this writer perpetually gasping for breath, metaphorically speaking. Allow me my two cents' as a Canadian, to whom Union Station is not unfamiliar very early in the morning, and let me tell you that a subliminal shock often reverberates in my mind at the notion that there were those who wanted to destroy it.

5AM at Union Station. It's a time for almost unconscious reflection.


(1) The Ross and Macdonald partnership was also responsible for the Royal York Hotel, Toronto, the Château Laurier, Ottawa, and many other well-known buildings.

(2) Amtrak and Ontario Northland also use the station.

Also worth seeing

From Union Station, a walkway known as the SkyWalk connects to the world famous CN Tower, which may sometimes be seen looming above Union Station while partially obscured by clouds: such is its height, at 553 metres. A few of the outstanding sights in Toronto include: the Royal York Hotel, Old City Hall, Osgoode Hall, Campbell House, the Ontario Legislative Assembly Building at Queen's Park, and many others.


How to get there: Porter Airlines, flies to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, with wide North American connections. Car rental is available at Union Station. Air Canada flies to Toronto Pearson Airport, with wide North American and other connections, from where car rental is available. However, visitors to Downtown Toronto will find many sights to be easily walkable. Some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. For up to date information, you are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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