Seen from the cavernous hole cut into the north wall, there's a post-apocalyptic scenario being played out inside Maple Leaf Gardens. Demolition crews are ripping out the guts of the Gardens - for much of the 20th century one of Canada's undisputed cathedrals of hockey. The red and blue seats are gone, and so is the gondola where Foster Hewitt once feverishly called the play by play for Hockey Night in Canada. Piles of metal are pounded by a massive sheer-cutter and, elsewhere, chunks of concrete tumble down. A shower of sparks lights an upper corner.
Nobody said the rebirth of the Gardens would be easy. But, already, there's a Phoenix-like promise to the reinvention being carried out by Loblaw and Ryerson University, an exclusive Globe and Mail tour of the site reveals. Where once there was darkness, shards of light now pierce the upper storeys - tall vertical windows once blocked up by brick to allow for more seating have been returned to the original 1931 design by the legendary Montreal firm Ross and Macdonald Architects.
Next month, construction of new concrete floors will begin and the soaring space of the Gardens will permanently change.
A temporary steel truss has been constructed on all four walls to stabilize the building while it's stripped back to the perimeter walls. A monitoring device designed to indicate the slightest, potentially dangerous, movement in the original wall is connected to the BlackBerry of the project's structural engineer, Chris Andrews.
The new Gardens will accommodate a ground-floor grocery store equivalent in size to the 85,000 square foot store at Queens Quay and Jarvis. There will be underground parking for customers and an entrance at the corner of Carlton and Church Streets. Ryerson students will enter under the original marquis on Carlton Street into a double-storey atrium. Stairs lead up to a second storey of basketball and volleyball courts. The third floor, the attic of the Gardens, will be dedicated to playing hockey under a big domed roof constructed of steel trusses and girders - in what could become one of the most spectacular university rinks in the country.
And it's a prime example of the vertical design that is being considered as an alternative to sprawling arenas at the Lower Don Lands site.
The challenge faced by Loblaw architects Turner Fleischer and Ryerson's team of architects, Brisbin Brook Beynon, is how to maintain the powerful collective memory of the Gardens without giving into circus-like displays of artifacts.
"We feel that we have the weight of country on us to make sure we do things right," says Ryerson University president Sheldon Levy, who has an original red seat from Maple Leaf Gardens in his office. "I feel personally that people have a huge expectation that when they go in and see the Gardens that they'll have a feeling of 'Wow, they caught it.' "
The reinvented Maple Leaf Gardens is scheduled for completion in March 2011.