Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong is seeking to rename Union Station after Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. Mr. Minnan-Wong is right about one thing. Macdonald is not sufficiently honoured in Toronto, where he once lived. He has a high school and highway named after him, but everybody knows the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway as the plain old 401. With his 200th birthday coming up in a year, on Jan. 11, 2015, the Old Chieftain deserves more recognition.
But stripping Union Station of its historic name is the wrong way to give it. The grand edifice on Front Street has carried the same name since it opened in 1927. Renaming it, even for so worthy a figure, would be like New York renaming its Grand Central Terminal or Paris its Gare du Nord.
“Some politician trying to flush 150 years of history down the tubes doesn’t sit well with me,” says Derek Boles, chief historian of the Toronto Railway Museum. He notes that Toronto has had a Union Station since 1858, when the first one by that name opened west of York Street on what was then the waterfront.
When that proved too small for a growing city’s rising rail traffic, a second Union was built. Opening on July 1, 1873, it was a classic structure with three domed towers, the middle one a clock tower. After the turn of the century, even that was proving too small, and plans got under way for an even bigger station along a stretch of Front Street that had been razed by the Great Fire of 1904. After years of delays, the Beaux-Arts landmark with its cathedral-like passenger hall finally opened to the public on Aug. 11, 1927.
Mr. Minnan-Wong argues that the station’s name is not unique. Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly supported the idea, saying “there are lots of Union Stations sprinkled throughout North America. But if this goes through, there will be only one Sir John A. Macdonald Station, and that will be in the City of Toronto.”
Mr. Minnan-Wong says there are close to two dozen Union Stations around North America, from Dallas to Chicago to Washington. The name, he notes, was simply meant to label a station that two or more railway companies shared.
Yes, but this is our Union Station. The fact that Chicago has one doesn’t subtract from the resonance the name has in this city. Like the station, the name has become part of our urban story.
President Dwight Eisenhower arrived at Union Station on a visit during the Second World War. George VI passed through Union Station on the first visit of a reigning monarch to Canada. Thousands of soldiers tromped through Union Station on the way to war and waves of post-War immigrants from Europe arrived there.
More recently, the station has become the country’s busiest commuter hub, connecting the GO system with the subway. In that sense, the name is fitting. The station unites Toronto.
It’s true that Toronto’s other great gateway, the airport, has changed names during its lifetime, from Malton to Toronto International to Lester B. Pearson International. But Pearson has nothing like the history of Union. The airport’s original buildings are long gone, while Union Station is undergoing a massive refit that will modernize and expand it while retaining most of its original virtues. Experts in historical preservation are labouring to restore everything from the marble floors to the brass door fittings, at a cost of many millions.
It would be strange to go to all that trouble saving the historical features of this beautiful building just to turn around and erase its historic name. Honour John A., yes, but let Union Station stay Union Station.