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Archeologists dig into the Canadian National Exhibition parking lot in front of the Direct Energy Centre in mid-November. The team is excavating the foundations of the 1840s enlisted men’s barracks. (Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail)
Archeologists dig into the Canadian National Exhibition parking lot in front of the Direct Energy Centre in mid-November. The team is excavating the foundations of the 1840s enlisted men’s barracks. (Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail)

Redevelopment

New hotel at CNE to tell story of early Toronto Add to ...

A new hotel to be built on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto will give visitors a rare glimpse of the city’s military history by incorporating the archeological remains of an old barracks long buried under a parking lot.

In an unusual move for a North American real estate development, an extensive portion of the one-metre-thick stone foundation walls of the building – constructed in the 1840s to house hundreds of British soldiers – will be covered with glass just adjacent to the hotel.

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Construction on the 26-storey hotel, owned by New York boutique chain HK Hotels, will start next year and will likely be completed by 2015.

Right now, the site is part of the vast CNE parking lot. But just a few feet underground are the foundations of what was once a massive military establishment. Known initially as the New Fort, then the Stanley Barracks, it was built to take the pressure off Toronto’s original military garrison, Fort York, which is about a kilometre away.

The Stanley Barracks had a different fate from the older Fort York, which was extensively preserved and has become one of Toronto’s key tourist attractions. After British troops left Canada in the 1870s, the Stanley Barracks were used to train members of the North-West Mounted Police and the military, and it briefly functioned as emergency postwar housing in the late 1940s. But most of the buildings were torn down in the early 1950s to make room for CNE parking, leaving just the foundations under the surface. The only remaining building, the officers quarters, today stands alone in the middle of the parking lot, barely hinting at what was once a complex of six large stone buildings, many smaller buildings, and a parade square.

When the CNE asked for proposals for a hotel on its grounds a few years ago, the exhibition and the city told developers that they would have to preserve some of the archaeological foundations sitting under the parking lot, said Dianne Young, chief executive officer of Exhibition Place. “We said: Don’t think you are just going to dig a big hole and throw everything out.”

HK Hotel’s proposal won the bidding process, partly because of the sensitive way its plans incorporated what is left of the Stanley Barracks, Ms. Young said.

Architect David Northcote, of the Toronto office of NORR Architects, has designed the hotel to accommodate the archaeological remains by placing most of the new building’s bulk to the edge of the site. The excavated foundation walls of the demolished barracks will be viewed below glass along a walkway leading to the hotel’s main entrance. The area around the still-standing officer’s quarters will be extensively landscaped.

“If you are approaching [the hotel] as a pedestrian, you will come across a walkway suspended over a glass cover, looking down on both sides into the archaeological foundations,” Mr. Northcote said. There will also be displays of artifacts that have been unearthed, and a pond will be positioned near where the shore of Lake Ontario was located for most of Stanley Barracks’ working life. The fort was built right on the lake, but the shore is now about 200 metres away.

The idea is to give visitors a sense of the scope and size of a large military installation that was an important part of the city’s life for more than a century. “It is an exciting project and it has been intriguing to work on it,” Mr. Northcote said. “I love the history aspect of it.”

He said his firm has done a lot of work designing structures that are connected to heritage structures – it is involved in the revitalization of Toronto’s Union Station, for example – but incorporating a large archaeological site is very rare in North America.

To find out what actually still remains underground, work is being performed on the site by Archaeological Services Inc., a Toronto firm that specializes in these kinds of digs. ASI first dug test trenches on the site a couple of years ago, and this year it has conducted a much more extensive excavation.

ASI has examined and documented many other archaeological sites in Toronto before new buildings were built, but in most cases the features were eventually destroyed by the new construction, president Ron Williamson said. “In this case, what is great is that the design of the hotel has been very sensitive to trying to protect a very intact archaeological feature that can help tell a story.”

Major archaeological excavations began this past spring, but the site was then filled with sand and covered with asphalt so cars could park there during the Honda Indy Toronto car race in the summer and the CNE in the fall. An area excavated in October and November will also be filled and covered temporarily, and then more archaeological work will be done in 2013, even after the construction begins on the adjacent hotel.

Eva MacDonald, senior archaeologist with ASI, said military maps of the site gave her team an idea of what was under the surface, “but you really don’t know [what is there] until you put a shovel in the ground.” The researchers were surprised to discover a massive coal cellar that was dug in the centre of the building years after it was built, and modifications to chimneys so coal could be burned rather than wood.

Artifacts such as pipes, ceramics, buttons and even a piece of chalk for a pool cue were found in the excavations.

Preserving these artifacts and the excavated walls “really will bring back that landscape,” Ms. MacDonald said. “People will be able to see how beautiful these foundations are. Right now the existing building is kind of an orphan. People don’t know why it is there. If they can recreate the New Fort though landscape, and interpret it to the public, it will definitely enhance the [hotel site].”

Under a parking lot

New Fort, later known as Stanley Barracks, occupied a prime piece of Toronto real estate, and that led to its ultimate demise and demolition.

The fort was built in the 1840s and was used mainly for military purposes over the next 110 years. But its location adjacent to the rapidly expanding Canadian National Exhibition sealed its fate, and in the 1950s most of the buildings were torn down and paved over.

A lobbying effort from historically-minded citizens managed to save just one building – the officers’ quarters – which today sits marooned in the middle of the CNE parking lot. “The officers’ quarters of Stanley Barracks has fought a long and hard battle for existence, and I’m glad that it will continue to be preserved, in one form or another, into the future,” said University of Western Ontario history professor Aldona Sendzikas, who has written a book about the history of the Stanley Barracks.

She noted that most visitors to the CNE have no idea what an important role the fort played in Toronto’s history.

“I am excited about the idea of the remains [of the fort] …being uncovered, preserved, and interpreted to the public as part of the current project. If done properly, it can be a tremendous contribution to the preservation of an important part of the story of Toronto.”

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