It began as a safeguard and a refuge for the city. Now, Toronto's Fort York, a long-neglected patch of green between a highway and condo towers, is gaining a new life, both as a reminder of past battles and as a public space for the surrounding neighbourhoods.
Efforts to revive the city's only official national historic site as part of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 will get a major boost Thursday, with a $1-million gift from the W. Garfield Weston Foundation.
The gift will be announced at the kickoff of the city's bicentennial events and will be used to improve the parkland adjacent to the fort.
It begins a $7-million fundraising campaign that will also contribute to a new visitors centre – a $25-million glass and steel structure designed to evoke the bluffs of the Fort York escarpment that once marked the shore of Lake Ontario.
The fort is situated on 17.4 hectares of land, a huge expanse on the western edge of the downtown core. The buildings within the battlements are the favoured destination for school outings and history buffs. But the site also includes Garrison Common, a stretch of parkland where the final skirmishes of the Battle of York were fought in April of 1813 – a confrontation that saw the British forces retreat to Kingston after blowing up their ammunition stores just outside the fort in a last-ditch effort to repel the enemy.
"It's Toronto's premier historic site, but it's also an amazing urban green space," said Andrew Stewart, chair of the Fort York Foundation, a charity devoted to restoring and promoting the facility. "What we need is to bring more people to and through the site."
Mr. Stewart, an archeologist, said the property has enormous value as one of the largest undisturbed urban archeological sites in Canada, the location of British outposts since the 1790s and aboriginal settlements before that.
But getting the new visitors centre and improvements to the surrounding public space has come with its own battles. A push to have the centre ready for the bicentennial missed the mark. The city put the project out to tender just last week, and it is now expected to be completed by the end of 2013 or early 2014. The cost of the project also has ballooned, from the original estimates of between $15-million and $18-million to $25-million.
A planned footbridge to link the commons to the neighbourhoods at its doorstep also was nixed last year by Mayor Rob Ford and his budget-conscious allies on council. Plans are now in the works for a scaled-down version, said Councillor Mike Layton, who represents the area that includes the fort.
Mr. Stewart calls the new price tag "realistic," and said the city has worked hard to ensure there are no surprises.
Three levels of government have committed a total of $19-million in funding to the project, with the remainder coming from the foundation's campaign, which will begin in earnest this fall.
Geordie Dalglish, a board member of the Weston foundation, said the fort has a role to play in the evolution of the city. "It has the potential to become the place where the story of Toronto can be told," he said.
Mr. Layton, who confessed he once worked just steps from the vast commons without ever discovering it, said residents of his ward are beginning to use the area. "It's quite beautiful," he said. "It's very quiet and very calm," he added, except for when trains whiz by.
While some look to future uses, Ontario's former lieutenant-governor, James Bartleman, said Fort York and the Battle of York are an important reminder of the role Upper Canada's first nations played in fighting against the American forces.
Mr. Bartleman is a sixth-generation descendent of one of the 70 Ojibwa and Mississauga warriors who were camping near the fort when the American fleet sailed past on that April day in 1813, on its way to land in Humber Bay. Sharpshooters from that group, he said, hid in the bushes by the river and repelled the first wave of Americans who disembarked.
"I am very proud of what my ancestor did," he said.
Andy Pringle, chair of the fundraising campaign, said he believes the site – which he points out is about twice as large as Queen's Park – can be a destination for the entire city and a unique space for the nearby community after being "hidden away for years."
"The fort is what saved the city," he said. "I think a great, diverse city like Toronto needs to know what its history is."