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On the left, Commissioner of Public Works, R.C. Harris and George Rogers in Toronto.Arthur Goss

His familiar initials, R.C., are indelibly linked to the city's magnificent art deco water-treatment plant, the Bloor viaduct and Michael Ondaatje's 1987 best-seller, In the Skin of a Lion.

But Rowland Caldwell Harris – who began a 33-year term as works commissioner a century ago this week – left his civic fingerprints all over Toronto, building hundreds of kilometres of sidewalks, sewers, paved roads, streetcar tracks, public baths and washrooms, landmark bridges and even the precursor plans to the GO commuter rail network.

"The significance of Harris a hundred years later is that we're still living fundamentally in the city he imagined," observes Dalhousie architecture professor Steven Mannell, who studies his career and has advised city officials on an extensive rehabilitation of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, due to be finished next year.

Mr. Harris famously added a second deck to the Prince Edward Viaduct in anticipation of a subway line that wasn't built for decades. What's less well known is that Mr. Harris was a photo buff who, in 1930, presided over the city's first planning exercise – a process that led to construction of congestion-easing arterials such as Dundas Street East and the parkway extension of Mount Pleasant through Rosedale and up towards St. Clair.

Unlike his predecessors, he insisted on high architectural and landscaping quality in the design of his works projects. He regarded structures such as the St. Clair Reservoir, built in the late 1920s, in both aesthetic and functional terms.

A reformer who emerged in an era when many big cities were trying to professionalize their bureaucracies, Mr. Harris's career began at a time when Toronto was experiencing unprecedented growth pressures, notes Wayne Reeves, director of the City of Toronto's museums. Between 1905 and 1912, the population grew by 72 per cent and the area of the city expanded by 76 per cent due to annexations.

Mr. Harris, who served as the city's lead commissioner, was a portly, cigar-smoking, avuncular figure who was frequently quoted and caricatured in the newspapers of the day. Prof. Mannell says he relied on an extensive network of contacts to advance his agenda.

But he also had the decidedly non-bureaucratic habit of carrying a state-of-the-art camera with him at all times. A family photo album recently lent to the Toronto Archives shows he enjoyed taking portraits as well as action shots at sporting events, landscapes and images of cities he visited while travelling abroad. (Some of Mr. Harris's private photos will be on display at the Toronto Archives during Doors Open next week.)

Mr. Harris, in fact, hired Arthur Goss, a fine art photographer, to document the city's works projects and living conditions in poor areas. In his novel, Mr. Ondaatje latched on to this detail to render a fictionalized version of Mr. Harris as a self-aggrandizing bureaucrat preoccupied with building monuments to his own legacy.

Born in Lansing (now North York) in 1875, Mr. Harris grew up near Toronto's first city hall, on King Street, where his mother had a job as a cleaner. He worked as a reporter briefly before joining the city, where his superiors quickly saw his administrative skills and began promoting him through increasingly important positions, including stints as commissioner of streets and property.

Early in his married life, Mr. Harris and his wife Alice Ingram lived in an apartment in the "new" City Hall, E.J. Lennox's monumental brownstone that was completed in 1899 amidst scandal. The huge structure looked out over a densely populated slum district – known as "The Ward" and now the site of Nathan Phillips Square – infamous for its shacks, poor immigrants and fetid "privies."

While living at City Hall, the couple had three children, one of whom died in infancy, in January, 1906, due to complications from a strep-related infection.

At the time, the child mortality rate in Toronto was very high because of cholera epidemics, contaminated milk and other water-borne illnesses.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Mr. Harris threw himself into the task of modernizing the city's water treatment system from the moment he took over as works commissioner. He quickly identified Victoria Park, on Queen Street East, as the ideal location for a landmark filtration plant, although the current structure wasn't built until the 1930s.

He also worked closely with several other crusading figures – Charles Hastings, the city's medical officer of health, and civil engineer George Nasmith – to purify the water supply and provide better sanitary facilities for the poor. By the early 1920s, the city's mortality rates had plummeted due to their efforts. "He was always looking at preventative approaches," says Mr. Reeves.

When North Toronto residents threatened to de-amalgamate over complaints about inadequate sewage treatment in the late 1920s, Mr. Harris responded by building the North Toronto Sewage Treatment plant, nestled in the Don Valley. It still operates.

Prof. Mannell notes that it's unlikely a towering and outspoken figure like Mr. Harris, who died of a heart attack in 1945, would thrive in public service today, given years of political attacks on civil servants at all three levels of government.

But Mr. Harris belonged to a very different generation of bureaucrats who "saw city-building as a project not to be done three or five years at a time, but a generation at a time," he adds, noting that those officials, many of whom held the same position for decades, often found themselves at odds with parsimonious politicians who cycled in and out of city hall on narrow mandates.

"He was a civic official who saw himself as a co-equal to council."

The Toronto Archives will have a display of R.C. Harris documents and artifacts at Doors Open next Saturday, May 26. In mid-September, the city will celebrate his career with an exhibit, entitled The Water Czar, at The Market Gallery, St. Lawrence Market.

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