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The Prince of Wales arrives to cut the ceremonial opening ribbon in 1927, as seen in the new virtual exhibit Uncovering Union: Four Stations One City.

Courtesy Toronto Railway Museum

It was certainly an impressive sight: row-upon-row of old, chipped, concrete columns, stretching so far into the dank, dark distance, it could’ve been the catacombs of Rome. Except I was standing underneath Front Street, hard-hatted and open-eared, as representatives from Toronto’s Union Station painted a picture of the retail paradise that this cavern was to become.

Even back then, in 2011, I couldn’t help but think: “Why is all the attention being placed on the subterranean experience? All of this money and we’re creating a shopping mall underneath one of the city’s most beautiful rooms.”

That room, of course, is the Great Hall. Eighty metres long, 27 metres high and bookended by four-storey arched windows, it’s an architectural wonder. It is, arguably, Irish-born and Yale-educated architect John M. Lyle’s most precious gift to his adopted city.

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The Great Hall, designed by Yale-educated architect John M. Lyle.

Courtesy Toronto Railway Museum

And while I hadn’t read it then, turns out that Stephen Henighan, writing for Toronto Life in 2010, agreed. The goal of the revitalization, he wrote, “doesn’t seem to be to connect passengers with the city, but to burrow them even deeper underground.”

The Great Hall, he continued, had been “doughnuted” in much the same way historic downtowns across Ontario were left to fester while the suburban areas ringing around them thrived. The plan, which would “drain people away from the Great Hall” should have done the opposite, like at Victoria Station in London, former mayor John Sewell said in Mr. Henighan’s piece: “A first-rate plan would stream people through the Great Hall. If you walk through places of great beauty every day, your life is beautiful.”

The Great Hall, bookended by four-storey arched windows.

Courtesy Toronto Railway Museum

A decade later and the revitalization is a fait accompli. So, to find a time when the Great Hall was truly great, we must turn to a new virtual exhibit, Uncovering Union: Four Stations One City, on now at the Toronto Railway Museum. Live since April 20, the exhibit tells nine very different stories about the iconic train station, which opened with great fanfare in the summer of 1927.

Indeed, the first story, The Royal Opening,” tells of the numerous delays (while construction began in 1915, the war, labour strikes and the city’s insistence that all outside infrastructure, such as approaches and viaducts, be completed before the station could open) that allowed the grand opening to line up with King Edward VIII’s Royal Tour. The Prince of Wales cut the ceremonial ribbon with “golden scissors” and paused, briefly, to listen to a choir of 60, before heading outside to thunderous cheers.

In “The RCAF War Painting,” we learn of contest-winning 21-year-old commercial artist Nancy Burden, and her 58-foot-by-27-foot mural that depicted Royal Canadian Air Force personnel “in a variety of roles.” While the painting was on display in the Great Hall from 1944 to 1947, its “current whereabouts have ultimately been lost.” Such a shame … perhaps recreating it could be a way to draw people back into the station? Interestingly, in another story, “The War Brides,” 1944 to 1947 was also how long a Red Cross reception centre lasted; its goal was to offer the tens of thousands of overseas brides a place to “catch their breath” or “meet new family members.”

And while my first trip out of Union took place in the late-1970s, I can’t say that I remember the station’s famous Red Caps. However, “Red Caps and Porters” reminds us that from the 1880s to the 1980s, the Red Caps hauled hatboxes, struggled with overloaded Samsonites and expertly guided passengers to the taxi stands with grace and dignity. From 150 in 1929 and dwindling to 24 by 1973, Red Caps (and porters) were often “highly educated” Black Canadians, who, sadly, encountered racism anyhow: “Black Porters were consistently called ‘George’ or ‘George’s boy,’” which referred to American George Pullman and his racist company policies.

Contest-winning 21-year-old commercial artist Nancy Burden is seen next to her 58-foot-by-27-foot mural depicting Royal Canadian Air Force personnel.

Courtesy Toronto Railway Museum

Interestingly, a good chunk of the exhibit covers the dark years of the 1960s and 70s, when Canadian National and Canadian Pacific wanted to demolish the station for a mega-development that included a new transportation hub at Queen’s Quay along with a phalanx of bland office towers, shops, schools and a communications tower (the only thing that actually got built). Using the all-too-familiar cry that the station “was outdated, falling apart and the cost to repair it was far too high,” the railway burghers underestimated not only the love Torontonians had for the grand old dame, but also that activism had “become a Toronto staple” with new citizen Jane Jacobs leading the charge on the street and alderman John Sewell at city hall.

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Although Union Station was declared a heritage building in 1975, that didn’t end controversy. In “Save Union Station,” the exhibit tackles the complicated years between 2000, when the City of Toronto purchased the building from the Toronto Terminals Railway Company, and 2006, when a highly criticized bidding process for revitalization work was cancelled due to the efforts of Save Union Station, a citizen group which counted Mr. Sewell as a member. Interestingly, one of the group’s concerns was “the bypassing of the Great Hall and how the plan focused on making the station a retail space.”

The final story, fittingly, tells the tale of the current construction efforts, starting with the “extensive dig” I witnessed, the multiple delays, and, of course, the ballooning budget.

While each story in Uncovering Union is somewhat short, over all the exhibit – prepared by masters of museum studies candidates at the University of Toronto along with historian Derek Boles – provides an interesting glimpse into the 90-plus year history of one of the city’s most iconic, and beloved, buildings.

To see the exhibit virtually, go to uncoveringuniontrm.com.

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