Back when photography was expensive, architects or building owners rarely documented every little detail. Therefore, even the folks responsible for the care and maintenance of Canada’s great buildings, such as Toronto’s Union Station, can be forgiven for not providing future generations with full photographic records of its myriad parts.
This, of course, makes the task of recreating lost details all the more challenging. Take the exterior lighting at Union Station, for example: While it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly when the original 1920s fixtures were removed – I have squinted at 1970s-era postcards and thought I’d spotted them, but then, in another, they appear to be gone – it’s likely they were gone by the 1980s, and for the simple reason that decades of acid rain had finally corroded the cast iron beauties beyond repair.
It’s too bad those 1970s employees didn’t warehouse the remaining rusty bits should anyone in the 2010s want to push a measuring tape against them. “Well, absolutely,” industrial/lighting designer John Garrett of Lighting Nelson and Garrett Inc., says with a laugh at the thought. “I just can’t believe that they would’ve disappeared off the face of the earth – maybe they’re in somebody’s garden somewhere.”
However, you won’t hear exasperation in the voice of the 66-year-old Niagara Falls resident: “It gets me more motivated,” he says of the Union Station project, which wraps this month, lighting-wise, when the last two fixtures are mounted. “It’s really cool to be able to work on stuff like that.”
And you won’t see a furrowed brow on his partner, Christopher Nelson, who cut his teeth at age five in his father’s Port Colborne, Ont., lighting shop. “I really get a charge out of this stuff,” says the 64-year-old, thinking back to 1997 when Herbert Nelson helped the duo restore the lanterns at College Park (the lanterns were designed by Herbert’s father, Samuel, in the 1920s). “I do feel like we … serve a purpose in keeping the history of the city alive.”
But when that history is quite dead, what to do? Thankfully, the word from the City of Toronto, project leader NORR, and others associated with the Union Station Revitalization Project, was “do what you must.”
So, the men first gathered up what documentation they could, some from local archives, and some from the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal (since Montreal firm Ross and Macdonald were involved in the creation of the Beaux-Arts building along with Toronto’s John M. Lyle). For the two massive hanging lanterns at each portico, a lone architectural drawing existed; for the pairs of wall-mounted lanterns at the east and west doorways (one labeled “Postal Station A,” the other “Railway Offices”), the duo found one very good photograph titled “Detail of Post Office Entrance”; for the nine post fixtures to be placed along the ramp, there was, again, one good photograph, “Detail of Ramp Rail” and three good 1919 blueprints to study … however, for the bas-relief on each post’s lighting box, the sketch of a winged creature and some sort of rose was incomplete, with only the frustrating note “See Model” written over top. And of course that model was long gone.
“I couldn’t figure out what this flying thing was, this flying lioness, I’d never heard of it before … so I started Googling winged griffins and winged lions and came up with a lot of information,” Mr. Garrett says. The rose was determined to be a Tudor rose when Mr. Garrett brought his sketches to the wood carver, Barry Casement in Welland, Ont., to have the panel created in three dimensions.
The intricate pieces that would hold up that winged lioness and Tudor rose – and all of the pieces that would create the other fixtures – had to be drawn up as well before they could go to the pattern maker, but it wasn’t easy. “None of the details [on the original drawings] were worked out; there was no information on how these things should go together, it was just what the architect had in mind for them to look like, proportionally,” Mr. Garrett says. “You could see ghost-images and his stages of thought … we had to re-engineer the things.”
After countless hours poring over enlarged drawings, magnifying glasses in hand, and site visits to determine scale – the size of the limestone blocks helped, as did discoloured limestone where original mounting hardware had sat, and, surprisingly, the blacksmith-forged chains for the hanging lanterns remained attached to the building – new and intricate architectural drawings were created. These were then taken to pattern maker Simon Schofield in St. George, Ont.
“It was amazing to meet someone with that much knowledge of how things were done at the turn of the [previous] century,” Mr. Garrett says. Mr. Schofield even taught the foundry a few tricks on how to use leather during the sand-casting process.
Before creating the 15 fixtures, however, Nelson & Garrett suggested to the architects and heritage consultants that aluminum be used instead of iron. “And Everybody’s jaw just dropped,” Mr. Garrett remembers with a laugh. When asked to explain why, Mr. Garrett said: “If they’d been made out of aluminum to begin with, they would’ve still been standing, they wouldn’t have rotted.” As an added advantage, the weight would be but a fraction of the originals.
At Nelson & Garrett’s big shop in south Etobicoke, Mr. Nelson hands your humble Architourist a few of the cast aluminum pieces to demonstrate. They look a lot heavier than they are. A few paces to my left, the pattern maker’s pieces are laid out, including Mr. Casement’s carved panel; some come apart like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle any architectural aficionado would love to play with. Mr. Nelson now shows me the modern guts that will inhabit the wall lantern’s interior, but points out that individual, round LED bulbs will mimic the glow of original incandescents. “Now you might say, ‘Why would you do all this when you can just put a big LED tube in here and let it glow?’” he says. “Well, I sort of insisted on it … I’ve had to fight with electrical engineers on heritage jobs.”
A challenging job, yes, and perhaps a few fights, but Nelson & Garrett wouldn’t have it any other way. “We feel lucky, we’ve gotten to work on so many fantastic buildings, new and old,” Mr. Nelson finishes.
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