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Tour the work in progress as building’s past is honored and a new future is crafted

Scaffolding recently came down at the Don Jail, revealing the restoration of the 148-year-old building in Toronto. It is being repurposed as administrative offices for the new glass-exterior Bridgepoint hospital, left, and will reopen next spring.

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Father Time looks down from the keystone of the south main entrance. The historic Renaissance Revival-style structure opened in 1864 and was built of brick from the Toronto brickyards and stone from quarries along the Niagara Escarpment and in Ohio.

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At the time, the building was designed with progressive ideas for inmate physical and mental wellness. But over the years, overcrowding and its role as a place of execution gave the building a fearsome reputation. It closed as a jail in 1977.

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The interior rotunda of the building. Heritage finishes in about 20 per cent of the building have been retained and repaired, according to Greg Colucci, principal of Toronto-based Diamond Schmitt Architects, the joint architect on the Bridgepoint project along with HDR Inc. of Omaha, Neb.

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At the time of its construction, the jail was a showcase of local craftsmanship. Ironwork, including these decorative serpent cast-iron brackets, came mostly from Toronto’s St. Lawrence Foundry.

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The Don Jail’s centre pavilion – a half-octagonal rotunda featuring clerestory windows – was patterned on the design of a British prison in London.

Mario Madau

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The heritage conservation subconsultant on the project, +VG Architects will tell the building’s story with simple interpretative signs, so that readers as young as 7 can understand the evolution of the building.

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Some interior and exterior bars have been retained. The interpretive plan will tell the story of prisoners from breakfast to bedtime. But, as the jail has shared the site with community health-care facilities for most of its history, there will be stories of nurses, doctors and others, too.

Mario Madau

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Visitors will be allowed to visit the solitary isolation cells found beneath the stone staircases.

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On the lowest level, six jail cells have been retained to give the public a sense of former living conditions in the jail. A couple times a year the public will be allowed to view the punishment and death row cells, and the former gallows tower located on the second floor of the east block.

Mario Madau

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When the renovation is complete, the building will be renamed the Bridgepoint Administration Centre and will provide modern office space for about 100 hospital administrators.

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