Blockhouse Reverie in Toronto’s Grid-land

By Andrew Stewart, originally published November 4, 2008

The true meaning of “gridlock”

We like to think of the possibilities of breaking down barriers, making connections and bringing communities together. These are worth striving for. On the other hand, we sometimes like to set things apart, gain perspective on places and admire things from a distance. We like architectural and other landmarks that distinguish places and neighbourhoods.

The military grid of our city streets has arguably served to bring it (us) all together, reducing distances and breaking down barriers. Originally these barriers were fallen trees and swamps. Today the barriers are tracts of subsidized housing and institutional buildings — Regent Park in Cabbagetown and the CAMH site on Queen Street West. We talk about “extending the grid” through some of these places to “link” them to the surrounding city. In the early days of the province, the grid was imposed by surveyors to make it easier to travel, north, south, east and west across the province. You can admire the evolution of the grid in Toronto in the many beautiful maps depicted in the new Historic Atlas of Toronto and you can explore them on Toronto Public Library’s Historicity website.

Decidedly off the grid: plan of Fort York as built in 1813-15 between Garrison Creek and Lake Ontario (by Surveyor J.-B. Duberger of the Royal Engineers; National Archives of Canada, NMC 23139).

Today our experience of the grid, too often, can be summarized in the word “gridlock.”

One place in the city that resists the grid, stubbornly “thinking outside the box” for more than 200 years, is Fort York. Ironically, this disorderly cluster of buildings that date from the War of 1812, standing at odd angles on a site of irregular shape, was built by the military — the same people who brought us the grid in the first place. The triangular plan of the fort comes from its being deliberately squeezed between Garrison Creek to the northeast and Lake Ontario’s shoreline to the south. (This location was meant to be defensive; rudely, the Americans came from the west where only earthworks offered protection.) The odd angles at which the buildings are found also part of the defensive plan. Buildings were placed around the perimeter of the fort under the shelter of its ramparts. The Central blockhouses protected shore batteries, the fort’s interior parade ground, and each other.

Blockhouses are a fascinating theme in Toronto history, explored in books and articles by former Fort York curator Carl Benn. The most recent of them is Fort York: a Short History and Guide (2007). There were as many as 13 blockhouses in Toronto – most of them built following the scare of the 1837 Rebellion. By the 1860s, many of these structures were romantic ruins, inspiring generations of art students. The two blockhouses of Fort York are the only ones left. Built in 1813, they are among the city’s most venerable artifacts.

One of two remaining blockhouses in Toronto, both at Fort York National Historic Site. (photo by Andrew Stewart).

I like the clean look and simplicity of the blockhouse, spare and square. It is without equal in a city badly cluttered with decorative forms. I like to think we could re-insert some blockhouses in their original locations at busy nodes on the city grid: Sherbourne and Bloor; College and Spadina; Yonge and Belmont. Perhaps it is more realistic to imagine rebuilding the blockhouse that stood in what is now Trinity-Bellwoods Park on Queen Street West (originally, on the east side of the Garrison Creek ravine, guarding the entrance to the town along Queen St from the west). It might serve a modern cultural purpose as a gallery, event space or cyclorama that presents views of the city past and present. Or the one originally built in 1797 on the bluff overlooking the mouth of Garrison Creek — approximately the southeast corner of Front and Bathurst today. (It had a signal light on the roof to guide vessels into the harbour).

The re-appearance of these forms out of the blue would, like the Tardis of Dr Who, might be welcome interventions in space and time.

Andrew Stewart has an interest in the geology and history of Toronto and has worked as a consulting archaeologist in Ontario and Nunavut.

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