Cleaning up the Gardens

TEXT John Lorinc

Maple Leaf Gardens, the shrine to Canada’s hockey obsession, is a cathedral-like box filled with stories, but few resonate quite like its creation myth.

In the early 1930s, when gravel magnate Conn Smythe was trying to finance a more respectable home for his gritty hockey team, he struck a deal with local trade unions to allow him to pay workers in both cash and Maple Leaf shares. Thus motivated, the Depression-era crews raced to erect the yellow-brick stadium in less than six months, completing the job in time for the 1931-1932 National Hockey League (NHL) season.

Last December, almost 70 years after the first puck dropped, a $60-million scheme to revitalize the Gardens came together with comparable alacrity. Moving to take advantage of federal stimulus funds, Ryerson University struck a partnership with Loblaw Companies Ltd., the Gardens’ owner, to transform the building into a multi-use facility that includes an 85,000-square-foot downtown-style supermarket, plus 150,000 square feet of recreation, athletic and program space for the fast-growing university.

The capstone of the project involves the creation of an NHL-sized rink with seating for 3,000 spectators on the upper level of the restored Gardens, directly under the domed roof that is one of the building’s iconic features. Ryerson has also vowed to make the athletic facilities available to community groups and to install state-of-the-art interactive multi-media displays throughout the building.

Ottawa will contribute $20 million to the project, and another $20 million will come from Ryerson students through an annual recreation fee. Loblaw and the university have agreed to fundraise the remaining third. Ryerson president Sheldon Levy says the deal embodies the institution’s determination to seek out win-win partnerships with players in both the public and private sectors. “I have to be as concerned for Loblaw’s ROI as they have to be concerned with the ROI for Ryerson.”

“The [restored] building will resemble what it was in 1931 more than in 1999,” predicts Loblaw architect Russell Fleischer, a principal with Turner Fleischer in Toronto. This past March, Loblaw and Ryerson also retained Brisbin Brook Beynon Architects (BBB) and Stadium Consultants International (SCI) to design the institutional athletic and program space that surrounds the supermarket. “It’s a hugely iconic building and a lot of eyes are on what’s being done to it,” says BBB principal Greg Alexander. Not coincidentally, his firm has a long track record with stadia, designing the Air Canada Centre and the Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto, both of which involved the integration of restored heritage elements into modernized facilities. BBB/SCI is also in the midst of a massive restoration of Madison Square Garden.

With construction now underway and a reopening date set for March 2011, the revitalization plan marks the culmination of a meandering 11-year search for a culturally appropriate reuse for the Gardens. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment had considered various possibilities–recreation complex, opera house, rehearsal venue for Cirque du Soleil, pedestal for a condo tower–before selling the property to Loblaw in 2003. The chain wanted to transform the Gardens into a vast Real Canadian Superstore and adjoining liquor store, but that scheme stalled as the company battled losses due to intense competition from Wal-Mart.

“It’s an amazing win-win,” marvels hockey historian Dan Diamond, who belongs to Friends of Maple Leaf Gardens, an advocacy group that fought Loblaw’s plan to oust hockey from the building. “I still pinch myself that it got to this point.”

However else critics felt about turning Maple Leaf Gardens into a grocery emporium, retailing is hardwired into the property. In the late 1920s, the Eaton family owned the land on the northwest corner of Church and Carlton Streets, and were pursuing plans to build a department store there. But after they decided to locate their grand new College Park store a block west on Yonge Street, Smythe persuaded the family to sell him the land so he could build an arena for his newly acquired Maple Leafs.

The Eatons agreed and bought a stake in the team, establishing a relationship that lasted for decades. Smythe, in turn, retained the Montreal-based architects whom the Eatons had hired to build College Park. Ross & Macdonald was a well-regarded but conservative firm that had built some of Canada’s best-known railway hotels–for example, Winnipeg’s Fort Garry and Toronto’s Royal York, as well as Ottawa’s Union Station and Montreal’s giant downtown Eaton’s on rue Ste-Catherine.

For the Gardens, Ross & Macdonald’s Art Moderne style featured yellow brick, steep vertical windows, speed bands and stepped symmetrical planes protruding from the south and east walls. Larry Richards of the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design says the grand structure has “a lovely sense of scale” and functions like a Manhattan-style building that dominates its site by extending right to the sidewalk. Early on, Smythe allowed several retailers to operate on the Church and Carlton sides, including a bowling alley, a clothier, a cigar store and a diner. But in the 1970s, owner Harold Ballard had the street-grade retail spaces blocked up to create an interior lounge.

Dominion Bridge had the contract to build the Gardens’ dome. The firm forged its reputation by building some of Montreal’s immense St. Lawrence bridges. For the Gardens’ roof, Dominion’s engineers opted for an unusually lightweight design featuring four trussed arch ribs held in place by a rectangular array of trusses. The roof structure was loaded onto four perimeter corner columns, which meant no view-obstructed seats. The dome’s peak soared 140 feet above centre ice.

“That roof is an extremely efficient design,” observes Chris Andrews, a principal with Carruthers & Wallace (part of the Trow Group of Companies), which is in charge of the structural engineering work on the revitalization. “It’s less than 14 pounds per square foot of structure. We’d have to use very advanced computer software to create a design that efficient. They did it with paper and pencil.” Andrews says it is one of the last large domed roofs left in North America.

The Gardens, moreover, is the only surviving arena among the NHL’s “original six” franchises, although the Leafs have played in the Air Canada Centre since 1999. None offered the well-appointed corporate boxes and other amenities that have become crucial revenue-drivers for professional sports teams. The Montreal Forum was transformed years ago into an unprepossessing multiplex theatre. More recently, Chicago Stadium, a well-preserved Art Deco structure, and the barn-like Boston Garden were both razed to make way for condominiums and parking lots as their replacements. “Stadia,” as Dan Diamond comments, “are very awkward buildings to readapt because they are directed inward and not outward.”

Many older baseball fields–like Yankee Stadium or the Chicago White Sox’ Comiskey Park, where the bleachers didn’t have women’s bathrooms–have met a similar fate. In Europe however, the replacement of some aging soccer arenas has produced some imaginative adaptive reuse ideas. In the case of Arsenal FC’s Highbury Stadium in North London, Allies and Morrison Architects retrofitted two of the original grandstands, both sporting Art Deco faades, with 700 condo units which overlook a landscaped interior courtyard that was once the soccer pitch.

Maple Leaf Gardens dodged the wrecker’s ball, although its preservation was hardly assured. Richards characterizes the building as “a social condenser” that occupies “a remarkable place in the social history of Toronto.” Besides serving as home ice for the Leafs during the team’s heyday, it served as a venue for sporting events from wrestling to tennis, rock concerts, operas, and political conventions.

In spite of its cultural significance, the
Maple Leaf organization hired a leading preservation expert to argue that the building had no distinctive architectural value during heritage hearings in late 1989. Historian Michael Bliss provided the rebuttal, connecting the dots between the Gardens and the broad cultural importance of hockey in Canada. In their decision, the Conservation Review Board members offered a haughty view: “Many would find the proposition that the endless round of hockey games is the stuff of history, to be not only astonishing but repugnant, but that is the clear and uncontradicted view of Professor Michael Bliss…and we accept that opinion.” They ultimately ruled that three elements of the Gardens should be designated: the faade, the roof, and the cathedral-like quality of the interior.

In recent years, Ryerson University has become a much more assertive presence in Toronto’s downtown core, and several of its expansion projects have involved joint development ventures with commercial partners, such as Canadian Tire and AMC Cinemas.

The Maple Leaf Gardens deal came together in exactly 365 days, says Levy, beginning with a March 2009 referendum by Ryerson students to approve an annual fee to build and operate a much-needed recreation facility. Within weeks of the vote (three-quarters of the students supported the fee), Loblaw contacted Levy about offering up the Gardens as a venue, as well as a plan to contribute $5 million in cash and another $15 million through a joint fundraising campaign. “We had two legs of the stool,” says Levy.

Throughout the rest of the year, Ryerson officials doggedly pursued a grant from the federal stimulus fund, with Levy appealing directly to cabinet officials. He said the idea sold itself. “People wanted it to happen. I never had anyone who heard [the concept] not think that this is fantastic.”

Under the arrangement the two sides struck, Loblaw will occupy almost all of the ground floor, with the store’s main entry point at the southeast corner. Indeed, that entrance will be done up to resemble the cigar store that once operated in that spot. New windows along the Church Street wall will open up into the store’s fresh food market, and the store itself will be adorned with Gardens memorabilia, including seats and photos of famous concerts.

Maple Leaf Gardens’ distinctive main doors and its canopy will frame the entrance to Ryerson’s space. There will be a 2,400-square-foot lobby with multi-media panel displays and an escalator leading to the second floor. There, students will have access to classrooms and sports facilities such as basketball and volleyball courts tucked under the new banks of seats for the hockey rink, which will sit on the third level. BBB is exploring the possibility of adding a track at the top of the bleachers, and it will reopen the south- and east-facing windows that were blocked when Ballard added seating in the 1960s. The firm is also working on new types of exterior lighting as well as signage for Ryerson’s increasingly visible branding efforts.

ERA Architects has signed on to deal with the restoration of the faade and the canopy. Intern architect Will MacIvor, the project manager, says about one-fifth of the bricks will be repointed, but he hopes much of the material can be salvaged from the new openings for loading bays and air intake vents. The upper level fenestration will be refitted with double-glazed vintage steel industrial windows. ERA is also developing a restoration plan for the oft-renovated entrance canopy that brings its appearance (including fonts) back to the Gardens’ heyday from the 1940s to the 1960s.

To further enhance the Gardens’ sense of place, Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone (DMZ) group is currently devising plans to create extensive interactive media walls throughout the building, as well as on some exterior surfaces, the canopy, and a restored version of the old scoreboard that will once again hang over centre ice. “We want to keep the historical integrity of Maple Leaf Gardens and the awesomeness, but we want to bring it to the now,” says Valerie Fox, the DMZ director. Some of the interactive features will be made available to students in the digital media program, she adds. “We’re going to beta-test stuff in there [during events] to see if it works.”

In terms of complexity, however, the design and restoration activity takes a back seat to the structural work required to allow for the construction of all the new internal features. A formidable issue involved the large concrete buttresses that held up the grey-level seats and which also supported the east-west walls. As Andrews explains, “Our challenge was to take out those seating areas and keep the walls stable.”

Because of the external heritage features, staging became a paramount concern. Andrews’ team–which is working for both Ryerson and Loblaw in order to ensure continuity–designed a series of temporary cross-braced steel frames and large horizontal trusses to support the exterior walls, which in turn have been fitted with highly sensitive monitors programmed to detect even the slightest level of vibration-related movement while the banks of seats were being demolished. “You’ve got a lot of instrumentation inside that building,” says Andrews, whose own Blackberry is set up to receive readings from the 24/7 monitoring system.

After the old banks of seats were removed, general contractor Buttcon Ltd.–whose projects include several of Ontario’s casinos and restorations to the province’s Legislative Assembly–began excavating a below-grade parking garage, but that process required the deployment of additional temporary bracing while crews lowered the footings for the perimeter columns that hold up the roof. From there, the balance of the project involves conventional construction techniques, and the new internal structure–though tied to the existing walls with reinforced internal supports–will nonetheless function like a building inside a building. As Andrews says, “It’s been described as almost like building a ship inside a bottle.”

Dan Diamond observes that blind luck played an unnervingly significant role in the Ryerson/Loblaw-sponsored resurrection of Maple Leaf Gardens. Earlier condo plans didn’t pan out because the area around the Gardens wasn’t seen as desirable. And while Ryerson had balked at earlier suggestions that it acquire the Gardens, the university’s hesitation evaporated when Levy realized he could take advantage of Ottawa’s $4-billion stimulus package if he acted quickly. The Gardens, as Diamond says, “survived because a lot of things didn’t happen.”

The moral of the story is the same one heritage advocates always espouse: that with vacant historic structures, patience is vital. In this case, externally imposed delay marked the difference between a mainly superficial adaptive reuse and one that has allowed a once-grand building to return to its original function, albeit in a thoroughly contemporary context. “Thank God we did finally wait,” says Larry Richards. “It feels like Toronto is making the right decisions.” CA

John Lorinc is a Toronto journalist who specializes in urban affairs.