Water Works

A tour of the R.C. Harris Filtration Plant at the eastern edge of Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood starts in the Pump House, the throbbing, shrieking engine room of the operation. Banks of nautilus-shell turbine pumps draw 200 million gallons of water each day from Lake Ontario and pump it twice, first through the filtration process, then into the city’s distribution system; the movement of every gallon is felt in the knees and in the ears. So, entering the Pump House on Saturday November 3, 2001 was a most uncanny experience, with not the slightest trembling of the floor and an almost deafening silence in the air: the pumps were silent, switched off in honour of the 60th anniversary celebration of the landmark waterworks.

The anniversary was in part a celebration of the very public architecture and landscape of the plant and grounds, which have been designated an important heritage site by the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering and more recently by the City of Toronto. The guest list was largely composed of people intimate with the waterworks and its operations: members of the plant’s Public Advisory Committee, engineering and architectural consultants who have worked on the plant, and above all present and former employees of Toronto’s Water Supply Division. The various speakers emphasized the plant’s public service: its uninterrupted supply of high quality drinking water; the vision of its builders; the capacity of the works to meet all of Toronto’s water needs, save summer lawn watering; and the personal commitment of generations of water supply employees. Hiroshi Tanaguchi, soon to retire as Head of Water Supply, provided a moving and poetic account of the history of the plant’s form and process, its genesis in the mind of Commissioner of Works R.C. Harris, its construction and operation, and its continuing presence in the public imagination, which drew upon the rich archive of photographs by the Works Department’s Arthur Goss. Mike Price, head of Toronto’s Water and Wastewater Division, then unveiled a plaque in honour of the dedication and service of Water Supply employees.

The commitment of Water Supply staff was embodied in a more substantial form with the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the restored South Porch. This massive stone porch was a major element of the Pump House as originally built, but had been removed during operational changes in the 1970s. Its restoration is the fruit of the Heritage Management Plan for the plant, developed out of a very productive collaboration between plant manager Ron Brilliant and the plant’s Public Advisory Committee (to which I served as advisor with Wayne Reeves). Plant management’s dedication to the building is visible throughout, especially in the effort to restore lost features and finishes in the course of routine plant maintenance.

Ken Mains of CH2M Hill–a U.S. based multinational engineering firm whose Canadian arm is the successor to Gore, Nasmith & Storrie, the firm behind the plant’s design–presented very engaging capsule biographies of the key figures on the original design team. These included H.G. Acres, a titan of Canadian engineering thanks to his Hydro installations at Niagara; William Gore, a specialist in water filtration mechanisms; George Nasmith, dedicated to public health issues, designer under field conditions of gas masks during World War I; William Storrie, an early genius of large-scale project management; and Thomas Pomphrey, staff architect at Gore, Nasmith & Storrie, who enjoyed a peculiar and close collaboration with Commissioner Harris while giving monumental form to the process of water purification.

Finally, the close of the ceremony was marked by the “turning on of the taps”: a switch was thrown, the pumps returned to life, and the hall filled once again with the shriek and vibration of water supply. The pomp and circumstance marking this anniversary seemed appropriate to both the monumental physical setting of the plant, and the monumental public service it has provided over the past 60 years. But I’m not certain that Commissioner Harris would have approved. Though City Council officially named the works the R.C. Harris Pumping and Filter Plant in 1932, he insisted that staff continue to use the name Victoria Park; the prohibition lasted until his death. And when water first flowed in to the pumps on November 1, 1941 it was with absolutely no public ceremony, and only modestly publicized after the fact.

Steven Mannell is Associate Professor at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Architecture in Halifax and is a regional correspondent for Canadian Architect. This photograph is from the series “City of Rooms” by Steven Evans, whose work is represented by Marcia Rafelman Fine Arts in Toronto.