February 11, 2005

Designating the Gardens under the Ontario Heritage Act

The Reasons for designating Maple Leaf Gardens are set out in Schedule B, of Bylaw 44-91 passed by Council, December 12, 1990. This bylaw designates 438 Church Street (Maple Leaf Gardens) as a property of architectural and historical interest, and the reasons are given as follows:

“The property at 438 Church Street, known as Maple Leaf Gardens, is designated on architectural and historical grounds. Maple Leaf Gardens, since its construction in 1931, has been the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs, where radio coverage of “Hockey Night in Canada” began and was broadcast by Foster Hewitt for almost fifty years. As well, it has been the arena for a variety of events and public gatherings including the protest rallies of the Depression, skating carnivals, the circus, the opera, concerts and numerous sports events. The buff brick structure with stone trim was designed by Architects, Ross and Macdonald, with Jack Ryrie and Mackenzie Waters, Associate Architects. The architectural design successfully combines both art moderne and art deco styles, giving scale and interest to the rectangular form of the building. Important features of the exterior include varied form on the elevations, the great dome with crowning lantern, surface setbacks at top of corners, fenestration arrangement and metal sash. Other significant elements include the stone banding at the second, sixth and roof levels, stone window spandrels, trim around entrances and former shopfronts and the flagpoles. Simple masonry brickwork patterns with corbelled courses at the corners, around the windows, and on the first floor base are also important. The concrete structure and the significant engineering of the steel truss system supported on four corner piers, provides spectators with a clear view of the ice surface, unobstructed by column supports in the interior. Maple Leaf Gardens is a fixture in Toronto’s public life and is well known throughout Canada.”

Further reasons for designating Maple Leaf Gardens

The process that the City used in the late 1980s and early 1990s to determine whether a building should be designated was to seek the opinion of a locally appointed Conservation Review Board. The board then consisted of Michael B. Vaughan and Judith Godfrey, and they wrote a report, dated August 30, 1990, which summarizes a number of options it had sought in making its recommendations to designate.

Of particular interest are the comments of Dr. Michael Bliss contained in the report as follows:

‘Dr. Bliss, a history professor at the University of Toronto referred to the Gardens as “the gem of the National Hockey League.” He referred to the speed of construction as a “media event” and advised that the opening of the Gardens coincided with the expansion of radio across Canada for “Hockey Night in Canada” which became the most popular radio program and later the most popular television program in Canada.

The greatest heritage importance of the Gardens in Dr. Bliss’ opinion is that it is “the cathedral of Canadian Hockey in its golden age”, when the National Hockey League was emerging to become North America’s dominant expression of the game. Dr. Bliss advised that hockey is a sport that is central to the Canadian spirit and that is acknowledged even by people who do not enjoy the game. In his view, “if any building in the world is identified with hockey it is Maple Leaf Gardens”.

He said that there were only two teams to cheer for if you wanted to cheer for a Canadian team, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadians. They were the best teams in the National Hockey League in its heyday when it demonstrated “far and away the best hockey in the world”.

It is his view that, except possibly for the Parliament Buildings, there was no better known building in Canada between 1931 and 1967 or “another sporting arena in the world with the exception of Yankee Stadium that played such a central role in the history of a sport deemed integral to the national culture”.

It is Dr. Bliss’ evidence that, “we are a young country with few symbols of our fragile nationality. If in 1989 we no longer believe that Maple Leaf Gardens is a historically significant building, if we are happy to let it disappear under the wrecker’s ball then we might as well give up.” Regarding the objection that it is the “institution” of hockey which is important rather than this particular building, he advised that the building takes on historical significance because of the events that have taken place in it and that it was his opinion that the “man on the street” would say that Maple Leaf Gardens is “a building” rather than an abstract institution. It is his opinion that games are not mere sporting events and he said that “it is rash to deny the significance of sporting events, especially hockey, as central to the Canadian culture.” Hockey was played at its best by the Maple Leafs in Maple Leaf Gardens. He referred to the Roman Coliseum to illustrate how a sporting arena can become identified with cultures and stated that the uniqueness of Maple Leaf Gardens is that the building has become identified with the Canadian culture and that the Gardens is the home of Canada’s sporting culture just as the Parliament buildings is the home of Canada’s political culture.

Whether or not the building could be effectively used today, did not in his view impact on the historic significance of the building. He was of the view that hockey is part of the fabric of Canada and that the building, therefore, is part of the Canadian cultural fabric which was, in part, the result of the excellence of the hockey played in it. He was of the view that from an historical perspective, it was impossible to divorce the building from the event. He felt that the building should be designated on its historical significance alone.

As to the historical significance of hockey, it was his view that the fact that people think hockey is historically important makes it so. He stated that in the history of 20th Century Canada, hockey is important in the aspirations of young Canadians, and referred to the first Canadian-Soviet games when Paul Henderson excited the national psyche by scoring the winning goal.

In his view the building is of national significance in contrast with the former Mutual Street arena which was merely of local significance.

He felt that there would be a major public outcry if the building were demolished and that its aura would be maintained most appropriately if it remained as a hockey arena rather than if it were converted to a different use.

The proposition that a sports field or sports arena can be significant historically because of the sport that is or was played in it or on it may be astonishing but Dr. Bliss was of the clear view that Canadian children played hockey, communities are obsessed with hockey, people spend weekends playing hockey and nights round the ratio and television listening to hockey games and it was this identification with hockey that to a large extent made one realist that one was in Canada rather than in the United States.

Dr. Bliss felt that a reasonable society makes every effort to preserve items that people think are historically significant. He said that we are a young fragile country and our identity is not as clear as that of other nations. We do not have a separate Canadian language but we do have a sport. He felt that hockey was Canada’s major sporting achievement and that sport and the building enshrining it at its best was indeed historically significant.’

Gardens a Masterful Combination of Art Deco and Streamlined Moderne Styling

By Tim Morawetz, Co-founder, Art Deco Society of Toronto

Beyond its importance as a surviving ‘original six’ hockey rink and home to an incomparable roster of historic concerts, speeches and other special events, Maple Leaf Gardens, opened in 1931, is significant for several other reasons.

Engineering: The building’s structural engineering was very innovative for its time, employing a reinforced concrete structure and a giant domed truss roof to span the entire interior without any sight-obstructing columns. As well, the entire building floats on giant concrete pads, as it was built atop Tattle Creek.

Construction duration: The Gardens was constructed in a record five-and-a-half months by 700 workers toiling night and day – remarkable even by today’s standards!

Architectural styling: Stretching 106 metres along Carlton St. and running 86 metres north along Church St., the Gardens is a huge, reinforced-concrete box sheathed in buff brick with stone trim. Its architects, the Montreal firm of Ross & Macdonald with associates Jack Ryrie and Mackenzie Waters, drew upon two contemporary architectural styles to disguise the building’s size and give it a strong but graceful exterior presence.

The first of these is Art Deco – the popular, jazz-age skyscraper style from the 1920s. The Gardens’ facades are symmetrical, with subtle changes in wall plane and height to emphasize the middle section. The windows are treated as vertical strips, adding a sense of height and rhythm when viewed from a distance. Even though it was the Depression, the Gardens incorporates subtle decorative elements, such as angled brickwork and the flat stone panels with zig-zag patterns in the shape of an “M.”

The second architectural style was Streamlined Moderne. This sleek, horizontally oriented style symbolized progress and the promise of a better future. On the Gardens, we see continuous horizontal bands of stone at the top and bottom, as well as “speed stripes” – stacked rows of slightly protruding bricks at the corners of each block. Like many buildings of this period, there are flagpoles at the roofline to finish off the facade.

Without doubt, Maple Leaf Gardens is an irreplaceable and sophisticated example of large-scale, Canadian 1930s architecture that rewards those who stop to take a closer look.