The City’s preservation board investigates designating the entire subway sysem a heritage property — putting it on a collision course with the TTC 

“As the son of an architect, I was always amazed at the architecture of the subway. Once, it was breathtaking and beautiful,” recalls city councillor Adam Vaughan. “When those old trains came through the stations, the primary colours really played off the maroon of the subway cars in a way that was quite rich. The nostalgia around the TTC system was always pronounced with me… I have rich, vivid memories.”
So Vaughan was interested and concerned when he read a story I wrote for EYE WEEKLY (“Signs of dysfunction,” July 12) about Toronto typography expert and transit activist Joe Clark’s campaign to preserve the historically unique signage of the TTC, which has been neglected for decades and is currently threatened by a station modernization project. After visiting the website of Clark’s TTC Signs campaign (www.joeclark.org/TTC), Vaughan, as a member of the Toronto Preservation Board, felt he needed to act.

“It occurred to me that we needed to provide the TTC with a little directional kick in the pants to take care of a couple things,” says Vaughan. “One is the rich design history, which was part of their whole psyche in the early years but has left the station in ways that are really quite deplorable.… The fact that there’s a whole history to the type, a whole history to the station design, a whole history to the different lines and how they evolved and how they represent different periods in Toronto’s history needs to be honoured and recognized.”

He put my article on the agenda for discussion at the preservation board’s meeting Nov. 9 and, after hearing a presentation by Clark (and some brief remarks from me), the board voted unanimously to have staff report on the possibility of designating as Heritage Properties the entire Bloor-Danforth subway line and the Yonge-University line between St. George and Eglinton. Such a designation would require the TTC to consult with the board about any renovations or changes to the stations, and to ensure that such changes respect the historical character of the original design. The motion calls for staff to report first on designating the eight stations currently scheduled for modernization, which could put the board on a collision course with the TTC.

Clark’s campaign, begun this summer, calls on the TTC to respect and preserve the unique typeface and other characteristics — including colour patterns, tile work and original signs affixed to the walls. Stations including Pape, Victoria Park, Islington and Kipling are scheduled to be renovated in the immediate future and, at least in the case of Pape, plans call for a complete overhaul. Such a move would eliminate the design uniformity that currently exists across the entire Bloor-Danforth line, with consistent colours repeating in sequence, consistent tile patterns and one unique TTC-designed font inscribed on the walls. The renovations are part of a 35-year plan to modernize every station in the system at a rate of one per year.

“The trick is trying to prevent the destruction of the subway system as we know it,” Clark says. “What are these [TTC] commissioners doing, exactly? Through malign neglect, they are beginning a 35-year process of destruction. Because if they make over Pape station so that it doesn’t match any of the other stations, if they make it over in artificial stone — which has “fake” right there in the title — then the design uniformity of the Bloor-Danforth line is busted, and that gives future generations of commissioners authorization to make every station different.”

Clark is encouraged by the preservation board’s response to his campaign. “It’s a good sign, an excellent and necessary corrective to what the archaeologist who runs the TTC is doing,” he says, while cautioning that the wording of any designation must be specific to ensure the TTC does not simply preserve the typeface of station designations and disregard everything else.

The archaeologist mentioned derisively by Clark, TTC chair Adam Giambrone, says that he’s willing to work with the preservation board but that he thinks designating every station on entire lines is excessive.

“Usually we don’t expect to see every single station designated. Some of them certainly deserve designation … the system was built out over a number of years and I’d think you’d want examples of each of those stations.”

Giambrone says trying to preserve the look and feel of stations — which require renovation due to the need for wheelchair accessibility and general wear and tear — could be expensive, since the colour, size and shape of the original tiles are no longer produced.

“We could get special tiles, presumably someone could make them, because they do reproductions, but it’s going to be very expensive.”

Pointing to the multi-million dollar budget for each station’s renovation, Clark scoffs at this argument. “Let’s spend the money. Would you like me to chip in? I can set up a Paypal account if you want.”

Vaughan takes a similar view, characterizing the TTC’s recent bare-bones approach as being “too cheap to be special.” He says it’s the wrong way to approach infrastructure. “You can build a city off a budget sheet, but you end up with Tucson…. The reality is if you build Paris, you’ll have an economy. If you build an economy, you’ll have Houston. Or Calgary. The poet laureate [Pier Giorgio Di Cicco] has said it the best. He said ‘beauty has its own economy,’ and he’s right. The old subway stations were beautiful, and they found their own economy. It’s the roots of the wealthiest transit system in the world in terms of being able to generate passengers and off-peak passengers…. The Toronto Transit system is still one of the great transit systems in the world and it performs in a way that’s quite spectacular, despite its underfunding. That finds its roots in the attention to detail of the earlier generations who used to run it.”

While promising to work with the board, Giambrone claims it may be too late for Pape station, where, he says, an artificial-stone redesign is too far along to stop. “We’re going to have to figure this out. We’ll work with them — there are already some stations like Pape, where contracts are being issued. So those will go ahead, I suspect, before designation. We’re going to have to take a look at it.”

Clark thinks it is urgent that the “destruction” of Pape station be halted, and is considering taking the fight to city council.

Vaughan would also like to see the TTC slow down its plans there to wait for the preservation board’s advice. “If it’s too late for Pape, my apologies. But the reality is, we’re going to move to try to curb the way the TTC is approaching this and approach it from a perspective of heritage and not just of refreshing the subway system. We’re going to immediately get a handle on the eight [stations] that are most likely to change and get them to just be refreshments rather than renovations. And then, for the two heritage lines in particular, that have a really consistent set of design principles attached to them, to immediately establish what those principles are and make sure that all future conversions talk to that status.”

Vaughan claims the Bloor-Danforth line is a set and that, aesthetics aside, tells us something important about our history, something worth preserving. “When we built the subway, we built it as one big project. That in and of itself is what the design of the subway speaks to — [a time] when we had the confidence and the ability and the vision to build infrastructure the size and the scope of the Bloor subway line. That’s an amazing mindset compared to what we have today, where if we’re really lucky we could add a station and if we do, it should just be bare concrete because everyone will think we’re rich if we do it any other way. We didn’t just sort of go to a computer and print some signs, we designed a friggin’ typeface. That speaks to a level of design and a level of endeavour, which is, in fact, real city building. Now we just renovate.” 

Originally published November 14, 2007 in Eye Weekly.