$25M Fort York Visitor Centre opens in Gardiner’s shadow

The Fort York Visitor Centre officially opened on Sept. 19 and, with it, began a new era for one of the country’s most significant historic sites.

After playing a major role in the defence of the city of York during the War of 1812, the new City of Toronto rather overtook it, and in recent decades, it’s been in real danger of disappearing from the municipal consciousness.

“Until now, Fort York National Historic Site was invisible to passersby,” says Jonathan Kearns, principal at Kearns Mancini Architects, one of the two firms behind its design.


“Altered by two centuries of lake fill, it is now 500 metres from the shoreline of Lake Ontario, below the elevated concrete canopy of the Gardiner Expressway and geographically landlocked by rail corridors. The Visitor Centre establishes a prominent front door to the Fort where none previously existed. As the area is growing with new residential developments, an opportunity was identified to make Fort York a focal point, urban amenity and cultural anchor to the neighbourhood.”

The 22,000-square-foot, $25-million building, carved into the landscape so as not to overwhelm the low-lying site as well as to create the impression of the promontory the place once was, is the opening gambit in a long-term development plan for the 43-acre site.

“The façade asserts a strong physical presence from Fort York Blvd, anticipating future use of the space below the Gardiner as a wonderful ‘city room,’” Kearns says.

“Behind, the building emerges from Garrison Common as an illuminated wedge clad in backlit cast glass channels, allowing the low-slung buildings of the Fort to remain the architectural focus. Environmentally, the earth-sheltered architecture allows for more efficient humidity and climate control and allows control of natural light without compromising the artifacts.”

According to Kearns, the intention is for the new building not only to welcome visitors to Fort York, but to the broader area of Old York/Toronto, and ultimately becoming a new urban amenity.


“The Visitor Centre will act as a interpretative hub for the entire historic area, including not only the seven acres within the Fort’s walls but also the archaeological landscape, the Garrison Common, Victoria Memorial Square, the Fort York Armoury and Garrison Creek parkland being developed to the east.

“The Visitor Centre will include visitor and information services, galleries for permanent and temporary exhibitions, spaces for meetings and educational programming, a café and administration offices. The Centre will extend beyond its primary purpose to become a new venue for events and community gatherings within the city.”

This article first appeared on Yonge Street.