On Unravelling Unbuilt Hamilton

On Unravelling Unbuilt Hamilton

Posted on December 1 by Mark Osbaldeston
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Writing Unbuilt Hamilton was a homecoming for me. Quite literally. I live in Toronto now, but during a leave I took from my day job to research the book, I spent a lot of time staying with my father — in what turned out to be the final months of his life — in the house in Hamilton I had grown up in. It was appropriate. Decades earlier, that house had started me on the path to the book I was writing.

"It was part of my psyche, and still is..."

My parents had built it when I was in grade 3, and seeing them look over plans and debate options was the start of my interest in architecture and design, expressed in a series of books about unrealized building, planning, and transit proposals. That early interest made writing about architecture and city planning a natural. But focusing on Hamilton, as I eventually did, was probably more like an inevitability.

The house’s location, on Mountain Park Avenue, on the edge of the escarpment, meant that I took in that sweeping view of the city every day. It was part of my psyche, and still is: the bay with the escarpment curving around it, the factories, roads, houses, and office and apartment buildings. In other words, the natural and built elements that combine uniquely to make up the city.

It’s not surprising then that some of the proposals in Unbuilt Hamilton that I find the most intriguing involve the escarpment. A number were put forward in 1917 by the city planner Noulan Cauchon. Most startling was his proposal to remake Ferguson Avenue into a North American Champs-Elysées. Widened to five hundred feet and renamed Memorial Boulevard, it would have started at a marine landing at the lakeshore and terminated, in the area now occupied by Sam Lawrence Park, in a 30,000-seat amphitheatre carved from the rock of the escarpment.

At the time, there was an active quarry where the amphitheatre was to go. It was Cauchon’s genius idea that if the quarrying continued to his plans, the end result wouldn’t be a ruined landscape, but a unique and beautiful civic amenity.

The notion that the city-building process could actually enhance the escarpment was also evident in Cauchon’s design for the Sherman Access, the only one of his proposals to be built. As designed by Cauchon, the long roadway is obscured by trees as it ascends the mountain from west to east. When the roadway pierces the escarpment, it does so at a right angle. This resultant cut minimizes the aesthetic impact, but Cauchon actually argued that it could be seen as an improvement, a sculptural intervention.

The same blending of the natural and the artificial was at work in Cauchon’s recommendation for the completion of the Mount Hamilton Hospital, the current Juravinski Hospital. Cauchon felt that the hospital should appear to rise out of the rock of the escarpment from its frontage on Mountain Park Avenue, the rugged stone of the mountain giving way to the sculpted stone and brick of the buildings.

In Unbuilt Hamilton, I show this vision in the form in which it went before the voters in 1921, as a proposed war memorial project. A framed copy hangs in my house in Toronto, providing a link to my childhood city and even my childhood street. Not as I remember them, but as they might have been.

Mark Osbaldeston

Posted by Dundurn Guest on December 6, 2014
Mark Osbaldeston photo

Mark Osbaldeston

Mark Osbaldeston has written and spoken extensively on Toronto's architectural and planning history. His first book, Unbuilt Toronto: A History of the City That Might Have Been, was the subject of an exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum, was a finalist for the Toronto Book Awards, and received a Heritage Toronto Award of Merit. He lives in Toronto.