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Rebirth of the Wychwood Barns

Wychwood Barns (Photo courtesy of du Toit Architects Limited)

By

Joe Lobko and Megan Torza

Buildings and architecture

Published Date: 28 May 2009

Photo: Wychwood Barns (Photo courtesy of du Toit Architects Limited)

The Artscape Wychwood Barns – near St. Clair Avenue West and Bathurst Street in Toronto – were created when five historic streetcar maintenance barns were transformed into a community hub for artists and environmental groups, developed by Toronto Artscape Inc. in partnership with the City of Toronto and the Stop Community Food Network.

The first barn was constructed in Toronto’s developing west end in 1913 to serve as a storage, repair and maintenance facility for the burgeoning Toronto Civic Railway. Additional barns were added in 1916 and 1921 as both the city and the urban railway system grew. At one time, the barns served 167 streetcars servicing 10 routes, providing employment for hundreds of workers. The Toronto Transit Commission closed the facility in 1985 due to the diminished role of streetcars in this part of the city. The buildings have been unoccupied since.

The five existing barns occupy about one quarter of the overall 4.3-acre site; they were adapted in the context of a proposed park setting, which was designed and implemented – with community input – by the Toronto Parks Department. The site provides over 53,000 square feet of valuable and affordable office space and housing for the community, while reintegrating the historic structures into the surrounding residential neighborhood. The total project cost was $21 million.

Within an overall discipline of environmental sustainability, the four barns accommodate a range of uses, including: 26 affordable live/work units and 15 work-only units for the arts community; a publicly accessible, multi-purpose covered street, encompassing the entire, original 1913 barn; a community barn accommodating office and studio space for a range of community arts and environmental organizations; and a green barn, including an all-season greenhouse, sheltered garden, bake oven, compost demonstration area, community kitchen and classroom. The fifth barn was partially demolished and recreated as a porch connecting the project with the park beyond.

Environmental features integral to the building’s function include a geothermal energy system installed in the adjacent park, a rainwater cistern that harvests water to flush 100 per cent of the building’s toilets, low-flow plumbing fixtures, heat recovery and energy efficient lighting throughout. Any new materials include a high recycled material content.

The building’s rich history is highlighted with signs and interpretation that include historic photographs, original machinery and signs throughout the public areas. The path of the historic railroad tracks is evident in distinctive paving across the park and through the buildings. A community recognition wall, donor wall and community notice board are also provided and continually updated to reflect the ties the project has developed and maintained with the surrounding community.

Since the project’s public opening in November 2008, a weekly farmers’ market has been initiated, performances within the two theatres have been sold out, and the greenhouse plantings have begun to flourish. All of the live/work and work studios are filled, and the community offices are thriving. The sharing of ideas between artists, actors, gardeners and storytellers has already begun and will most likely represent the project’s most lucrative byproduct.