2006 05 06
On The Inside - The Don Jail
Why is it that one of Toronto's great architectural treasures, the old Don Jail, will never be to the city what the Tate Modern is to London -- a beacon to the world's arts tourists?
The Tate Modern Gallery in London, England, inhabits the striking but once abandoned Bankside Power Station on the edge of the River Thames. Since its launch in 2000, the Tate has become one of that city's great arts treasures. It is also one of London's most popular tourist attractions. Appropriating old industrial buildings for new, arts-related programs, it seems, makes economic sense.
Private investors have done the same thing in Toronto with the successful Distillery District. They turned a neglected 19th-century architectural gem into an arts centre that, by the way, tourists love.
People who have toured the old Don Jail recently -- as visitors rather than inmates -- quickly discover that this architectural treasure remains in almost original condition and is full of unexplored potential. The building's interior space and detailing have no equivalent, yet it overlooks the Don River with a shamed, neglected emptiness.
Designed by architect William Thomas in 1852, the Don Jail opened in 1865. Its design represented the latest social trends in Victorian-era prison reform. Prisoners occupied solitary three-foot by seven-foot cells. They could contemplate their wrongdoings in private while also embracing a greater moral vision offered by both God and the state.
The building did lord such a vision over its inhabitants. The jail boasted amenities not seen before in Canadian prisons. It had state-of-the-art plumbing and central heating. Comfort was not the lesson, though. Thomas's design gave symbolic form to the 19th-century idea that the building itself might influence the moral integrity of the sinners locked within.
Just beyond its intimidating entry doors, crowned by a bust of Father Time, is the moral and spiritual centre of the Don Jail. The five-storey atrium is a half decahedron crowned by a windowed lantern. Even modern, culturally experienced visitors with hundreds of hours of European cathedral visits behind them cannot help but stop in respectful awe to contemplate this space. It has a spiritual quality reminiscent of that found in the Sharon Temple just north of the city.
To a common criminal experiencing both incarceration and architectural beauty for the first time, the atrium must have been a spectacle grand enough to spark a spiritual catharsis. That was the plan.
The jail's details, too, are both symbolic and fear-inspiring. Cast-iron dragons support the atrium's iron balconies. Serpents support similar balconies in the prisoners' wings. In the Don Jail, Christian iconography and the power of law come together in perfect architectural balance.
In case the building's symbolism failed in its reformative intent, the jail offered other incentives toward the path of righteousness. Prisoners in the eastern cellblock could watch as convicted murders stepped toward the gaping doorway of the gallows.
In spite of -- or perhaps because of -- the notoriety associated with hosting the last hanging in Canada, this building could be a great museum space. It could also be a landmark to the long-planned revitalization of the lower Don River. So, what are the plans for the building?
It will live out its days housing the administrative offices of the new Bridgepoint Medical Centre, opening in 2011.
As Michael McClelland of ERA Architects, one of this country's most respected restoration firms, says, ''The building has been available for 30 years and nothing happened,'' and that may be because, ''The significance of the building is not known to the general public.''
Even as a hospital administration wing, Mr. McClelland says the Don Jail restoration will be the most complex period reconstruction project ever undertaken in the city. Parts of its unique beauty will be available to the public, though. Planned community resources will allow public access to the atrium, at least. However, most of the jail will be off-limits, and its cellblocks will be remembered only by an inaccessible arcade of doorways.
Is there time to save the Don Jail? It is unlikely, but only because Torontonians have not had the opportunity to visit it. If they did, the building's great social vision might just find a 21st-century purpose.
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 05/06 at 11:24 AM
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