too-familiar phrase dubs architecture as "frozen music", and it's hard to resist viewing this delightful eyecatcher, a blend of festive gaiety and happy-go-lucky oompah band pomposity set to brick and stone and steel, as the most "musical" building at the Canadian National Exhibition. Little wonder, then, that it has endured in our consciousness as the Music Building, even though it only really served that purpose from 1968 to 1984--a small, waning fragment of its long history.
              In fact, the edifice was built (for $45,000) in 1907 as the Railway (or Railways) Building, one of fifteen pre-World War I Exhibition buildings designed by George W. Gouinlock, whose master plan for the CNE grounds transformed the dusty fall-fair atmosphere of the Toronto Industrial Exhibition into a work of public art, a stately Edwardian tableau of classical buildings within a landscaped setting. (The remaining Gouinlock buildings, now nationally recognized for their historic importance, are commemorated by a plaque in front of his Press Building, just to the west of the Music Building.)
             The familiar image of Gouinlock's CNE is set by the extant Horticultural and Government Buildings--palatially sprawling edifices with a plethora of Classical detail concealing vast steel-roofed halls, the offspring of the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition at Chicago or the 1900 World Exposition at Paris. The Music Building differs from that model in its compact scale, its unusual plan and flamboyance; more genuinely a "pavilion", a self-conscious landmark. Essentially, it consisted of a connected trio of domed octagons--each of which was to serve one of Canada's major railways--adorned in brick and stone Edwardian Baroque detail without, and roofed by modern steel trusses within. With its triple-domed silhouette, its shields and balustrades and finials, it was the most extrovertedly "Baroque" of Gouinlock's CNE buildings; it even had an exotic undercurrent that seemed to hint at the far-off lands that were then being conquered and "civilized" by the spread of rail. And yet the volumetric plan of three octagonal vessels foreshadow a future age of exposition buildings assembled out of modular parts--an age which came to pass at Montreal's Expo 67 and Vancouver's Expo 86, as well as in Eberhard Zeidler's Ontario Place. Few if any of these modular successors, though, could match Gouinlock's playfully spiky little toy for visual delight.

ntil road vanquished rail for good after World War II, the building proudly served Canada's railways and related travel and transport interests (such as steamships); then in the 50s it became the Hydro Building--not altogether dissimilar in its focus upon modernity and "conquering the land"--and a number of other purposes before settling in its dotage as the Music Building. Originally it composed part of an eclectic village-like ensemble of smaller Exhibition buildings (most by Gouinlock), including the Administration (now Press) Building, which could almost pass for a pre-Confederation district courthouse; the Police and Fire Station (still extant, across from the Music Building), a mix of Italianate and Arts & Crafts not unrelated to the stations being built across Toronto at the time; classical templar forms for the Art Gallery and Graphic Arts & Photography; and a rustic parks-pavilion-like Dairy which, in the early 1920s, became the "original" Music Building and Amphitheatre. Much of this (including the Dairy/Music Amphitheatre) was swept away in the mid-50s for the Queen Elizabeth Building; the current Music Building survived, but its uncomfortable cheek-by-jowl positioning (in its turn obstructed the loading area for the Queen Elizabeth Theatre) seemed to seal its long-term fate as an obsolete bottleneck, whose unusual silhouette made it impractical for current open-plan exhibiting trends. Time and again for over 3 decades, threats of demolition arose--for loading docks, for transportation improvements, for Molson Indy bleachers. Even the advent of music festivals in the 60s and 70s (which were often overshadowed by the rock acts playing the Grandstand) couldn't halt the decline, and the Music Building was condemned and closed in 1985--and nearly destroyed by fire on August 26 1987, in the middle of that year's Exhibition.
               Rather than dooming the building, though, the closure and fire seemed to galvanize sentiment for retaining and restoring the Music Building. A campaign to restore the building as a Music Hall Of Fame and rehearsal space had already been spearheaded by Sam "The Record Man" Sniderman, and following plenty of political bullet-dodging and $1.8 million raised, a basic restoration was carried out in 1990-91. While it's sad that Sniderman's vision of a musical locus for the Exhibition grounds was never fully carried out, it also affirms the newfound legitimacy of Canada's musical heritage; a project like Metronome's centre for Canadian music, in a sense ambitiously springs from the visionary kernel planted here in the 1980s, when certain people in high places scoffed at the notion of a Hall Of Fame celebrating Canadian music. And in the meantime, thanks to the power of that original vision, this wonderful, singing little gem, built for the railways and forever immortalized as the Music Building, has been saved for posterity--perhaps someday to fulfill, as intended, some semblance of its saviours' musical dreams...

photo: omni (2001)

see also:

At the CNE Archives with Marc Weisblott

Gouinlock's CNE

the dud, the rad and the thugly: Pavilion Architecture Resource Centre


omni forum