Union Station

Heritage Railway Station of Canada

Toronto, Ontario
View of the front (northwest) elevation of the railway station. (© Parks Canada Agency/Agence Parks Canada, Michael Bowassa, 1988.)
General view of the place
(© Parks Canada Agency/Agence Parks Canada, Michael Bowassa, 1988.)
Address : 65 Front Street West, Toronto, Ontario

Recognition Statute: Heritage Railway Stations Protection Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. 52 (4th Supp.))
Designation Date: 1990-06-21
  • 1914 to 1927 (Construction)

Event, Person, Organization:
  • Canadian Pacific Railway  (Organization)
  • Grand Trunk Railway  (Organization)
  • G. A. Ross and R. H. Macdonald, Hugh Jones, John M. Lyle  (Architect)
Research Report Number: RS-003

Description of Historic Place

Toronto’s Union Station is a monumental five-storey Beaux Arts building in the heart of downtown Toronto. It can be readily identified by the massive pillars of its colonnaded entrance and its substantial presence as a public facility. Today it continues to define the gateway to the city core as the entry point for national and commuter rail passengers, the take-off point for inter-city subway travel, and the visual landmark identifying the formal route for highway access to the city core. It stands at the intersection of Yonge and Front Streets opposite the Royal York Hotel.

Heritage Value

Union Station was designated a heritage railway station because it is the largest and most opulent station in Canada. It was built as the gateway to Toronto during the last great phase in railway station construction. Its heritage value lies in both its architectural presence as the country’s most outstanding example of Beaux-Arts railway architecture and its historical role as one of the most significant hubs in the Canadian transportation network.

Union Station was built between 1914 and 1927 as a joint construction project by the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Grand Trunk Railway (now the Canadian National Railway) to consolidate their railway services into one facility. It was designed by a team of architects composed of the Montreal firm of G. A. Ross and R. H. Macdonald, Hugh Jones of the CPR and John M. Lyle of Toronto in the grand manner of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

The monumental scale, classical detail and rational, ordered planning of Union Station are hallmarks of the Beaux Arts style. These are particularly visible in the close correlation between the exterior design and interior organization of the building, in the monumental colonnade which defines the focus of the design, the immense ticket lobby or great hall, and in the building’s rational layout and circulation routes which were carefully planned to accommodate large traffic volumes. The trainshed at Toronto Union Station the only such facility on the continent designed for through-track operation. The station’s setting illustrates well the aesthetic principles of Beaux-Arts urban design and those of the City Beautiful movement. Not only is its site is set back from the street creating a sense of space and public importance, but the visual Beaux-Arts design link between the Dominion Building at 1 Front Street and Union Station provides a significant example of the grand scale urban planning characteristic of their period.

While the exterior of Union Station has been well preserved, its interior exhibits considerable alteration. The east wing has been completely renovated as have many of the office areas on the upper storeys. A new entrance from an elevated pedestrian walkway has also been constructed on the west side. Nevertheless, the west wing still houses a waiting room on the ground floor with offices above, and the ticket lobby or great hall still exists with its associated train waiting halls. While these areas have undergone some modification, their grand scale and rational planning remain intact.

Source: Heritage Character Statement, Union Station, Toronto, Ontario, August 28, 1989. Heritage Assessment Report RSR-003,1988.

Character-Defining Elements

Character-defining elements of Toronto’s Union Station include: its immense full-block rectangular footprint set in a surrounding moat or sunken drive; its block-like 4-storey massing topped by low hipped rooflines on the central pavilion and wing extremes; its monumental scale which reflects the principles of “White Classicism”; the unifying, symmetrical, classically ordered proportions of the facade (both vertical and horizontal); the prominence of the central entrance pavilion underlined by an extra storey on the roof topped by a low pyramidal form; the presence of long wings featuring balanced windows of descending height and less prominent cornice terminated by low corner pavilions; the use of classical exterior details including the entrance portico and columns, a prominent cornice, the use of arched windows (in the portico) and entrances (on the wings); the varied textures and finely-executed craftsmanship of its exterior limestone; its steel frame construction technology; volumetric spatial relationships between exterior and interior places (i.e. the expansiveness linking the exterior portico to the main hall), and also between interior spaces one with another (i.e. the soaring the central ticket hall and the low broad passenger concourse behind it); the grand scale of interior public spaces; the axial symmetry and rational organization of functions on the interior of the station (which embrace all remnants of the original plan as well as longterm functional use of specific interior spaces and their relationship to one another), the hierarchical quality of materials in public, office and utility areas; the integrity of original materials in the public and west wing areas (particularly fittings, fixtures, hardware, and other details related to the original Beaux-Arts design); the deliberately ordered nature of circulation patterns (to expedite passenger movement within the station and rail traffic in the associated trainshed); the integrity of longstanding entrance and exit locations; the integrity of the form and steel and concrete materials of the trainshed, and its links to the station proper; the building’s setting in a moat which emphasizes its height and facilitates a fully fenestrated storey below ground; the integrity of the parapet wall associated with the moat.