Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Doors Open 2012 - RC Harris Water Treatment Plant and Fool's Paradise

It seems incredible that a facility dedicated to the separation of sewage from drinking water would be housed in one of the most beautiful Art Deco buildings in Toronto.  If not for events like Doors Open, most people would not even get a chance to see the inside of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, located at 2701 Queen St. East, in the area known as "The Beach".  Deco-styled limestone carvings adorn the exterior while the interior boasts marble floors with black, gold and taupe veins, skylights running along the span of the high ceilings, decorative cast iron stair railings, and large round-arched windows.

 The centerpiece of the Filter Building, both visually and functionally, is the towering signal pylon, which indicates the time and the necessity of the filter backwashing (reversing water flow to clean the filters which are purifying the drinking water).  We inspected the filter control panels, snuck in to see one of the filter rooms, and were shown a cross section of a filter which pushes the dirt to the surface where it flows away.

Public works attendants were on hand to explain the process and archival photos gave insight to the construction phases of the plant.  Finally we visited the pumping station, which moves clean treated water to reservoirs for distribution and raw untreated water to the filter stations.  The noise level in this area was so loud that there were warning signs indicating one should not stay there more than 30 minutes without wearing protective gear.

Our second stop of the day was the home and gallery of landscape artist Doris McCarthy, which is now a Heritage site located on the Scarborough Bluffs.  McCarthy bought 12 acres of land in 1939 for the sum of $1250 and built a small cottage on it.  Her mother thought the purchase was an extravagant folly and called it "that Fool's Paradise of yours", a nickname that stuck to the property.   Over the years, McCarthy personally designed and built more additions to the cottage, resulting in an oddly shaped structure that juts out in all directions.  Her architectural plans are proudly displayed on the wall of an added work room.  She added a pond to the property because she liked how the water reflected the sky.

 Her landscape paintings show the definitive influence of the Group of Seven.  Arthur Lismer was her mentor at the Ontario College of Arts where she studied, although her affinity for iceberg and mountain paintings seem more reflective of Lawren Harris' work.  An earlier piece called "My Class" painted during the war years, and a large painting of her brother showed off her skills at portraiture.

Doris also collected other artists' work including a beautiful whale bone sculpture and a wood carving presented to her by her friend, native Indian carver David Robertson.  Her pride and joy was "La Verité", a Madonna and child sculpture that she bought in Paris in 1951.  Unfortunately it was damaged in shipping, suffering "more damage on the journey to Canada than it had in five centuries since its creation" according to McCarthy.  She carefully restored the statue, gluing back the hand, arm and fingers.  The angel was McCarthy's personal signature image which she added to many of her paintings.  Various angels can be found throughout her home.

Never married, Doris McCarthy lived at Fool's Paradise until her death at age 100 in 2010.  Some of her neighbours were on the same guided tour as us and spoke of her lovingly.  She sounded like an incredible woman, feisty and joyful to the end.  They described of how she liked to drive a big SUV and invited neighbouring children to skate with her on her frozen pond in the winter.  While she still could, she participated in the Doors Open tours, personally guiding visitors through her home.  I wish we had the chance to meet her while she was alive.

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