A Beautiful, Industrial, Modern Deco Behemoth! Visiting a Tall Giant from our Past
Exploring the Hearn
The structure rises above the waterfront landscape - a massive, almost forgotten building in Toronto's Port Lands area. At first, you see one towering stack, but there are actually three: the smokestack from a now closed and decommissioned coal-fired generating station, together with the stacks from the Ashbridge's Bay Water Treatment Plant and the Commissioners Street waste incinerator. They are all from a bygone industrial era; all three are now closed. But each is a reminder of the past, and how one day, an area Toronto will be able to completely reclaim as part of its waterfront future.
The tallest tower next to the large structure is the behemoth Richard L. Hearn Generating Station. The plant is located at 440 Unwin Avenue, directly south of the foot of Carlaw Avenue, across the shipping channel and next to the newer Portlands Energy Centre.
You catch sight of "The Hearn" when you sail, kayak or paddle board along the water across Toronto's waterfront. Or perhaps you've seen it while biking or walking along the Martin Goodman Trail, or looking across from the shipping channel from Commissioners Street. Or perhaps you were one of the guests there during the 3 years when Luminato used the building as an event space: the Big Bang Bash in 2014, the Unsound Music Festival in 2015, or the Luminato Festival Hub a couple of years ago. There's even a chance you recognize Hearn from a movie or TV show you enjoyed!
The massive, spectacular industrial site is closed once again, but its story continues as part of Toronto's past.
Big, Strong and Powerful: How it all Began
Hearn Generating Station was opened in 1951 by the then premier, Leslie Frost. The building's namesake, Richard Lancaster Hearn, flipped the switch at the commissioning event. It was the early 1950s, a time of great expansion and optimism in the city after World War II. Its purpose was to provide coal-powered electricity to the surrounding city, which got its electric power from two sources at the time: thermal power electricity from burning coal, and hydro electric power generated from Niagara Falls. Total construction cost was $156 million.
At the time, Hearn Generating Station was the largest enclosed space in Canada: a cavernous, 400,000-square-foot hulk, built on reclaimed lands. The station sits in what was once Ashbridge's Bay, a shallow marsh filled in with rubble left over from downtown construction sites when the city's first skyscrapers were being built.
Hearn was also built to last. At the time when it was designed, the question asked was, "Would it withstand an earthquake?" So when the engineers figured out how it needed to be built to be this strong, the specifications were multiplied by three!
Industrial Chic and Still one of Canada's Tallest Structures
Anyone who has visited Hearn is overcome by the sheer size. Hearn's 70-storey smokestack still remains as one of the 10 tallest structures in Canada.
The building is 4 storeys high and 240 metres (800 feet) in length: that's the size of about three US football fields. The inside space (650 thousand cubic metres) is enough to hold 12 Greek Parthenons!
Inside the massive hall, now empty, once stood 12 iconic Parsons generating units used to generate power. They were brought over from England where they were built by C.A. Parsons and Company. Not only the Parson's company was renowned for its generators, the company's steam turbines were the invention of Parsons himself in 1889! Massive concrete pillars held the turbines in place. There was a visitor's gallery inside on the west side of the building where the offices were also located and a control room that's shown up in more than one movie set!
A Primer on Electrical Power Generation, Then and Now
Coal fired generating plants like Hearn were based on the idea that you burned coal, which heated water, and the steam from the water turned the turbines, which in turn, generated electricity. Here is how it worked at Hearn:
- Coal was delivered by ships that travelled through the St. Lawrence Seaway to Toronto's harbor. Once unloaded, the coal was piled up in giant black mounds on land in front of the building. (This is the area where the new gas powered energy centre stands today.)
- From outside, the coal was brought into the station on a conveyor belt where it was fed into large pulverizers that crushed the coal into a fine powder. The Hearn conveyor belt, often called "the spine," stretched two storeys high. The coal chute was 3 storeys high. Catwalks joined the various areas together.
- Large fans then blew the coal powder into a giant furnace where it burned, giving off vast amounts of heat.
- The furnace heated up boilers, which turned the water into steam. The steam was then transferred under pressure at high speed through large pipes to a turbine where it pushed the turbine blades causing them to spin. At first, Hearn had 4 boilers, and a chimney for each. This was then expanded to eight.
- The 12 giant turbine generators started to spin, producing enough electricity for Toronto and the surrounding GTA.
- The steam was then condensed back to water using cooling water, in the case of Hearn, water from Lake Ontario.
At full load, the boilers at Hearn burned about 400 tonnes of coal per hour. At the height of operation, the plant could send 1200 MW of electricity coursing forth to meet GTA's demand - that's about half a million homes????.
The turbines and other equipment required about 36 million gallons of cooling water per hour. The water, of course, came from Lake Ontario.
1960s Smog and Ashes and the Environmental Movement
The chimney was not always that high, and there were more of them! At first, Hearn had four smaller chimneys, one for each of the four boilers. When more generating units were added, engineers added four more chimneys. These eight short chimneys, however, were a source of air pollution in local neighbourhoods and downtown Toronto. They also left fly ash and other dirt on buildings.
Ever wondered why the buildings in Toronto turned black? It was from all that coal dust blown over the city by coal-burning facilities like Hearn.
With increased environmental awareness in the late 1960s, the eight chimneys were demolished and replaced by a new single tall smokestack, with smog-reducing filters
The new 70-storey chimney was also much taller, in order to blow the smoke away. It is still one of the tallest chimneys in Canada, costing $9 million when it was completed in 1971.
With the new smokestack in place, air pollution in Toronto from the station was so greatly reduced that the area around the plant became known as a good fishing and recreation spot!
"Late" art deco: a revolution of design & style for a modern age Most are familiar with the term "art deco", which we admire for its style: simple, clean shapes, often with a "streamlined" look, and geometric or stylized shapes.
But in the early 1930s, the art deco movement split into two parts, giving rise to what is known as a much more streamlined and functional look, with plainer decorative features that repeat. In fact, some refer to the term "art deco" as feminine, and "late deco" as masculine. Toronto has only a few art deco buildings: the Hearn is an example of "Late" deco, often known as Modern or Modern Industrial. The Hearn's functional but striking design elements include redbrick, mixed with repeating stripes of tall, translucent "ribbon" windows. Some have even described them as cathedral-like. The building has a deliberate industrial look, both attractive and awe-inspiring.
Meet the Designer: Richard Lancaster Hearn
It is interesting that the coal and then gas-fired plant was designed by a man who actually led Ontario into the era of nuclear power.
Richard Lancaster Hearn played a major role in shaping Ontario's power generation industry. A civil engineer form the University of Toronto, after graduation, Hearn worked for the famous Adam Beck, at the newly formed Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario.
In his various roles, Hearn designed and oversaw construction of many of Ontario’s hydroelectric power stations, including the first one at Queenston Heights (the Adam Beck Generating Plant I), and of course, the plant named after himself. The Adam Beck Plant has been delivering clean hydroelectric energy to Ontario for almost 100 years. When it was built, it was the largest one of its kind in the world.
But Hearn was ahead of his time in terms of power generation. Although he's associated with coal and gas generating plants, his real interest was in nuclear power generation. In the 1950s, Hearn spearheaded early talks about the wisdom of nuclear power, which led to the first CANDU reactor in Canada. In 1973, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada for his contribution to the country.
Power Generation in Ontario from Burning Wood and Coal to Hydro and Nuclear
At the beginning of the 1900s, sources of wood used for fuel were nearly exhausted in Ontario. Factories were dependent upon expensive coal, which had to be shipped in from Pennsylvania and Alberta. Most electricity was being generated by coal burning steam generating plants.
Sir Adam Beck, a local politician at the time, began planning to build a publicly owned hydro-electric generating plant in order to utilize Niagara Falls as a way to power turbines. In 1906, Beck established a corporation that would become the first electric utility in Canada - Ontario Hydro.
Although many had the expectation that Ontario could power itself on just hydro electricity, this has never been possible. Until the introduction of nuclear power, there were 2 basic methods of producing electric power: Hydroelectric based on water power, and thermal generation, based on the production of steam, either from burning coal or natural gas.
Today, Ontario gets its electricity from a mix of energy sources. About half of our electricity comes from nuclear power. The remainder comes from a mix of hydroelectric (water), coal, natural gas and wind.
There are 73 generating stations operated by Ontario Power Generation across Ontario: 3 nuclear, 5 thermal, and 66 hydroelectric.