The City of Toronto has signed a contract with Harbridge + Cross Limited to construct a Visitor Centre costing $18 million at Fort York National Historic Site in downtown Toronto. The contractor was selected after bids were received from three firms pre-qualified under the City’s procedures. Construction is scheduled to begin in October.

The Visitor Centre was designed by Patkau Architects Inc. of Vancouver with Kearns Mancini Architects Inc. of Toronto. Their design was picked in a two-stage process that narrowed a field of 31 Canadian architectural firms expressing interest to five teams that were selected to submit conceptual proposals. An expert jury, including internationally renowned urbanist and author Anthony Tung, unanimously recommended the Patkau/Kearns Mancini design, noting it would reinterpret the original shoreline bluff along Lake Ontario and create a strong visual presence for the fort along Fort York Boulevard.

In December, 2011, Canadian Architect magazine recognized the design of the Visitor Centre with an Award of Excellence. “The Visitor Centre has been designed as a shard of light and historic illumination below the Gardiner Expressway,” says Lisa Rochon, the Globe and Mail’s architecture critic and Fort York Foundation board member. “There’s a combination of exceptional ingredients here: the weight of history, a pastoral public space and a daring gateway pavilion designed by the nation’s best.”

The building, set dramatically below and just north of the Gardiner Expressway at the entrance to the National Historic Site, aligns to the original shoreline of Lake Ontario. The Visitor Centre’s striking front elevation of weathered steel serves to interpret the original lake bluff, which contributed to the fort’s natural defences. The final decision on locating the building follows careful archaeological investigation of this part of the site.

The new building, which will conform to the Toronto Green Standard, will provide secure exhibit space for the first time in Fort York’s history. This capacity will allow Fort York to display treasures from City of Toronto’s collection of artifacts that illustrate the history of our city’s founding site. The Visitor Centre will be a front door for Fort York, welcoming and orienting visitors. It will act as a hub for the interpretation of the entire 43-acre Fort York National Historic Site. It will contain multimedia programming, permanent and changing exhibits, an immersive experience of the Battle of York, as well as facilities for education, research, staff and community use. Its completion will allow the fort’s administrative functions to be relocated from historic structures inside the ramparts. These buildings, among the oldest in the city, can then be opened up fully to the public.

To the north of the Visitor Centre, the very large open space known as Garrison Common will be significantly improved. As of this year, this green space is hosting diverse and unique programming, including re-enactments, concerts as well as installations and interventions sponsored by Luminato and (within the fort’s ramparts) Nuit Blanche. Garrison Common will also take its place as one of downtown Toronto’s major parks serving the 30,000 new residents in the neighbourhoods surrounding Fort York.

Support for the construction of the building and new exhibits has been pledged by all three levels of government, who will be contributing a total of about $19 million. The base cost of the Visitor Centre does not include exhibits, landscaping and other expenses related to the building, whose total cost is $25 million. The balance of $6 million will be raised from among private donors by the Fort York Foundation. A lead gift of $1 million directed towards the rehabilitation of the Garrison Common has been made by the W. Garfield Weston Foundation.