If you played the video game Myst back in the day, the RC Harris Water Treatment Facility at the east end of The Beach may seem strangely familiar. Standing on its grounds, you can feel like you’re the last person on earth, having stumbled upon an elaborate operation of vague purpose and wondering what happened to its occupants, and if they’ll be back.
Built throughout the 1930s by little-known architect Thomas Canfield Pomphrey and named for the public works commissioner at the time, the facility still supplies Toronto with about a third of its drinking water, pumped all the way up from the middle of the Lake Ontario, treated, then pumped all the way north to Markham and west to Rosedale. It’s an eerie place, and one of coolest examples of art deco this side of the Don (and granted National Engineering Historic Site status in 1992).
I live near the treatment plant and spend a fair amount here, walking the dog or going for a run. The facility’s main buildings and intersecting road sprawl over a 2-3 block stretch at the end of Queen street, a.k.a., the end of Toronto. Imposing as a fortress, the largest building stands guard atop a hill over Lake Ontario, as if scanning for enemy yankee ships bound from Rochester. There’s a real dash of style to the place too, exemplified by the elaborate and repeating artwork and statues etched within the stone walls of the complex’s three buildings’ and the expansive, rising windows that look out on to the lake.
Peering through the windows at the rows of antiquated valves, tanks and gauges, with nary an employee insight, compels you to find a way in and explore some more. Apparently that’s not all that difficult, or mysterious: you can go on a tour of the facilities, when the doors open to the public once a year (count me in). Check out out, at the end of the world. Or for the lazy and still underwhelmed, here it is in 90-seconds.