Foundations of Construction; Union Station was the Beaux-Arts ‘gateway to the city’

“The massive Great Hall under construction circa 1916, part of the Beaux-Arts design of Toronto’s Union Station,” photographers Peake & Whittingham/Library and Archives Canada / PA-067276. Retrieved from

By Susanna McLeod

Special to Ontario Construction News

Passengers arriving at Toronto’s early Union Station on Front Street were graciously welcomed by three elegant domed towers and a large clock. At first considered large on opening in 1872, by 1911 the station was too congested to handle the 40,000 passengers and more than 130 trains daily, according to City of Toronto. Plans were drawn up for a new spacious railway hub, and the magnificent new Toronto Union Station opened in 1927.

Grand Trunk Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) joined to construct a luxurious, awe-inspiring train station. (Grand Trunk Railway became Canadian National Railway in 1923.) The planning and negotiations were completed, then approvals were necessary from property owners, railroad companies, and government; it all took nine years. Architects R.H. MacDonald and G.A. Ross from Montreal, plus John Lyle from Toronto, and Hugh Jones with CPR designed a Beaux-Arts style station “as the gateway to the city.”

Construction began in 1914 on Front Street, a short distance from the cramped original station. The build was delayed again “for several years because of the First World War,” noted City of Toronto’s “History of Union Station.”

Incorporating an abundance of Classical and Renaissance elements, the architects’ drawings ensured grandeur. The exterior’s symmetry was reflected in the building’s interior, and included spaces on a grand scale. The image of opulence began with setting the building about 21 metres back from the street. Adding to the drama, a lower section was formed, resembling a dry moat around the perimeter of the property. A road for deliveries was built, and a bridge installed for passengers to cross over the gap to the station.

The building “is 752 feet long (229m) from east to west,” said Sean Marshall and James Bow in “A History of Toronto’s Union Station Through the 19th and 20th Centuries,” Transit Toronto. The interior “has an average height of 87 feet (26.5m).” The beige and grey exterior was constructed in limestone from southern Ontario, Indiana, and portions of the interior were from Minnesota.

Quarried at Niagara Escarpment, Queenston limestone formed the exterior walls. Indiana limestone, also known as Bedford limestone, was quarried in south central Indiana. At the main entrance, Bedford limestone was carved into 22 enormous columns, “each 40 feet in height (12m) and weighing more than 75 tonnes.” A softer grade of rock, Bedford limestone is susceptible to pollution; the damage became obvious within several decades.

“On either side of the central space, a pair of identical wings provide space for offices and a postal station and maintain the symmetry of structure,” noted Ontario Association of Architects (OAA). “Entrances are clearly marked with projecting pediments and forward-stepping columns, in keeping with Beaux-Arts design.

Passengers entering the station to purchase tickets were amazed by the station’s extraordinary Great Hall, its arched ceiling nearly 27 metres high. The indented Guastavino tiles created a beautiful ceiling, produced by techniques developed by Spanish architect Raphael Guastavino in 1885. The New York architect’s patented arched tile system used rough-surfaced clay tiles and was praised for fire-proofing and sound-proofing qualities.

The vast Hall featured Zumbro limestone on the walls, most likely quarried at the Zumbro River quarry in southeastern Minnesota. “The stone reflects the light subtly and brightens the appearance of the space,” noted Transit Toronto. Signifying the entrance to train platforms, the Great Hall continued “the Beaux-Art emphasis on sequence of spaces [with] centrally placed Corinthian columns on the south side of the room,” OAA stated.

Ornamentation carved throughout the station also featured names of cities served by the railway companies. “The list alternates from side to side, naming the cities from east to west,” City of Toronto said. The beautiful herringbone pattern on the floor was created from Tennessee marble, and large arched windows grace the west and east walls.

Contractor P. Lyall & Sons Construction Company Limited won the bid to build the Union Station, regarded as the largest and most opulent train station in the country. Lyall’s company was incorporated only two years before receiving the major contract. Prosperous and in demand, Peter Lyall’s firm worked across the country for many years.

With great fanfare, Union Station officially opened on Aug. 6, 1927 after His Royal Highness, Edward, Prince of Wales cut the ceremonial ribbon with gold scissors. The royal visitor and his family must have been impressed— he mentioned “You build your stations like we build our cathedrals,” said City of Toronto.

Union Station now serves over 200,000 passengers a day, and has been renovated over the decades to accommodate the dynamic intercity transit hub. The federal government designated Toronto’s station as a protected Heritage Railway Station in 1989, for being “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.”

            © 2023 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History.




Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

I accept the Privacy Policy

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.