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Keeping a low profile, Toronto Hydro's residential substations do their work of distributing electricity to neighbourhoods while keeping property values high
By DAVE LEBLANC
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, April 2, 2004 - Page G10
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In every Toronto neighbourhood there lives a Jekyll and Hyde. A casual observer sees only a well-behaved member of society that exudes calm, domesticity and order. But dig a little deeper and the truth becomes frighteningly apparent: Inside, there lies a heart so dangerous that messing with it can cost you your life.
They are Toronto Hydro Corp.'s 277 substations, and it's their job to break down raw power from generating plants into something more palatable for our homes, schools and businesses. Some look like grand late-Victorian public buildings and some like Postmodern boxes, but the vast majority resemble something much more familiar: our houses. Ever so humble, these little buildings work hard at blending in, since in the world of substations, not being noticed is the thing.
Ask anyone living beside one of these split personalities and they'll probably tell you they're model citizens. Except for the constant thrumming of the 60-cycle hum, they make no other noise. They just go about their business inside while wearing their domestic camouflage, And Toronto Hydro has them locked up so tight you couldn't trespass even if you wanted to.
I'd been intrigued by these suburban imposters since my teens. There was a little saltbox substation just down the street from my Scarborough high school; my friends and I would knock on the door and pretend to get electrocuted -- which, of course, is impossible -- and laugh our heads off.
Twenty years later, I finally got a peek inside, thanks to Toronto Hydro substation expert Bill Tutka, who took me on a driving tour of several of them on a mild February day. Surprisingly, I was fooled by the residential ones almost every time, even though I knew what to look for: big wires going in and a warning on the front door. "Here we are," Mr. Tutka would say as we pulled up and I'd look around to find the house. Had there been an apple pie cooling on the window sill, I still wouldn't have gotten it right.
Walk through the front door and everything changes. It's like being given permission to go backstage at a play. The door and the windows are where you'd expect them but now seem more like the back of the set pieces, albeit without the support of two-by-fours. Like the wings and backstage area, everything is raw, stripped of ornament and totally utilitarian. Why dress up what only the actors see?
In two-storey substations it's stranger still, since there is only air above your head as there's no need for an actual second floor on a residential substation. Behind you -- where the living room should be -- sits the high-voltage switch gear, an orderly row of refrigerator-sized cabinets with various meters and dials, and, off to the side, there is a shelf with what look like car batteries. These supply the station with DC power to protect the switch gear if power is interrupted.
Through the back door is an outside "room" where the large and ungainly transformers live. For ventilation purposes, this area typically has no roof and is walled in on only two sides, the rest enclosed by a chain-link fence. It's here among the thick, snake-like tangles of high-voltage wire, transformers and cooling apparatus that small animals sometimes meet their end. That's if they get in, which isn't often since Hydro is just as concerned about the safety of animals asit is about the safety of employees or contractors.
The oldest known substation was built in 1910 at 29 Nelson St. in the John and Richmond area. Designated a historical building by the city, it's a sturdy looking, four-storey, chocolate brown affair with a grand entrance and raised horizontal brick banding that looks like a cross between a Victorian-era warehouse and office building.
By comparison, the newest substations at 51 Blackburn St. (Gerrard and the Don Valley Parkway, built in 1988) and Strachan South (behind the National Trade Centre, built in 1992) don't try to disguise their function. While their glass-block features are notable, they look like utilitarian structures.
Then there's Glengrove station, which has been sitting proudly at 2833 Yonge St. (south of Lawrence) since it was switched on in 1930. Still in use today, the Gothic masterpiece is referred to by all Toronto Hydro employees as "a castle" or "the flagship," and it is hard to miss.
But more interesting are the ones that don't want to be seen.
Blending right in at 555 Spadina Rd. in ritzy Forest Hill is an excellent example of a Georgian Revival home. Built in 1950, this substation has a centred front door with fan-shaped window above, which is capped by an elaborate decorative crown supported by flattened columns. Pure to form, it sports symmetrical rows of white shuttered windows across the entire two-storey façade.
At 640 Millwood Rd. in Leaside, there's a charming red brick Cape Cod "house" (built in 1940) with two dormer windows, decorative cutouts in the shutters, a coach lamp above the front door and a white picket fence.
On a large corner lot at 165 Burbank Dr., a wild butterfly roof announces the arrival of the space age and Sputnik in 1957 on a substation that's typical of the progressive Modernist houses of this North York neighbourhood. Angles and texture dominate here with its inverted roofline, white glazed brick (with inset red brick detailing) and blank street face. Walking around back one expects to see a floor-to-ceiling glass wall and private patio hugging a kidney-shaped pool. Instead, there are only big scary transformers humming their one-note song.
Late Modernism announces its arrival at 54 Reid Manor in Etobicoke. This 1970 substation looks very much the ranch-style of the period with its dark brick, asymmetrical roofline with clerestory windows, post-and-beam construction and decorative brick screen to the side.
In Scarborough's Guildwood Village, it's hard to pick out the substation on Livingston Road. Built in 1965, it looks so similar to its neighbour that if it weren't for the warning sign on the door, you'd send your kid there to sell Girl Guide cookies (for the record, it's No. 74).
At least two of the substations I saw were not fakes at all, but actual houses that had been purchased by the corporation, gutted and adapted for service. The one at 746 Scarlett Rd. in Etobicoke is a wonderful little Arts and Crafts cottage that still has the original bedrooms on the second floor, and the little postwar bungalow at 159 Ellesmere Rd. in Scarborough looks a good deal like my parent's house.
Many of the "houses" have brand new shingles on the roof (with all the electrical equipment inside, the last thing Hydro wants is a leaky roof) and most seem to have a good coat of paint on them.
While upkeep is a priority for safety reasons, neighbours also want to feel that their property values won't be affected.
"The last thing we want is an eyesore out there," says Tom Fotinakopoulos, a supervisor with Hydro's Facilities Management Department. "The neighbours have to feel comfortable that it's there, it's doing an essential service but it's not standing out."
It's up to independent contractors to cut the grass, clear the snow, trim the hedges and occasionally pick up other people's garbage. Generally, substations are pretty uneventful places. Crews visit only on an "as needed" basis, Mr. Tutka says.
While some designs are duplicated, there is enough variety that you'd have to do some serious driving to find the next repeat. In fact there are so many designs -- both residential and commercial -- it's clear Hydro has an army of living museums of 20th-century architectural styles on its hands. It's rather like the Canadian National Exhibition or the University of Toronto: a good collection of public buildings constructed at different times, each in the design of their day, and each used sparingly enough that wear-and-tear is minimal.
The substations are also built to last, says Roland Beaubien, Facilities Technician at Toronto Hydro. Although he's too young to be involved in the implementation of residential-style buildings in the 1950s or 1960s, he was involved with newer structures such as 51 Blackburn and Strachan South. In the discussions about what to use in construction, the manager at the time said to go with the "better materials," he explains. "Instead of hanging precast concrete, we said, 'no, we're going with brick to design it to the neighbourhood.' "
As far as real estate goes, it's safe to say the corporation is literally sitting on a gold mine. Although it doesn't happen often, if a substation is decommissioned and Hydro has no use for the site, it will sell the property to a developer. Right now, 43 of the 277 stations are inactive, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're going to be sold. However, some -- 165 Burbank on its big suburban corner lot, for instance -- could easily fetch "anywhere from four to five hundred thousand," Mr. Fotinakopoulos says.
While it's obvious as to why these imposters were built (beauty, efficiency of power distribution and safety), who actually designed them remains a mystery. Poring over architectural blueprints at Toronto Hydro's head office on Commissioners Street, Mr. Fotinakopolous, Mr. Beaubien and I discovered that, with the exception of the two newest substations designed by the firm of Murray Murray & Hershfield, all the others were designed in-house. Unfortunately, the drawings only credit the "architects department" or "engineering division."
Anonymous designers of anonymous buildings. Fitting, isn't it? Not that you'd notice them anyway . . . but then again, that's exactly the point.