01 . 29 . 2017

Petition launched to save McLaughlin Planetarium from demolition

AUTHOR Laura Beeston

A campaign to save the McLaughlin Planetarium, slated for demolition on the University of Toronto campus, is gaining momentum.

In its prime, the planetarium was a standard field trip for generations of Toronto school kids to learn about the magic of the universe. Others fondly recall the laser shows in the 1980s, featuring music from Led Zeppelin, U2, Rush and Pink Floyd.

“It is absolutely one of the most significant works of architecture built in the 20th century in Toronto, not only for its own formal esthetic merits but because of the cultural role that it played and the history of that building as a public venue,” said Jeff Balmer, associate professor at the School of Architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Today, curious passersby who don’t know the building’s history may wonder what’s inside because the McLaughlin Planetarium sign has been removed. In 2014, the university proposed the demolition to make room for a building to house a new cultural centre.

A gift to citizens through an endowment fund from General Motors of Canada president and philanthropist Samuel McLaughlin, the planetarium opened its doors in 1968 and, over its 27-year run, attracted more than six million visitors

“He was fiercely proud of the planetarium and really believed in science,” said Elizabeth Phillips, the great-granddaughter of McLaughlin, who recently joined the preservation efforts.

“I think Toronto deserves and needs to fight and save it. (We’re) a world-class city of enormous diversity and that includes architectural diversity. The McLaughlin Planetarium is part of that.”

The Royal Ontario Museum abruptly shut the planetarium down in December, 1995, despite a small surge in attendance. Its closure was a direct result of a $626,000 cutback imposed by Mike Harris’s Tory government.

Even as the ROM turned out the lights, the original endowment fund for the museum to run a planetarium in Toronto sat at $1.4 million.

ROM sold the building to the University of Toronto in 2009 for $22 million.

On Jan. 13, Balmer submitted a nomination for the McLaughlin Planetarium to the World Monuments Watch, a non-profit organization dedicated to conserving architectural and cultural sites. The preservation campaign also has the support of Docomomo, the Society of Documentation and Conservation of buildings, sights and neighbourhoods of the Modern Movement.

Balmer’s Change.org petition, which encourages the U of T to save the McLaughlin Planetarium building, had more than 6,200 supporters as of Friday morning.

His efforts attracted the attention of Phillips, who believes her great-grandfather would have been upset to learn where his endowment went.

“It’s not a positive message. Why would I donate if, 30 years after the fact, it can be pushed to the sidelines? An endowment is a gift and should be treated as one . . . I think that other (philanthropists) might think twice,” she said.

Sally Tindal, a ROM spokesperson, said the fund is now used to support other discovery-based spaces and galleries at the museum.

“We work closely with our donors and these types of decisions are made in consultation with them,” Tindal said in an email. “The endowment is still being used and continues to have an impact on the ROM by supporting discovery-based spaces.”

Scott Mabury, U of T vice-president, university operations, said there is currently no timeline for the planetarium’s demolition. Designs for the centre should be revealed to the public in the summer.

Mabury said he recognizes that there’s some nostalgia for the building because of the planetarium experience. But he said U of T did a “deep dive” with the astronomy and astrophysics department, considered it for a recital hall for the music department but found that “none of that is possible” in the existing structure and that the building is redundant and not reusable.

“It’s a glorified locker,” he said of the planetarium, which is currently being leased to the ROM as a storage space.

Mabury confirmed the new Centre for Civilizations, Cultures and Cities would cost “in the neighbourhood of $100 million.” Initial plans called for the building to house the departments of history, Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, along with the Institute of Islamic Studies, as well as an auditorium for the Faculty of Music.

Proponents of the restoration efforts maintain the building’s architectural merit and that Toronto needs a major planetarium, pointing to other international cities as proof they are viable and valuable cultural operations.

Of the three dozen planetariums in North America, Toronto remains the only city to have one that has been slated for the wrecking ball without replacement.

Edmonton is currently reconstructing and reopening the Queen Elizabeth II Planetarium after it, like the McLaughlin, lay dormant for 30 years.

“(Planetariums are) significant institutions for science education,” Balmer said of the burgeoning renaissance. “So I’d be very much interested in knowing that all efforts have been made to imagine the adaptive reuse of ours.”

Balmer has had some success in saving a part of Toronto’s cultural history. The ex-pat was part of the push to preserve the Sam the Record Man sign but says it’s harder to get the public to rally around the idea of preserving modernist buildings.


1968: Planetarium opens in the “space race” days. Architects Allward and Gouinlock’s design referenced both ancient places of worship and modern observatories. The “Theatre of the Stars” had seating for 340 persons.

1968: The Royal Ontario Museum was formally granted its independence from the University of Toronto. The McLaughlin Planetarium — donated by philanthropist Samuel McLaughlin — ended up as a ward of the museum.

1995: The McLaughlin Planetarium is abruptly closed by the ROM, a direct result of cutbacks by the Mike Harris government.

1997: The original endowment fund donated to the museum by McLaughlin to run a planetarium was reported at $1.4 million by the Toronto Star.

1998: The planetarium is briefly transformed into The Children’s Own Museum, for kids aged two to eight. It had a three-year lease.

2005: William Thorsell (former director of the ROM) proposed a 46-storey condo complex to replace the planetarium but plan was rejected.

2009: The ROM sold the McLaughlin Planetarium to the U of T for $22 million.

2014: The U of T proposes a new complex to be built on the site. Initial plans for the Centre for Civilizations, Cultures and Cities called for the building to house the departments of history, Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, along with the Institute of Islamic Studies, as well as an auditorium for the Faculty of Music.

2016: The U of T announces a partnership with high-profile architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

2017 summer: Architectural renderings to be unveiled for the centre.

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