The CNE: Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition. Much More than the Midway.


A little tad—let’s call him Louis—counts the hours until the CNE, the Canadian National Exhibition opens in mid- August of 1956. Called the “Industrial Exhibition of Toronto” when it opened in 1879, in Louis’ day, the CNE was a “must see” for every kid in Toronto and its sprawling suburbs.

Young Louis is setting his 9-year-old sights on the food, the rides and the midway, but in years to come he’ll take an interest in the buildings that make up the mega-acre site along Toronto’s waterfront.

He’ll learn that around the turn of the century, Toronto’s city fathers had hired George W. Guinlock, one of the province’s premier architects to design a series of 15 buildings to showcase Ontario’s accomplishments during the duration of the Exhibition.

Inside these classically-designed structures, the best, and the most modern of Canadian commerce, arts, science, agriculture, horticulture and industry promised to  “wow” visitors over the CNE’s two-week duration.

Between 1902 and 1912, Guinlock’s buildings would rise over the massive 350-acre site of the Industrial Exhibition’s grounds, close by the Lake Ontario waterfront.

In 1912, the “Fair” took a new name, The Canadian National Exhibition” and Guinlock’s buildings became the showcases among the showcase of the CNE itself.


By 1956, when Louis and Marjorie Silcox arrive for their day at “the Fair,” several of Guinlock’s marvels, designed in the elegant Beaux-Arts architectural style have been demolished–the victims of “urban renewal.” Some have burned to the ground.

But little Louis doesn’t care much about history. He’s itching to hit the midway. Too young still for the Flyer and the Wild Mouse, he might talk Mom into letting him try the Tilt-a-Whirl or the Whiz-bang.

Marjorie has her priorities too. They’ll be sure to stop in at the Honey Dew booth. It’s the only time her taste buds will be satisfied by the orange-honey beverage.

The bus lets them off at the gates of the Fair and the pair head for the Horticulture Building. Marjorie’s a gardener and is anxious to see the glorious displays mounted by Toronto’s various horticultural clubs.

Guinlock’s building itself is a beauty to behold. Laid out in the shape of an E, a magnificent glass dome allows sunshine at the intersection of the building’s three wings.

The Horticulture Building has a history too. Between 1942 and 1946, it was claimed by the Canadian Armed Forces as their Quartermaster’s Store.

In 1949, Guinlock’s Horticulture Building served temporarily as a morgue for over 100 casualties of the sinking of the liner Noronic in Toronto Harbour.


Enough of flowers, next stop is the Food Building where Louis edges up to the front of the mouth-watering displays of food and the latest kitchen gadgets coming on the market. If he’s lucky, he might get chosen for a free sample– a donut, hot from the new-fangled fryer. Egg choppers are the latest time-saving tool and the young lad at the front of the crowd might get to sample some tasty egg salad too.

It’s time for the pair to move on. Marjorie stops to admire the CNE Administrative Building, the oldest of Guinlock’s CNE structures. While she’s not familiar with the architectural style—Beaux-Arts, she does admire the intricate ornamentation on the face. Colour has been incorporated into the Ontario crest design of Guinlock’s 1905 building.

The pair is finally on the midway and Marjorie fishes a quarter out of her change purse. Louis has his eye on The Flyer. It’s a monster of a ride—a noisy wooden coaster that, from the sound of the screams coming from the riders is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.

He’ll have to be content with the tamer Tilt-a-Whirl. This whirling dervish still offers a shake-up to a lad’s innards.  


For a change of pace, the pair is heading to Guinlock’s Railway Building. Considered by many architecture buffs as the most beautiful and unique of his CNE structures, the Railway Building was designed as three octagonal domes connected to form a triangular inner space.

Inside, it showcased rail travel and achievements. As the popularity of rail travel waned in the 1960’s, the Railway building was reborn as the Hydro Building where advancements in energy development, then nuclear power were showcased.


Louis is anxious to get a seat for the afternoon Grandstand show. The entertainment will feature a pack of testosterone-fuelled Daredevils, jumping cars over each other, stunt driving and the usual automotive mayhem.

On the way to the Grandstand, Mom and son pass by the CNE Fire Hall and Police Station.  It’s the only one of the 15 Guinlock-designed buildings that veers from the ornate Beaux-Arts architectural style. Quirky in design, it features a clock tower and a copper pitched roof.

The building continues to serve today as Toronto Fire Department Number 90 Station. It’s occupied during the CNE by the Toronto Police Services too.


It’s been a packed day and both Louis and Marjorie are ready to call it a day. Mom has promised her son a final treat before the bus ride home. It’s a tough choice between the caramel corn and a Shopsy’s hot dog, but the beef wins.

Heading back to the Dufferin Gates where they’ll wait for the Clarkson bus, they pass by the Government Building. “What in there, Mom?” Louis asks. “I have no idea—government stuff I guess,” she answers. She’s thinking on that Honey Dew drink, wishing it was available at her corner Red and White. “I guess that’s why nobody’s lined up to get in,” Marjorie adds.

The CNE’s Government Building does much more business in 2018. It’s the home of the popular Medieval Times Theatre Company. Jousting and armour are more fun than blueprints and documents any day.





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