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YYZ Why? One of Toronto’s most architecturally acclaimed buildings built in east Beaches

WATCH ABOVE: Located at the most eastern side of Queen Street, the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant is one of Toronto's most intriguing and impressive structures. Melanie Zettler takes a tour inside to understand why such an ornate plant was built for treating water.

The R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant — named after Toronto’s former Commissioner of Public Works, is the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in Toronto and it’s the largest water treatment plant in the city.

For the residents in the Beaches neighbourhood, it’s a cherished landmark and a favourite place for a morning jog or an evening dog walk.

“R.C. Harris himself, who was the comissioner of works from 1912 to 1945, he originally picked this site in 1913… studies indicated, at the time, that the lake water quality in this area was very high. Suitable for a drinking water source. East of the Don River tended to have better water quality…and the property was available,” said Gordon Mitchell, Manager of Water Treatment and Supply for the City of Toronto.

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From the outside, the imposing structure commands your attention with it’s towers, buff brick and limestone details and water fountains. The architect was Scottish-born, Thomas Canfield Pomphrey. There are plenty of arched windows and skylights too and that was just the way R.C. Harris wanted it.

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“The plant’s got a lot of windows. R.C. Harris – one of his visions was to be very transparent to the public. They can see in, we can see out,” said Mitchell.

R.C. Harris has a rated plant capacity of 950 million litres per day and in 1999 produced 250 billion liters of water.

“Right now, we’re producing around 30% of Toronto’s water demand,” said Mitchell.

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Michell also said the plant still functions just as well as the day it was built.  Even the original interior showpiece – a brass ornamental clock in the filter operating gallery – still works along with all of the more important water-treatment equipment.

Mitchell said all of the raw water pumps, high-lift pumps and backwash pumps date back to the 1930’s and 1950’s.  There are various mechanical rooms throughout the plant but less realized –  are the tunnels below that connect all of the buildings on the site.

Back upstairs, domed ceilings take the eye up and down the hallways which are adorned in terrazzo marble and many of the handrails and hardware are a sparking brass.

“Comissioner Harris – I think he wanted the plant to be a showcase to highlight the importance of water treatment…he was very proud of public works, proud of our accomplishments and he wanted to represent that in the facilities he created,” said Mitchell.

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The R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant is a national historic civil engineering site, designated historical building and has been featured in many film, fashion and TV shoots.

In the Global News series YYZ Why?, Melanie Zettler sets out to answer why certain Toronto landmarks exist.

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