The Facelift and the Wrecking Ball: Urban Renewal and Hamilton's King Street West, 1957-1971

By Rockwell, Margaret T. | Urban History Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Facelift and the Wrecking Ball: Urban Renewal and Hamilton's King Street West, 1957-1971


Rockwell, Margaret T., Urban History Review


Hamilton, Ontario, wanted a modernist makeover for its downtown during the 1960s. Politicians and businessmen aggressively sought federal and provincial urban renewal funds to rebuild the city's core. This research note focuses on Hamilton's King Street West, between James and Bay, which ran through the centre of the downtown urban renewal area. The photographs show all that was lost, and the original plan helps us to understand why the people of Hamilton initially accepted the destruction. The resulting traffic corridor was a victory for modernist planners who wanted to remove the pedestrian from the street so that the car could dominate.

Durant les annees 1960, la Ville de Hamilton en Ontario a poursuivi un programme de modernisation du centre-ville. Les politiciens et les hommes d'affaires ont intensement eu recours aux fonds federaux et provinciaux de renovation urbaine afin de reconstruire le centre-ville. Cette note de recherche se concentre sur la rue King West, entre les rues Bay et James, qui passe au centre du secteur touche' par la renovation urbaine. Les photos montrent ce qui a ete perdu, tandis que les plans originaux exposent ce qui etait soubaite. Ce qui resulte du programme, a savoir un couloir de circulation, constitue en quelque sorte une victoire pour les phi moderne qui voulaient ecarter lepieton de la rue afin que l'automobile puisse dominer.

Something big was promised for the downtown of Hamilton, Ontario, in the late 1960s. Located on a large natural harbour on the western end of Lake Ontario, this industrial city had nurtured grand ambitions since its incorporation in 1847 and had watched as nearby Toronto, its one-time rival, grew into a powerful metropolis. Anxious to shake off its inferiority complex, the "ambitious city" was ready to proceed with "the biggest face-lifting job in its history." (1) A "delicate scalpel" would give Hamilton a "new look" and the Victorian streetscape would give way "to the world of steel walls and concrete." (2) Hamilton's civic and business leaders had spent years lobbying federal officials for urban renewal funding to revive the central core and they welcomed the modernist transformation.

Modernism embodied the spirit of progress and technological advancement inherited from the Enlightenment and was reflected in a variety of late-nineteenth-century and twentieth-century cultural movements. Modernist architecture developed in Europe after the First World War, as part of an effort to build affordable housing, and grew into an international style, championed by the Congres international d'architecture moderne. Rejecting nineteenth-century historicism, modernist architects favoured clean, straight lines and used concrete and steel to create buildings without ornamentation, often believing that their buildings could bring about positive change. Modernist planners aspired to create functional cities where efficient transportation corridors could move traffic quickly between distinct zones. Hamilton's politicians and downtown businessmen felt their city was being held back by its old buildings and looked forward to a complete modernist makeover for their downtown.

Previous facelifts to the stores, hotels, and banks along Hamilton's King Street West had usually involved a fresh coat of paint or new cladding for the existing buildings but this one would involve removing the bones as well as the skin. Demolition experts would clear forty-three acres of the downtown core to create a large Civic Square with King Street West-one of Hamilton's two main arteries--running right through the middle of it. The scalpel--in reality a wrecking ball--began to tear the buildings down in January 1969. Bricks, stone walls, cornices, and Victorian dormers began to fall before the city had finalized its plans for the transformation and before it had even secured the necessary financing to complete the original scheme.

Photographs show how King Street West looked prior to the urban renewal razing (figures 1 through 9). …

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