May 23, 2022
Behind the decade-long effort to preserve and restore the heritage fixtures illuminating Toronto’s historic Union Station

By Samantha Schwirck

Photos: Scott Norsworthy

When restoring and revitalizing a federally listed heritage site, ensuring historic accuracy is paramount. But how can you re-create centuries-old lighting fixtures when the few original shells that remain are badly battered, and the majority of archival sources provide conflicting information?

This was just one the many challenges for CS Design, Montreal, when lighting the main interior hall, waiting rooms and, most notably, the façade of the newly renovated Toronto Union Station. Completed by John M. Lyle Architect and Ross & Macdonald Architects in 1919, the opulent Beaux-Arts structure is now used by more than a quarter-million people daily. Over the years, however, the surrounding area had gradually evolved into a bustling downtown core, while the station gradually faded into the background. The team from CS Design needed to bring the building back on par with its new neighbors, redefining the relationship between the historic structure and its current, modern context.

All told, this multi-phase endeavor—requiring coordination with transit authorities, the Governments of Canada and Ontario, as well as Old Town Toronto’s Heritage Lighting Master Plan—took nearly a decade to complete. CS Design was brought into the process in 2012 by EVOQ heritage architects, and also worked closely with NORR architects, which executed the base building mandate and headed up the electrical engineering scope, until the project’s completion in 2021.

“From its initial conception, Union Station was clearly designed to have a night presence,” says Conor Sampson, founding associate, CS Design. “With its majestic glazed arches glowing from within and a series of monumental lanterns and lamps punctuating the façade, the 1,000-ft long frontage of the largest train station in Canada is dominated by 24-hour bustle.” 

The lighting design sought to achieve two central goals. The first: provide a base ambient layer of light, allowing the station volume to achieve parity with adjacent structures and roadway lighting. “Given that in its original state the station did not have any ambient lighting, we [EVOQ and CS Design] were adamant that all modern fixtures be concealed or integrated into the building geometry such that they would not be visible from the main vantage points on Front Street,” Sampson says. “Within this layer, subtle variations across the horizontal ‘stratified’ composition of the façade were to be emphasized, and the main portico’s depth highlighted.”

The second goal was to restore and re-create the rich vocabulary of the original historic lighting fixtures. “As much as was possible, fixtures were to retain their original proportions and detailing without betraying the shift in lighting source evolution,” Sampson adds.

In addition to revealing the station’s layered horizontal composition, the base layer of exterior illumination also contrasts a strong cornice line, and emphasizes an ephemeral glazed pedestrian “moat” running the length of the building.

To achieve the effect, linear horizontal fixtures uplight the upper parapet wall, while cove fixtures (both by Lumenpulse) wash the cornices of the central portico. “Special care was given to the location and the aiming angles of the fixtures to avoid any glare or light pollution,” says Alicia Dávila Monterrey, senior designer/project manager, CS Design. “Sight lines were projected from the main approaches to ensure that fixture profiles did not project above parapet walls.”

Custom-fabricated in-grade fixtures accent the foot of each column. “Due to an existing glycol heating system cast into the central approach ‘bridge,’ shallow in-grades with no more than a 4-in. depth were required,” Dávila Monterrey explains. “BIONtechnologies developed a 2-ft long in-grade waterproof non-submersible fixture with a 5-deg fixed aiming angle and a comfortable visual cut-off.”

Meanwhile, glass covers installed over the pedestrian “moats,” which create a completely enclosed space for foot traffic around the station’s perimeter, presented another lighting opportunity. “Two series of linear horizontal fixtures [Lumenpulse], integrated into the main structural supports of the moat areas, combine to wash the large symmetrical façades flanking the main entry,” Dávila Monterrey says. “The sectional geometry of the moat area allows the fixtures to remain invisible from the street but easily accessible for maintenance.”

Finally, fully shielded projectors, integrated above the main cornice level, provide a focused and sculpted light on the main plaza facing the entries. “With a high angle of attack, the fixtures remain out of sight and unremarkable during the daytime,” Dávila Monterrey adds.

With the base layer of light in place, attention turned to the heritage fixtures punctuating the design. “Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the project was the design and fabrication of new fixtures to replace the missing decorative fixtures,” Sampson explains. “Of the five original fixture types, only the badly battered shells of the original wall sconces remained. Through scouring archival photographs and documentation, we were able to piece together general information such as scale, materials and, in some cases, the nighttime appearance of the fixtures.”

Deductive reasoning during this stage was the modus operandi. “Unfortunately, many of the fixture drawings by the building architects offered conflicting information, suggesting that the design of these fixtures had evolved throughout the design process and that details were often left to the craftspeople to finalize,” Sampson continues, listing material finishes, decorative bas-reliefs, mountings and finials as gaps. “Certain educated guesses could be made with respect to the original materials, but little information was given with respect to glass type, thickness or transparency. One can only assume the material choices available to the designers at the time was limited and that little specificity was required.”

Following multiple mock-ups in collaboration with Toronto-based custom lighting manufacturers Nelson & Garrett, “the architects were satisfied that the combination of modern sources and materials was a good approximation of the original period effect we were seeking,” Sampson says.

Three of the fixture types were reconstituted from scratch, beginning with those located between the columns of the central portico. “Asymmetric parabolic reflectors were integrated into new aluminum castings, based on the creative reinterpretation of original 1919 shop drawings,” Dávila Monterrey says. “In the original fixture, a large screw-based A-lamp was used, with a round, rolled reflector used to distribute the light. In the initial design phases of the project, we had specified a metal-halide source, but with the extended project timeframe, we were able to take advantage of the miniaturization of LED sources and, with minimal adjustments, introduce an asymmetrical TIR [total internal reflection] optic [Elliptipar] and adjustable brackets, allowing for a more even and uniform rendering.” For two of the fixture types, including the pair flanking the main entry, the team used LED module lamps to re-create the nonuniform luminance of a gaslight source, per the historical drawings.

The only original fixture recovered on-site was a wall sconce, which was refurbished and integrated with a 1-ft standalone linear luminaire (Lumenpulse) to complement the lighting of the exterior circulation corridor.

A DALI-protocol control system (Eaton Fifth Light) integrates the exterior lighting with the base building controls. Zones are broken out by horizontal layer and symmetrically mirrored across the building to help achieve a balance between the individual compositional elements, while also creating a harmonious relationship with the surrounding buildings.

Energy codes did not apply to the exterior illumination; however, the lighting complies with Old Town Toronto’s Heritage Lighting Master Plan, as well as the city’s Bird-Friendly Guidelines. “As a federally listed heritage building, owned by the City of Toronto, and occupied by a number of active transit authorities, design and planning required approval at a number of levels and phases of its development,” Sampson explains. “Over the course of its nine-year lifespan, various professionals, client representatives and builders cycled through the project, requiring a continuous revision and adjustment of the original design concepts and execution.”

In addition, the evolution of lighting technology from the original specification to the time of fixture production required that photometry, optics and form factors be revised as needed. Be that as it may, cutting-edge strategies were never going to be the takeaway for the revitalized Union Station, Sampson adds. “The project focused on a details-based approach, where optics and form factor are privileged over technology.”


Conor Sampson, IALD, Member IES, is founding associate of CS Design in Montreal. He is also a registered architect, teaches lighting design at McGill University and is the Canadian liaison to the International Standards Organization’s Technical Committee 274 (Lighting).

Alicia Dávila Monterrey, IALD, Member IES, is senior designer/project manager for CS Design.


Samantha Schwirck

Samantha Schwirck is Managing Editor for... More info »