A few years ago Hamilton businessman Patrick Bermingham invited then Mayor Bob Bratina to breakfast in the middle of the York Street McQuesten Bridge. The site was chosen to enlist support for Patrick’s vision of staging a gala dinner-dance on the bridge next year to commemorate Canada’s 150th Birthday. Among other objectives such an event would serve to remind Hamiltonians how lucky they are to have such a spectacular vista available on a daily basis with Cootes Paradise stretching to the west and the harbour and city to the east.
The bridge and the surrounding lands, including the recently-renovated Rock Garden are the remaining features of a grandiose development plan launched in the late 1920’s by the Board of Parks Management, and its visionary works chairman Thomas Baker McQuesten. The area, when it was transferred to McQuesten’s Parks Board in 1927, was a far cry from the scenic roadway of today. Then, the “causeway” as it was called was a high, narrow sand ridge with scant vegetation, crossing the DesJardins canal on a rusted, eyesore of an iron bridge. The bridge, built in the horse and buggy days was in poor repair after years of auto traffic, and would soon need replacement.
It was the end of the roaring 20’s and economic optimism was everywhere when the Parks Board boldly advertised for a competition for proposals to develop the area. Bidders were encouraged, in addition to a design for a new bridge; to consider such features as “pavilion, a large gasoline station, tea houses, etc.” along with such other features as “balustrades, fountains, lamp standards and other architectural furniture.” Showing a high degree of foresight the proponent advised bidders to design a bridge “for the ultimate traffic of a city of 500,000.” Hamilton’s population at that time was less than 130,000.
The contest attracted a dozen bids from landscapers, architects and engineers from Toronto, Hamilton, Brantford and Montreal. The top three bids included one from John Lyle, a Hamiltonian who had achieved architectural renown for his design of Toronto Union Station and the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto; and Howard and Laurie Dunnington-Grubb who were pre-eminent in the area of landscape architecture. The first prize, however, went to a lesser known Swedish landscape artist, Carl Borgstrom who teamed up with a firm of civil engineers for his proposal.
Borgstrom’s proposal was to cut the causeway down by 15 feet and use the resulting fill to widen the narrow road into the impressive landscaped avenue that exists today. He was also the only bidder to propose building what is today’s Rock Garden. His proposal for the bridge, however, did not impress the judges and instead they entrusted that part of the project to Lyle, whose original concept was a monumental colonnade-lined beaux-arts structure. For his part Dunnington-Grubb, shut out of the Northwest Entrance; was soon at work on what became the Sunken Garden built on parkland adjacent to McMaster, and another unsuccessful bidder, William Lyon Somerville was designing the original buildings at McMaster.
Work soon began but with the arrival of the Depression, most of the utopian architecture had to be sacrificed. What was left was the building of the roadway with its landscaping, the Rock Garden, and the bridge. Lyle’s bridge was scaled down from the original concept to the bridge of today with a 40-foot limestone pylon at each corner. Even then McQuesten had to fight with city politicians to keep the pylons (which added only $25,000 to the overall cost) and to maintain its width at 54 feet, when some critics argued for a 30-foot roadway. It is safe to say that had the bridge not been built to accommodate its current four lanes of traffic that it likely would have been replaced in the highway boom of the 1960’s with something far less attractive.
Recently, Dr. David Galbraith, the Royal Botanical Gardens Head of Science embarked on a project to analyze and preserve some of the original architectural drawings used in the competition nearly 90 years ago. The drawings, some reproduced here; most of them covering the length of a table, illustrate not only the schools of design and imagination that existed at that time in architecture– but also showcase a degree of sheer artistic ability (in the pre-computer assisted design era) in the hand-painted and inked drawings which are in the RBG archives.

Providing a fresh perspective for Hamilton and Burlington

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