On the afternoon of May 21, 1953, the most powerful and destructive tornado in recent memory touched down in Sarnia, Ontario, laying waste to what was once among the finest Victorian cityscapes in Southern Ontario. Reaching F4 status, the second-higest category on the five-level Fujita Scale, the Sarnia Tornado reached speeds of more than 55 kilometres per hour, destroying at least 150 homes while causing severe and often irreparable damage to dozens of commercial and public buildings across the city centre. In the aftermath of the tornado, Sarnia would lose many of its most significant nineteenth-century landmarks and much of its original commercial architecture, thus reducing the once-picturesque Imperial City into a patchwork of ruined facades and empty lots. This edition of Cityscape will delve into the complex aftermath of the Sarnia Tornado, along with the Modernist-inspired rebuilding and related urban renewal efforts that took place within the city in the years following the worst natural disaster to strike Sarnia throughout its 160-year history.
Seen above, the view of Front Street looking east towards the Vendome Hotel and Post Office, taken the day after the tornado, highlights the extent to which the pre-tornado streetscape of downtown Sarnia had been virtually untouched since the turn of the century. Compared with the 1910 postcard view (below) taken from roughly the same vantage point, it is clear that beyond the removal of Sarnia's historic streetcars, as featured in a recent SkyriseCities article, the city's architectural integrity had been more or less intact at the time of the tornado's touchdown.
As viewed in closer detail below, the damage along Front and Christina Streets was extensive, necessitating the razing of several structures and the dramatic alteration — and eventual demolition by neglect and/or changing views of urbanism — of countless others.
Leaving a path of devastation in its wake, the tornado ripped through downtown Sarnia, pulling off roofs, smashing windows, and blowing away bricks, slate, and all other forms of architectural ornamentation that had once defined Sarnia's Front and Christina Streets, the two principle commercial arteries running through the heart of the city.
Among the worst hit structures downtown, the 1892-built Vendome Hotel — considered to be Sarnia's premier hotel and nighttime destination for jazz and big band acts — was badly damaged. A massive hole was blown through the facade, exposing it to the elements. Seen below, the damaged hotel bears a striking resemblance to images from wartime France or Germany.
While the hotel was ultimately saved — in a fashion that ignored much of the original structure's Victorian design elements and decoration, part of a trend that was repeated by the salvage efforts underway across the city — the grand old dame of downtown Sarnia was never the same. In 1979 during an intense period of urban renewal in Sarnia that saw many downtown buildings razed for parking lots, the Vendome met its fate, itself replaced by yet another empty lot.
Seen above, much of the more intricate Victorian-era decorative work featured along Sarnia's Front and Christina Streets was badly damaged by the tornado, and most facades were deemed unworthy of repair. Complicating matters further, Victorian-era architecture had long grown out of favour by the 1950s, and as such, the impetus to perform anything more than the minimal repairs necessary to get one's business back in order would have likely been viewed as a waste of resources. A stroll through downtown Sarnia today will reveal a great deal of cheap repairs done to what would have once been much grander edifices, with Victorian details and facades either stuccoed or sided over, cornices and capitals lobbed off, and decorative peaks and turrets removed in favour of simple flat rooflines.
Also among the many architectural casualties of the tornado, the Imperial Theatre was completely destroyed along with the Sarnia Farmer's Market. Severe damage was also reported along the various residential streets in the area, with the tornado's strong winds blowing down trees and in many cases collapsing entire homes within some of the oldest neighbourhoods in Sarnia.
Seen above and below, the Imperial Theatre and the City Market were both destroyed, theirs a fate which befell many structures throughout the downtown core.
The typical residential scene below — this one on Lochiel Street near downtown — depicts the extreme devastation caused by the tornado once it had cleared the city centre.
Beyond the immediate devastation wrought by the tornado and accompanying storm — not to mention the subsequent cheap repairs — the disaster appears to have kickstarted a decades-long series of highly invasive urban renewal projects that impacted the architectural aesthetic and character of Sarnia's downtown. By the early 1980s countless historic landmarks had been destroyed, and entire downtown city blocks were levelled in the name of progress. Sarnia's transformation began almost immediately after the last of the rubble was cleared, and more buildings were torn down by hand than had ever been blown down by the tornado.
Having survived the tornado virtually unharmed, the 1876-built Sarnia City Hall building became the first victim in the series of urban renewal projects that were spurred into action in the aftermath of the storm. Demolished in 1954, City Hall was razed to make way for the arrival of the Hudson's Bay department store.
The construction of the new Hudson's Bay store on Christina Street (below), completed in 1955, represented Sarnia's first foray into Mid-Century Modernism. The downtown flagship store eventually expanded its footprint in the form of what eventually became the Bayside Centre Mall, swallowing up countless nineteenth-century structures in the process, beginning with the adjacent Windsor Hotel, as seen to the immediate left of the new structure.
In need of a new City Hall, the City of Sarnia turned its attention to securing a suitable location for what would become one of its most impressive Modernist structures. While City Hall was temporarily uprooted and moved into make-shift office space above the Hudson's Bay store, the acquisition — and demolition — of the old Sarnia Armouries was soon underway. The impressive structure was located further north on Christina Street, at the periphery of downtown, and would become the site of the new City Hall.
Completed in 1965, a full decade after the removal of the old City Hall, new City Hall was opened to much public fanfare. Its magnificent, fire brush-finished Queenston limestone and Canadian block granite facade, complete with an interior lobby and council chambers finished in cherry and mahogany panelling, was built for a total cost of $1.5 million CAD.
Meanwhile, in 1958 the old Sarnia Post Office — built in 1902 and located at the corner of Front and Davis Streets — was pulled down to make way for a new Federal Building and Post Office, which was constructed soon after.
Completed in 1959-60, the current structure (below) features an impressive curtain wall of blue spandrel and clear glass panels arranged in a rectilinear grid, the entirety of which is framed by glossy black marble cladding which book-ends the structure while simultaneously framing the side and main entrances. Altogether, the current iteration strikes an impressive stance, located as it is along the St. Clair River, visible thanks to the near total demolition of the west side of Front Street that was carried out in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
A few years later in 1961, following the late-1950s discovery that the original 1903-built Sarnia Carnegie Library was beginning to suffer structural issues, the impressive domed structure was pulled down in time for the opening of the new Sarnia Public Library located on Christina Street.
Pictured above, the Sarnia Carnegie Library was completed via a donation from the Carnegie Foundation, which was responsible for the construction of public libraries across North America. Below, the interior sported an impressive main lobby adorned with the names of famous authors, including Shakespeare and Chaucer.
Significantly larger, the new library features yet another striking Mid-Century Modern design, bordering on Brutalism. The structure is clad in a brown pebble finish, completed with a diamond pattern, and framed by a series of long copper rooflines, which give the structure an almost Prairie School appearance, albeit with an early-1960s twist.
Another victim of Sarnia's rampant urban renewal, the old Lambton County Courthouse and Gaol — built in 1852 by Alexander Mackenzie, who would go on to become Canada's second Prime Minister — was torn down in the early 1960s to make way for a non-descript motel.
Following the demolition of the old courthouse and gaol, the City of Sarnia elected to build its replacement just outside of the city centre, in a semi-isolated location suitable for both the site of the new Sarnia Courthouse and adjacent Sarnia Jail, which were both completed in the mid-1960s. Seen in the image below, the Sarnia Courthouse includes a long low-slung portion, featuring a series of repeated archways typical of the era, along with the multi-storey Courthouse building, which is finished in textured angled blocks of pre-cast cement.
Last but not least, the late 1970s and early 1980s marked the final stages of Sarnia's long march towards urban renewal. The period was defined by the removal of entire blocks of both Front and Christina Streets in order to clear the waterfront along the former, and to make way for the aforementioned Bayside Centre Mall on the latter. By this time, having long languished in its post-tornado altered states, the commercial strip along the west/waterfront side of Front Street were in poor condition as the postwar suburban boom of the 1950s and 60s had taken its toll on both the population and urban vibrancy of downtown Sarnia. Already by then badly pockmarked by vast empty parking lots, and effectively deadened by the slew of massive non-commercial civic structures built throughout the core, the last remnants of Sarnia's nineteenth-century fine-grained commercial architecture were in dire straits.
Seen above and below, the west side of Front Street was greatly altered in the wake of the tornado. The entirety of the block pictured, along with virtually every nineteenth-century commercial structure on this side of the street, was demolished approximately 25 years later in order to clear the downtown waterfront for redevelopment. The west side of Front Street has long disappeared from public memory and is today home to a collection of non-descript cement apartment towers and office blocks, punctuated by expansive empty lots and the former docklands.
In the image below, captured from the same vantage point as the above images, the west side of Front Street can be seen, complete with 1970s/80s-era office towers and empty lots.
A drive through downtown Sarnia today will reveal what has long lingered as a decrepit, depressed urban core, populated by vast swathes of boarded up shopfronts and empty parking lots. However, should one park the car and venture onto the streets by foot, a small but determined host of new creative businesses, boutiques, gastropubs, cafes, and vintage shops, have begun to take root. Sarnia's famously low rents, especially in the core, provide the perfect opportunity for new businesses to open and, in many cases, thrive. In the last decade, the old Capitol Theatre was restored and transformed into the Imperial Theatre, a live-theatre playhouse and concert venue, the former Saks Department Store was repurposed as the Judith & Norman ALIX Art Gallery, and Sarnia's one and only micro-brewery has, the Refined Fool Brewing Co. (an homage to Sarnia's Chemical Valley), opened its doors in 2014. While it will take some time to restore the sense of prosperity and pride to downtown Sarnia, efforts currently underway will hopefully one day succeed in breathing new life into the long-suffering city centre.
Cityscape will return soon with a new installment, and in the meantime, SkyriseCities welcomes new suggestions for additional cities and styles to cover in the weeks to come. Got an idea for the next issue? Let us know!