The mandate of this blog is to create an online archive of information about Roland Caldwell Harris, the City of Toronto works commissioner between 1912 and 1945. He held that position longer than any other individual, before or since. But Harris was much more than a long-serving bureaucrat. His legacy is apparent throughout the old City of Toronto.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Harris's Ghosts

As the city prepares for another Doors Open festival, it's worth remembering the doors that won't open because they no longer exist. Toronto, like many growth-minded cities, demolished hundreds of heritage buildings before it began to develop a sense of its own past.

But some doors don't open because they front unrealized architectural visions, some of which are memorialized in Mark Osbaldeston's "Unbuilt Toronto: A History of the City That Might Have Been" (Dundurn, 2009).

R.C. Harris' proposed water tower for the St. Clair Reservoir is one such project. The only physical evidence of its existence is a concrete ring on the southern flank of the reservoir, near a new dog-walking area. I wrote about that water tower in The Toronto Star, here.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A New Works Commissioner

On May 22, 1912, The Globe reported that Toronto council had appointed Roland Caldwell Harris to be the city's new works commissioner. He had a mandate to re-organize the department, and would be paid $8,000 a year for his effort -- about four times the salary he earned in his previous post, as property commissioner, and slightly more than what the mayor was paid. It had taken council's Board of Control 16 months to fill the job, and Harris came in with high expectations. He'd impressed his superiors at City Hall over the past seven years as a cheerful, efficient, decisive and commanding presence.

Harris would be given, as the newspapers reported, a "free hand" to clean up a weary organization that seemed unable to deal with the city's rapid growth. There were chronic water shortages and infectious disease epidemics in the slums adjacent to City Hall. Torontonians had come to deeply resent the privately-owned streetcar monopoly, the Toronto Railway Company, which refused to meet demand for service as the city pressed north, west and east. Recognizing that he would need to clean house, Harris refused to formally accept the position until council repealed a by-law limiting the ability of its commissioners to fire employees (Weekly Star, June 8, 1912).

Newspaper reports at the time indicated that Harris had become a well-known figure in civic circles. The anonymous humour writers poked fun of his weight, and he appeared regularly in editorial cartoons as a rotund, bespectacled presence invariably battling some political enemy in his mission to modernize the city.

But Harris had a habit that distinguished him from more typical City Hall bureaucrats, one that marked him as a modern man. He was an avid photographer:

As the Star also noted on June 8, 1912, “Mr Harris’ habit of nearly always carrying a camera has been commented on, and, no doubt, many people have guessed that the Commissioner generally wears a tail coat for this very purpose. It might be supposed easy for him to tuck away a pretty big camera in its capacious folds. But the truth is Mr. Harris in his inveterate pursuit of photography has a fondness for a very small camera. For quite a long time, he has carried a tiny English vest pocket instrument, and he recently bought another, smaller if possible. And it is with these – the two smallest cameras manufactured – that he has most of his picture-making fun. They wouldn’t bulge the pocket of the thinnest man at the Hall.”