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The rebirth of de Havilland’s Plant #1 – Historic aircraft production plant gets a fitting new lease on life

November 2019

A historic aircraft production plant in the Downsview area of north Toronto got a new lease on life, one that is quite fitting, thanks to the efforts of designers MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects and Stantec, Architects in Association, and Bondfield Construction. 

Once housing the original production plant for the de Havilland Aircraft Company of Canada, Plant #1 began producing aircraft out of the building in September 1929, following their move from de Lesseps Field in nearby Weston. 

It was in this building, which was expanded over the years, along with the larger Plants #2 and #3 directly to the south, that de Havilland built and maintained Canadian-designed aircraft, such as the Tiger Moth, the Beaver, the Chipmunk, the Twin Otter and the Mosquito fighter-bomber, for both civilian and military usage during the 1930s, WWII and throughout the Cold War.

De Havilland also built and maintained an airfield beside their production plant for flight testing, which was eventually expanded to three runways.

Although the Royal Canadian Air Force established Station Downsview on land surrounding the de Havilland factory and airfield in Downsview, de Havilland maintained their facilities and the airfield.

By the 1950s, Plant #1 was used by de Havilland’s Guided Missile Division, later re-named Special Products Applied Research.  Canada’s first satellite, Alouette I and the STEM antenna for the U.S space program, were just two the secret projects carried out at de Havilland’s facility.

In the 1960s, Plant #1 was turned over to the RCAF for use as a warehouse and office in connection with the DND’s supply depot. 

De Havilland moved into new facilities at the south end of the airfield, maintaining Plant #3 on a leased-back basis, an arrangement that would continue until 1989.

After Canadian Forces Base Toronto closed in 1996, Plant #1 was transformed into the Toronto Aerospace Museum, later re-named the Canadian Air & Space Museum.  

In September 2011, in a controversial move, the Canadian Air & Space Museum received an eviction notice from the building by Parc Downsview Park, in favor of a planned 4-pad ice rink.  These plans fell through, however and Plant #1 remained vacant.

Six years later, on 21 November 2016, a more fitting disposition for Plant #1 officially came to fruition when Centennial College officially broke ground on its future Aerospace Campus, taking over the historic de Havilland Plant #1. 

The four-acre campus had its official opening on 25 April 2019, encompassing an extensively renovated and restored Plant #1, which now serves as the new home of Centennial’s aerospace technology programs.

Unfortunately for aviation historical enthusiasts, the east hangar portion of the building, once occupied by the Canadian Air & Space Museum, was structurally unsound and had to be demolished.  A new hangar was constructed in the footprint of the old one, large enough to accommodate today’s commercial jets, with a small portion of the original hangar façade being retained on the north and south sides of the building.

The new campus facility provides staff and students with approximately 138,000 square feet of instruction space, laboratories, workshops, staff offices, a library, food services, the new hangar space, along with access to the de Havilland airfield, something missing at its former home at the Ashtonbee Campus.

Also housed at the campus is an innovation and research working group, the Downsview Aerospace Innovation and Research (DAIR) Cluster that brings together partners such as the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies, Ryerson University, York University, Bombardier Aerospace and others.

The restored and rejuvenated Plant #1 is a perfect example of building preservation, something that has been sorely lacking in Toronto.

A report from the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office makes note that, “Plant #1 is especially rare in that it spans a long period in Canada’s aviation history, from the pioneering days of the late 1920s, through World War II into the era of post-war aircraft production. The FHBRO report says that Plant #1 represents the early development of the aircraft industry in Canada, this country’s contribution to the Allied war effort, and the impact of war on the Canadian economy.”

Sources:  http://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/centennial-college-breaks-ground-at-downsview-aerospace-campus-with-funding-commitment-602283905.html, http://www.centennialcollege.ca/impact/where-to-give/capital/downsview-park/, http://urbantoronto.ca/news/2016/11/bilateral-funding-propels-downsview-parks-aerospace-campus, heritagetoronto.org/the-story-of-plant-1-at-downsview, https://www.centennialcollege.ca/news/centennials-aerospace-campus-breaks-ground-at-downsview-park, https://www.hangarsportevents.com/venueinfo/historyamenities

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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