The McLaughlin Planetarium Is About To Be Destroyed. Here’s Why You Should Care. (Technology, History)

Saving the McLaughlin Planetarium seems like a no-brainer for most Torontonians. Still, there remain detractors and skeptics that throw their hands up in the air. It’s sometimes all too easy to become jaded or apathetic in this city. This is a town that doesn’t tend to hold onto it’s past. It’s a fast paced city where the all mighty looney rules all. Buildings get torn down and built up on a continual basis, like a sugared up kid on Ritalin in a room full of Lego blocks. Despite this, maybe there’s a way where everyone can win. Maybe we can figure out a solution where we get to hang on to a piece of our city’s history while still progressing and moving forward. Here are a few questions from people that may not believe that saving the McLaughlin is feasible or relevant.

The building has been closed and dormant for almost 20 years. Why should anyone care about it?
In order to answer this question, we must first address how and why it was closed in the first place. The planetarium’s closure happened in 1995. It was closed due to budget cuts, during the reign of Mike Harris, the former Premier of Ontario, and his Common Sense Agenda, despite it being one of the only profitable planetariums in North America. Should it have been closed in the first place? Probably not, but at this juncture, the point is moot. It is closed and has been for some time. So let’s move forward and look at some of the reasons that people should care about this empty shell of a building.

1. It is an architectural landmark. Despite the insides having been torn out, the building in of itself is a work of art, and is one of the most excellent examples of Mid-Century Modernist architecture in Toronto. This is a near extinct species of buildings within the Toronto area. It doesn’t matter what is inside it, or what is has been used for, or what it hasn’t been used for these past few years; the building itself is a treasure that needs to be preserved. Just because something has been closed or damaged doesn’t necessarily diminish it’s cultural or historical value. Why re-build the Twin Towers in New York? The example is a bit dramatic, I admit, but the point remains the same. Just because something is unused, damaged or destroyed does not mean we should not attempt to restore, re-build and correct a poor decision.

2. It is a tourist attraction. When the planetarium was functioning, it was host to five million visitors. These people came to see the building the same way people go to museums, art galleries and more recently, aquariums. It was an excellent source of revenue for the Royal Ontario Museum in it’s day. It would be a destination point, not just for the 6 million men, women and children that reside in the Greater Toronto Area, but for the millions of tourists that visit our city; North America’s fourth largest, every year. This would mean more income for the city. As a destination point, people spend money at hotels, restaurants, taxis, and so on. There would be a trickle down effect on our city’s economy.

3. It is an educational marvel. The main purpose of the planetarium is to educate people on astronomy and space. This means children having classroom trips, and families having educational and entertaining outings that everyone can enjoy. I know people today that still recall their class being brought to the planetarium and how amazing it was. But the educational aspects don’t end with children. People of all ages can learn about space. If you want to know why learning about astronomy and space is important, read Marissa Rosenberg’s essay over here.

4. The Location is ideal. The location is perfect in terms of being a cultural destination that is easily accessible for both locals and tourists. It is situated next to the Royal Ontario Museum, and across from the Ceramic Museum. It is located at a major intersection in the downtown area, next to shops and a subway station. Currently, the only planetarium open to the public is at the Ontario Science Center, which is far less accessible to both residents and tourists.

5. It has other practical uses. The planetarium could also play host to a plethora of entertainment and corporate uses like concerts, business conferences, academic lectures, public speaking events and many other special events for the corporate world as well as the Arts community. The rentals would all add to a substantial revenue stream. Imagine seeing the upcoming JJ Abram’s Star Wars trilogy (hopefully without Jar Jar), or a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (if it ever gets made) premieres at TIFF, with the planetarium hosting? The applications are endless, and only limited by the imagination.

star_trek Star Trek Exhibit at the Planetarium. Photo by Robert Cook.

6. The majority of Torontonians want it back. A recent Toronto Star poll stated a majority of Toronto residents want the planetarium saved. This poll, alongside recent media coverage and a fast growing grassroots movement all point to the fact that the majority in this city want to protect and restore this landmark. Let’s face it, this has not been a good year for the city, with most of the world’s attention on our mayor and his substance abuse problems; saving our planetarium is an opportunity to restore our city’s image.

7. Most other world class cities have one. New York has several. Chicago, San Francisco, Vancouver and Winnipeg all have one. Last year, Montreal just built one. And right here in Ontario? You can find the Doran planetarium in Sudbury and the W.J MacCallion in Hamilton. In fact, it may be more difficult to find a major city without a planetarium. A planetarium isn’t just a building to look at planets. It’s a reflection of a city’s progress in taking on not just a world view, but a universal view. It’s a necessary staple to culture and education, much like a library, a museum or an art gallery. Imagine a city without any of those? How much would we lose as a vibrant, diverse culture?

8. It is a flagship for Science and Technology. A planetarium is a space that converges cutting edge technology, innovation and scientific exploration. It is the area of science that blends what we know and what we don’t know. While it’s important to remember that one of Ontario’s biggest celebrities is one Chris Hadfield, an astronaut that serenaded the world with Bowie’s Space Oddity from the International Space Station, it’s just as important to look at numbers. Toronto is Canada’s center for technology research and development. It’s home to 35% of the nation’s tech industry. Shouldn’t a city with such a distinct tech community have a planetarium?

9. The University of Toronto has a moral and ethical responsibility to protect the planetarium. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the planetarium is a hub for scientific exploration and education, values that a leading post secondary facility has a duty to protect and foster. The second is that the planetarium got it’s namesake from Colonel R. Samuel McLaughlin. When he signed a cheque and handed it to the University of Toronto in 1964, it was intended to be for a planetarium. If we continuously demolished buildings that were donated by generous benefactors when they become inconvenient, and it’s simply easier to get quick cash from somewhere else to build something new, what’s the point in donating money to institutions in the first place? Agreements should be honoured, not discarded. Last week Peter Gilgan, former CEO of Mattamy Homes, gave a 30 million dollar donation to St. Michael’s hospital to build a brand new building in order to house critically ill patients. Should he worry about it being destroyed in 20 years to make way for a casino? It may sound incredulous, but what kind of precedent would be set if this move went forward?

10. A planetarium is the only place to look at stars in this city. Currently, Toronto has the highest number of highrise buildings under construction in North America. It may be great for the economy, and makes our downtown more livable. But what about heading out to the back yard, (or if you’re a condo resident, the roof) and looking up at stars…something that our ancestors have done since the dawn of time? Chances are, you won’t see much these days. And yet, it is the cornerstone of every civilization to look up and ask the fundamental existential questions. Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What else is out there? With our skies crowded with towers, smog and light pollution, it has become almost impossible to star gaze in the GTA. This is another reason why we need a planetarium. As Helen Lovejoy from The Simpsons would exclaim; Won’t someone please think of the children?


Won’t it cost too much money?
It will cost money to restore and rebuild the planetarium. There would be a lot of work involved. But the alternative wouldn’t come cheap either. The cost of demolishing a building and erecting a new cultural complex would be a significant sum as well. The difference is that the planetarium would be a way to create a viable way to generate revenue not only for itself, but for the entire city. Remember, it was once one of the most profitable in this continent. A planetarium can be a rewarding landmark not just from a financial perspective, but in terms of cultural and educational benefits as well. These are things that this city and the millions of tourists that come to visit each year can all enjoy.

I went to one of the Laser Shows and thought it sucked.
Many attended the laser shows and enjoyed them tremendously. The planetarium was host to hundreds of exhibits, conferences and in later years, laser shows. The concept of destroying a building because someone deemed a show to be unworthy is both unfair and erroneous. That’s like saying, after taking your daughter and her three friends to the last One Direction concert, you wanted to eradicate the Rogers Center. It may be an understandable sentiment, but nevertheless, an unfair one to make, as there are any number of other shows at the same venue that are enjoyable and rewarding in their own way.

Toronto is the largest city in Canada. It is the economic capital of the country. It has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the world, growing at an ever increasing rate. It is a city whose core values are unity, tolerance and progress. These are values that a planetarium encompasses and reflects. Toronto needs the McLaughlin Planetarium protected and restored. It’s time for the municipal, provincial and federal governments to step in. It’s time for local and national media to take notice, for philanthropists and regular citizens to weigh in and have their voices heard. It’s time to stand up for a crucial piece of our city’s history and an essential scientific, educational and cultural legacy for generations to come.

It may be our only chance, before another part of our past gets erased forever.

If you’d like to help out in saving and restoring Toronto’s historic McLaughlin Planetarium, you can sign the petition, or join the Facebook group.

24 thoughts on “The McLaughlin Planetarium Is About To Be Destroyed. Here’s Why You Should Care. (Technology, History)

  1. Petitions are great and all but has anyone actually sent in a citizen request to city hall to designate this beautiful building??? That would be the starter under the Ontario heritage Act to get this thing saved.

    1. Excellent question Charlotte. I’ve been wondering the same thing for some time now. I think many are hoping the growing opposition from the general public will alter the University’s current course of action. The Heritage angle is a very good alternative, albeit a lengthier one – (I think it usually takes a year or two for the application process). It worked for the Masonic Temple when a developer wanted to kill it to make a condo tower.

  2. I have enjoyed many trips to this planetarium and the students I brought loved it too. Thinking beyond our streets and buildings stimulates creativity in students. Another reason to preserve this wonderful building

  3. I saw this sad news from two Canadians, writers Robert J. Sawyer and James Nicoll. When my wife Nomi and I (we are both US citizens) went to Toronto for our honeymoon in 1995, visiting the McLaughlin Planetarium was a highlight of our trip. We had planned to go back to Toronto again and again to visit the planetarium and one day show it to our kids. Then Premier Mike Harris closed it down shortly after we returned home.

    We haven’t been back to Toronto since.

    We actually wrote to Premier Harris’s office to complain, and although we normally wouldn’t have been this rude, we talked about how it was less likely we would spend our US tourist dollars in Canada anymore. (This was back when that might have meant something.) Harris’s office sent us back a letter claiming that the Planetarium was only being closed for repairs. We were amused to see the letter was mailed from Buffalo, NY. Guess he didn’t trust Canada Post.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story Michael. Let’s hope one day you’ll be able to return to Toronto and re-visit the McLaughlin. Interesting bit about the Buffalo connection – maybe one of his aides was doing a bit of cross border shopping?

      1. My guess is that perhaps the province government officials do what other Canadians do – find a US citizen friend who is going back over the border to mail their letters. 🙂 (It was actually my wife who noticed that the envelope from Premier Harris’s office had a US stamp. We were most amused, as I noted.)

  4. Planetariums are so high-tech now, and the mechanics no longer resemble the ones we saw many years ago. They can be awe-inspiring, educational and entertaining. Even the city of Ann Arbor has a planetarium at the University of Michigan. As the largest city in Canada, Toronto should be a leader in preserving the architecture for one, and second, it would be shameful to not have a planetarium. One could even do a light show that might duplicate the stuff Rob Ford sees when he’s on acid.

    1. I agree with everything you said except the Rob Ford bit. I’m not sure I am quite prepared to see that. If there is a kiddie version of the same light show, I would sign up for it instead.

  5. Sure, blame Mike again – closed and dormant for 25 years means 1989, which means David Peterson and then Bob Rae had first shots at doing something with it. I guess the Fiberals who came into power after him and didn’t reopen it don’t get any blame, either, do they? You’d think they would want to use the profits to fund whatever they were wasting money on. You either need to get your facts right or provide more info so this doesn’t sound like yet another anti-capitalist lefty cultural whinefest (since I honestly don’t know the history of the Planetarium’s closure).

    All that aside, though, as a capitalist culture-lover, I would also like to see it reopened as a Planetarium or anything else (preferably in the private sector) as long as it isn’t torn down. And your TIFF idea is the first thing I thought of too. It fed my insatiable appetite for space exploration and science knowledge, and I also checked out a laser show there.

    1. Hi Steve, thanks for your comment. I didn’t mean to give anyone a pass. I just mentioned Harris because that was why it closed in the first place. Yes, you are correct, every subsequent government had an opportunity to do something and they failed, the public also stayed silent for the most part. Rather than point fingers though, I think it’s more helpful at this stage to look at what we can do to save the planetarium at the present time. The great thing about the McLaughlin is that it crosses party lines, socio-ethnic, religious, sexuality and age differences. It’s an institution that everyone can enjoy, and share in it’s benefits. Let’s hope it can be saved.

  6. The planetarium was closed due to a difference of opinion on the ROM board. They were split as to which of the Gardiner or the McLaughlin should be closed due to funding issues and the Gardiner won because a more powerful board member whose pet project was the Gardiner made it so. It’s ridiculous for this city to have a shoe museum but not one devoted to astroscience. I suspect the Gardiner still doesn’t get the numbers the planetarium used to regularly enjoy and would enjoy again if it were to reopen. Apparently the Zeiss projector (one of only two of this specific design built) is intact and in the possession of York University. This issue with the ROM and its board is mystifyingly never reported by the media when the issue of the planetarium arises. It would be really interesting to hear their responses to some pointed questions about it and why a recent ROM employee was quoted as saying “it will never be a planetarium again”. Why not?

  7. The Planetarium has been used for a number of purposes since it closed in 1995. Harris closed it for whatever reason. Opening it is better for all of us than tearing it down. It’s a much nicer facility than the one in Montreal, when it’s operational.

    Toronto developers are so quick to make more money with high concentration land uses. Let’s restore and preserve this piece of our heritage!

    Could Omnimax films can be shown there too?

    1. Over time giant screen films could be shown on your dome. Full dome video content is available as are low cost solutions. Toronto is the sort of place that should maintain this sort of content. Your community just had the GSCA conference there and if re-opened should consider joining GLPA.

  8. The building is hideous from the outside. It isnt Modernism, it’s called Brutslism. Brutalism is concrete-heavy and detail-light.

    It is an eta of architecture to be forgotten. Tear it down along with Robart’s Library and the Manulife Centre.

    I’m all for planetariums, but this thing is an eyesore.

  9. I love the architecture of the planetarium….I had such fond memories growing. Is there anything else we can do? What’s worse is they are proposing this tall 81 metre structure to be resurrected in it’s place…I thought that area of the city had a cap on heights?

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