When Boredom Strikes

Toronto’s Camouflaged Electric Substations

For over a century, Canada’s second-largest power company has been disguising its electrical substations in Toronto as beautiful houses that blend perfectly with the neighborhood. These fake houses contain transformers that supply electricity throughout the city.

Industrial infrastructure is typically an eyesore, especially when it’s right in the middle of a gorgeous city like Toronto. In order to blend in with the neighborhood, Toronto Hydro, Canada’s second-largest municipal electricity distribution company, has been concealing substations for the past 100 years. Some look like stately late Victorian or Georgian mansions, while others resemble modest suburban houses. Even the most keen-eyed local couldn’t distinguish between these fake homes. Some people don’t even know they live close to a transformer.

Torontos Camouflaged Electric Substations 1
This is not a house. Photo credit: City of Toronto Archives

The late 1880s saw the initial electrification of Toronto. At the time, a number of small, private businesses met the demand for electricity. The formation of a municipal electricity company was then overwhelmingly approved by Toronto residents in 1908, and Toronto Hydro was established in 1911.

Toronto Hydro was determined from the start to prevent unsightly jumbles of metals, switches, and wires from detracting from the beauty of the city’s urban and suburban neighborhoods. As a result, each substation they constructed was encased in a masonry and woodwork shell that was specifically created to resemble a home. The deception was completed by a driveway and a few low-maintenance shrubs in the garden.

The earliest known substation, built in 1910 and situated near John and Richmond at 29 Nelson St., resembles a four-story warehouse or possibly an office building from the Victorian era with a grand entrance and raised horizontal brick banding. The Glengrove Substation, which was constructed in 1931, is one of these buildings’ grandest examples. It is understandable why Toronto Hydro employees refer to this Gothic structure as the “Flagship” or the “Castle” given its large oak doors, leaded glass windows, and long, narrow windows that evoke the Middle Ages.

Both the camouflage and architectural styles changed over time. From opulent structures from the pre-depression era to ranch-style homes that gained popularity with the expanding middle class in the post-war years (the 1940s to the 1970s), to progressively more modernist buildings with flat roofs and smooth white exteriors. Because these substation homes were so genuine, burglars occasionally broke in.

Torontos Camouflaged Electric Substations 2
Photo credit: City of Toronto Archives
Torontos Camouflaged Electric Substations 3
Photo credit: City of Toronto Archives
Torontos Camouflaged Electric Substations 4
Glengrove Station. Photo credit: Toronto Hydro
Torontos Camouflaged Electric Substations 5
Photo credit: Francis Mariani/Flickr
Torontos Camouflaged Electric Substations 6
Photo credit: Richard/Flickr
Torontos Camouflaged Electric Substations 7
Brimley Road and Seminole Avenue, Scarborough. Photo credit: Robin Collyer
Torontos Camouflaged Electric Substations 8
169 Goulding Avenue, North York. Photo credit: Robin Collyer
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