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Reclaiming the Past

The Bell Gairdner Estate was constructed in 1937 by the well-respected firm of Marani Lawson and Morris. Featuring a 3-storey manor house and adjacent coach house, the sprawling site stretches South from Lakeshore Road in Mississauga, down to the mouth of Joshua Creek and the Lake Ontario shoreline. The buildings are situated on a ridge, allowing the manor house to have a full view of the lake even from the basement level. Originally owned by Charles Powell Bell, the buildings eventually landed in the hands of the City of Mississauga. City Planners, foreseeing a future gem for the city, kept the building on life support, continuously repairing the damage of vandals and limiting the mould and deterioration. Eventually, a preservation plan was developed that would support the beautification of the buildings and site, while providing a financially sustainable income for the property. The conversion of the site to a multifunctional indoor and outdoor wedding space/public park was a logical solution for the project. Funding was approved in 2010 to start the project.   

The design, construction and landscaping of the buildings took place over a 2-year period. This was the first stage in a multi-year plan to ultimately turn the lands into a public park for all to enjoy. Using the existing skeleton of the building, photographs from the 1950s and the architectural plans from the original architect, ATA Architects Inc. and the general contractor, Rutherford, delicately reassembled the building, reformatting it to today’s codes and the new assembly use. Walls were removed to create an intimate banquet space overlooking the lake and gardens. The structure was reinforced to accept the building’s new use as an assembly space. A new elevator was cut through the floors to provide easy access for the caterer’s warm-up kitchen in the basement and to provide accessible pathways to the public floors. A new ultra-efficient mechanical system was installed, strategically hidden and threaded through the existing geometry of the building. The original curved stair remains as it once did, ferrying people up to the bride’s room on the second floor and providing beautiful photo opportunities for the wedding party. The entire building was reformatted to allow for two fire exits from all floors, without affecting the exterior envelope of the building. No internal work compromised the existing exterior appearance of either building.

To accommodate larger weddings, a semi-permanent tent structure was installed carefully between the coach and the manor house, just at the top of bank, leading down to Joshua Creek and Lake Ontario. The coach house was renovated into a support structure for the 200-person tent, providing both public washrooms and storage for the tent, chairs and tables. Landscaping was just as intensive as the building construction and previous photos again were used to bring back the charm of the original site. Although the parking for the site was increased almost fourfold, through the use of a bioswale and other innovative rainwater shedding strategies, the existing storm-water management system was maintained, eliminating a huge possible cost for the city.

The exterior of the mansion was fully restored to its original condition. Some of the elements of this restoration included simulated divided lights in single hung windows (replacing the lost windows), new shutters replicating the originals, a refurbished slate roof, new flashing and tiles, stone work that was repointed or rebuilt, brick work that was repointed and repainted, and new lighting that was added for safety and security.

The property was of concern to a variety of authorities including Conservation Halton, Heritage Mississauga and several departments of the City of Mississauga. The site includes archaeological remains of a settlement of the site dating back to the early 1800s. The design had to be sensitive to numerous competing interests. Consensus and compromise was achieved by an open transparent process involving all stakeholders at the table.

The story behind the project is very important in a public project such as this. In conjunction with the team at the City of Mississauga, ATA leveraged a smart tagging system that delivers pertinent historical stories, photos and multimedia to visitors’ smart phones. Visitors in the building can see how different rooms appeared in the 1950s while standing in the room or see a video of a mid-century wedding that took place on the site. By connecting the wealth of historical information with the present-day architecture, Mississauga can continuously develop the story of the Bell Gairdner Estate, telling the tales of the past to the generations of the future.


Received the 2014 Mississauga Urban Design Award for Innovation and Long term Strategy. Read more about the award.

Received the 2013 Heritage Mississauga Award of Excellence.Read more about the award.