The Lakeside Pavilion at Port Dalhousie

Posted Jun 17th, 2020 in Design, Niagara Architecture

(article based on one that originally appeared in The Right Angle Journal, Spring 2019)

Ian Ellingham, PhD, FRAIC


Whenever I am in Port Dalhousie, part of St.Catharines, Ontario, I imagine my grandparents and great-grandparents courting there.  My great-grandfather was a captain on the lake boats, so would have passed through the harbour many times when it was the Lake Ontario end of the Welland Canal.  Old photographs show a bustling area, full of cargo-schooners in the nineteenth century, and in the first half of the twentieth century featuring trams to the waterfront, an amusement park and steamers to Toronto.  While the schooners, trams and steamers have disappeared, it remains a popular summer destination, with beach volleyball, swimming, sailing, a century-old carousel, and pleasant restaurants and pubs. 

The area is wrapped in layers of historical sentiment, and implementing change can threaten many people - including memories of one's grandparents and great-grandparents.  Who knows how many times those dimly-remembered ancestors actually visited it, or what they made of the place, but when one of the structures is found to be at the end of its life, things get interesting.  A few years ago, the wooden pavilion in Lakeside Park was found to be in very poor repair.  Studies about the age of the old pavilion were inconclusive.  Old written references and photographs did not clearly fit what was there.  Some elements may have dated back several decades, perhaps reused, but pressure-treated wood was also found in places.  The old pavilion, whenever its origins, had received numerous modifications and repairs, but rot was now so extensive ongoing ad-hoc patching had come to an end.

In some ways, a picnic pavilion is a simple building - a roof providing protection from the sun and rain, and yet its very simplicity underlines the curious complexity of design issues.  One challenge is to balance the provision of both shade and light.  But, perhaps the main one, in this case, concerned the reconciliation of the reality of a simple, deteriorating structure, of unknown provenance, with the emotions surrounding it.  Interestingly, attitudes about preserving heritage are not as old as Port Dalhousie itself.  The nineteenth century thinkers John Ruskin, William Morris and Viollet-le-Duc all developed influential theories about how to deal with older buildings, which led to preservation movements.  Today it would seem bizarrely insane to modernise an old cathedral, but that is exactly what happened for most of the past two thousand years (when money was available). 

The Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada created by Parks Canada notes 'heritage value' is "the aesthetic, historic, scientific, cultural, social or spiritual importance or significance for past, present or future generations", underlining that many aspects of heritage are a human sentiment, and not easy to assess objectively.  In the case of the deteriorating pavilion, it is not the specific characteristics of the object that are important, or whether it is actually old, but the individual and collective emotions that surround it.  After much planning, community and construction debate, it was resolved to build a new pavilion, and St.Catharines architects Macdonald, Zuberec Ensslen Architects Inc. undertook the project. 

The new pavilion's approach to light is interesting because such structures are essentially shelter from the rain and sunlight.  This means giving particular attention to light and how it works - to create a contained environment, which, while protected from some exterior elements, remains an essentially outdoor experience.  Consciousness of light resulted from the characteristics of the old pavilion.  I remember it as dark, with an asphalt floor and a low ceiling of dirty boards concealing rather rough roof trusses - and bird excrement:  not an especially cheery place, but useful.  Harald Ensslen, the partner-in-charge at MZE saw this as a challenge - to create something more inviting, and that meant taking a considered approach to light and shade.  The new building has four substantial glazed gable ends:  the intention is to ultimately use those areas for representations of Port Dalhousie's heritage.  The four gable arrangement was inspired by the pavilion in St.Catharine's city centre Montebello Park.  Ensslen comments that having light come from multiple directions reduces the likelihood of people experiencing uncomfortable glare.  There are also glazed panels under the eaves - they allow a higher roof, allowing more light in, but also the additional structure makes the frame more rigid, and, to allow for future enclosure possibilities, the openings will fit garage-type doors.  The black asphalt flooring is gone, replaced with lighter coloured concrete.  For an open structure birds can be a problem, so the roof structure was designed to provide as few places as possible to nest.

Building through 2017 was a challenge as the lake was at the highest level in a century, with water lapping well over Port Dalhousie's wharves and onto the site.  Ensslen points out they were lucky to be using a contractor of Dutch background - he was unfazed by the problem, built a few dikes and kept pumping. 

MZE believes the new building respects the heritage of the area, by carrying on the traditions of the old building by having the same overall location, function, general form and colours, but offers a better balance between shelter and light.  It should provide a new focus around which ongoing generations of users can build their own memories (real or imagined), family histories and romantic sentiments. 


Architect:  Macdonald Zuberec Ensslen Architects Inc.
Contractor:  Brouwer Construction
Structural/Heritage:  Mark Shoalts, Shoalts Engineering
Structural Steel:  Bradshaw Iron Works

Opened:  22 September, 2022.



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