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Looking back on 100 years of Toronto's Leuty Lifeguard Station

A beloved landmark in The Beach is celebrating a milestone this year. The neighbourhood is celebrating the Leuty Lifeguard Station's 100th anniversary.

Station designated a protected structure under Ontario Heritage Act in 1993

It's been repositioned and raised, but over the last 100 years the Leuty Lifeguard Station has remained an iconic landmark in Toronto's east end. (Submitted/Donald Gadziola)

Gene Domagala says the Leuty Lifeguard Station "defines the Beach spirit and the Beach people."

Domagala, who has lived in The Beach for 50 years and is a historian of the neighbourhood, was part of a small group that gathered on the boardwalk this month to mark the station's 100th anniversary.

The celebration happened in front of a new plaque that recognizes its significance and the date it was built in 1920.

Domagala says the station has been moved four times, but it's maintained its status as a Beach icon. 

"It's not just the station, it's the people inside." he told CBC's Our Toronto.

"The men and women who go out every day and go out on the beach and save lives."

The station was a memorable backdrop for many who grew up in The Beach. This photo was taken in 1982. (Submitted/C.J. Howell)

Lifeguards based there are credited with saving more than 6,000 lives, and it's still used as part of the city's swim program at Toronto beaches. 

Originally called The Scarborough Beach Station, it was one of three stations built by the Toronto Harbour Commission  in 1920.

The other two locations were at Humber River and the Western Channel. Today, the Leuty along with a lifeguard station that was built later on at Cherry Beach are the only two that remain.

"This is one of our icons; this is a part of history in our neighbourhood," Domagala said.

Over the last 100 years, both private and commercial buildings were removed from the beach area, and the lifeguard station is one of the last remaining structures from that era.

Local historian Gene Domagala has led hundreds of walks through The Beach neighbourhood over the years. (Paul Smith/CBC)

According to the city, "the simple clapboard structure with its rooftop lookout tower was designed by the architecture firm of Chapman, Oxley & Bishop, which also designed the Princes' Gates and the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion, among other famous Toronto structures."

But the beloved landmark almost didn't make it to the century milestone. 

Back in the 90s, the station started to fall into disrepair and it was members of the local community who raised the funds to save it from demolition.

A campaign called Save Our Station managed to collect enough money to repair it and also show the city just how important the building was to the neighbourhood.

In the 90's, local residents launched a campaign to save the station, which involved building a 'Little Leuty' and raffling it off to help pay for renovations. (Submitted/Marietta Fox)

Coun. Brad Bradford, who represents Ward 19, Beaches-East York, says he's grateful the neighbourhood protected it — and that the city continues to maintain it.

"It's seen a lot," he said.

"The last pandemic — Spanish flu, world wars, recessions, periods of economic growth and investment. That has been there the whole time. And I think it's an important reminder that there will be another day, we will get through this, the Leuty Lifeguard Station remains."  

'One of the most photographed buildings in the east end'

Erwin Buck, a photographer who's lived in the neighbourhood for 40 years, loves to capture the station.

Buck's images of the station are sold in local shops, and one was even featured on a Scotiabank Marathon medallion.

Erwin Buck's photos of The Beach and the Leuty Lifeguard Station have appeared online and in shops along Queen Street East. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

"It's like a magnet. It draws people. And I'm sure it's the most photographed building in the east end," he said.

Buck says it's not unusual to see photography groups around the station on the weekends, but his favourite time to capture the building is before most people are awake.

You can catch Talia Ricci's story about the Leuty Lifeguard Station on CBC's Our Toronto at noon on Saturday and Sunday and 11 a.m. on Monday

"There's nothing like a sunrise from here because you always get the Leuty in it, and it gives the photo some context," he said, adding he's hesitant to admit that climbing the tower is an excellent view to watch the sunrise.

"I have to do it before the park staff get here," he said. 

Buck hopes the Leuty remains a part of the area's scenery for years to come. 

"It's like a connection to home. Even if I go out of the city, I come back and I see the Leuty and I feel like I'm home. I think a lot of people have that feeling."

Domagala says he "hopes it stays around for another 100 years."

Beach residents and politicians plan to hold an official party to celebrate the 100th anniversary next summer. In the meantime a message board is collecting photos and memories online.

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      About the Author

      Talia Ricci is a CBC reporter based in Toronto. She has travelled around the globe with her camera documenting people and places as well as volunteering. Talia enjoys covering offbeat human interest stories and exposing social justice issues. When she's not reporting, you can find her reading or strolling the city with a film camera.

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