The Coliseum Complex is located at 45 Manitoba Dr (adjoined to the north side of the Enercare Centre) in the northeast corner of Exhibition Place in Toronto.
An Arena for the Winter Fair
In 1918, the Canadian National Exhibition Association and the three levels of government agreed to build a vast arena to house the newly formed Winter Fair. Today known as the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair or The Royal, the event was organized to showcase Canadian agriculture and livestock and celebrate farmers’ accomplishments from across the country. Funding for the project was provided by the government and through the sale of subscriptions. The plan was to have the arena ready for the first Winter Fair in 1921.
The complex of buildings began with the construction of the Coliseum and its East and West Annexes in 1921. City architect George FW Price designed the monumental, two-storey yellow brick building in a restrained Beaux Arts style. Both the north and south sides of the Coliseum’s centre block featured round-arched parapets flanked by a pair of towers with copper domes.
Though not complete, the first event held in the 6,200-seat arena was formally opened by Mayor Tommy Church in December 1921. Spectators filled the wooden chairs surrounding the ring for a Track & Field meet, during which the building’s dedication also took place. A local newspaper called the yet unnamed building the Civic Arena at Exhibition Park.
When the Coliseum was finished, it cost $1 million to construct and took 500 construction workers, 4,000,000 bricks, 2,000 tons of steel, 12,000 barrels of cement, 5,400 tons of 1/2 and 3/4 inch stone, and 6,000 tons of sand to build. It initially sat on 8.5 acres of land and was the largest single exhibition building in the world.
The Coliseum opened during the 1922 CNE. Although it was a year later than planned due to construction delays, the inaugural Royal Winter Fair in 1922 was hugely successful. General admission cost 25¢, and attendance exceeded expectations.
The Cattle, Sheep, Swine & Judging Pavilions
In 1927, construction began on four additional Livestock Pavilions for cattle, sheep, swine and judging located directly to the east of the Coliseum’s East Annex. These extension buildings were designed by the next city architect, JJ Woolnough, and cost approximately $1.4 million. Opening in time for the 1927 Canadian National Exhibition, the complex’s total area increased to 16.5 acres, and it continued to rank as the largest in the world.
Also clad with yellow brick, the Cattle, Swine and former Sheep Pavilions were highlighted with sculpted stone roundels that showed their respective animal head and laurel leaves.
The main entrance to the Livestock Pavilions was a trio of doors in a stone portico. They feature swag motifs, semi-engaged Doric columns and the name band “LIVE STOCK.” While the doors were originally accessed from the south exterior, in a 1995 expansion, they became part of the interior of Heritage Court.
R.C.A.F. Recruitment Centre
In 1939 and throughout the Second World War, Exhibition Place grounds were used by the Canadian Armed Forces. Known as Exhibition Camp, the large buildings became home to various military departments. The Coliseum was temporarily renamed Manning Depot #1 and was occupied by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Areas in the complex were used for barracks, the mess hall, headquarters and more, with over 139,750 members of the R.C.A.F. passing through the Coliseum’s doors. During the war, the arena also hosted celebrities like Wayne and Shuster, Bob Hope and Spike Jones to entertain the troops.
The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair did not resume until 1946, and the first post-war CNE was the following year. In 1948, the south entrance of the Coliseum was dressed with aluminum.
The New Sheep & Swine Building
After the 1960 Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, the Sheep Pavilion was demolished to make way for the new two-storey Sheep and Swine Building which opened in 1961. It was designed by the architect firm John B Parkin Associates, assisted by Earle C Morgan. The new $1 million building could be converted from pens and a judging ring into general exhibition use.
A Major Facelift
In 1962/63, the Coliseum underwent a $3 million major renovation under the direction of the architect firm Barclay, Arthur & Fleury. There were many interior alterations, including removing several steel columns that supported the arena’s roof and replacing them with steel trusses to improve visibility. However, one of the most dramatic changes was on the building’s south-facing exterior.
The tops of the twin towers and the south wall were removed. Ready for the 1963 CNE, the south facade of the Coliseum was replaced with a new “festive-looking” design. At the entrance, cantilevered canopies flanked a white and yellow hexagonal-shaped building that housed the Agricultural Hall of Fame. The entire south wall of the arena was clad with rectangular-shaped panels of enamelled aluminum and steel. Above the roofline was the sign “COLISEUM.”
The Restoration & the National Trade Centre
In 1995, construction began on the National Trade Centre, and with it, the existing Coliseum Complex was incorporated into the new exhibit centre. The east wall and part of the south wall of the Cattle Pavilion (also known as the Industry Building), all of the Judging Pavilion and the south extension of the Sheep and Swine Building were removed.
Over the years, the Coliseum has undergone a few transformations. Officials wanted to both keep the landmark building intact and return it to its historical face. They worked with ERA Architects, which specializes in restoring historic and architecturally significant buildings. Window openings and doorways that had been covered or bricked up were opened and repaired, the bricks and copper domes were cleaned and much more.
One of the most interesting pieces of work was the restoration of the Coliseum’s south wall along with the reconstruction of the South Entrance’s elegant portico and columns, which had been removed more than three decades before. Many of the bricks used in the recreation were salvaged from the demolished portions of the complex.
In 1997, the $180 million National Trade Centre (later the Direct Energy Centre, and today, the Enercare Centre) opened with its first event, the National Home Show.
The Ricoh/Coca-Cola Coliseum & the Marlies
In 2003, the historic Coliseum building underwent a $38 million renovation and was renamed the Ricoh Coliseum. One of the many updates included lowering the arena floor by 1.5 m or 5 ft, putting on a new roof, adding private suites and increasing seating capacity (which is currently at a maximum of 9,000). The arena became home ice for the Toronto Roadrunners, the Edmonton Oiler’s minor-league farm team. The first hockey game played in the historic arena was on November 1, 2003.
In 2005, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced they were relocating their AHL affiliate from St John’s, Newfoundland, to Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum. In 2018, the arena was renamed the Coca-Cola Coliseum, which continues to be home to the professional hockey team, the Toronto Marlies.
Throughout the years, along with showcasing Canada’s livestock, agriculture and farm products, the Coliseum Complex has hosted several other events. They include concerts (Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Genesis, The Animals, The Who), circuses, jamborees, tournaments, sporting events (boxing, skating, tennis, weight lifting), as well as trade and consumer shows like the Toronto Sportsmen Show and the Toronto International Boat Show. And we can’t forget about the CNE.
Did You Know?
In 1921, the construction of the Coliseum was delayed by a year because City Council reversed their decision to have Anglin-Norcross Ltd, a Montreal-based firm, build the structure. Some were concerned about the job going to an out-of-province contractor. In the end, Anglin-Norcross did oversee the Coliseum’s construction.
The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair was given approval for Royal designation by King George V of Britain.
In 1931, the Horse Palace was constructed directly west of the complex, relieving some of the stress on the Coliseum.
After the Second World War, a Globe and Mail newspaper article mentions R.C.A.F. airmen returning to their former Coliseum quarters during the 1946 Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. They said that cattle and pigs now occupied their former sleeping quarters, the sergeants’ mess had been converted to a tropical fish display, and the cement floor of the arena where they lined up for morning parade was now covered with 6 inches of clay and sand.
In 1973, the Coliseum was on the City of Toronto’s first heritage induction list, and in 1996, the complex received heritage status from Ontario Heritage Trust.
The copper-topped domes of the Coliseum are visible from the Gardiner Expressway and are a significant part of the CNE skyline.
Where did the Marlies name originate? In the late 1800s, a group of Toronto business people established the Toronto Marlborough Athletic Club. It was named after a line of British noblemen called the Dukes of Marlborough. The club participated in various sports, and in the early 1900s, the Toronto Marlboroughs hockey team was formed. In 1927, Conn Smythe bought Toronto’s NHL franchise, the St Pats and renamed the team the Maple Leafs. Mr Smythe understood the need for a strong junior team and would make the Marlboros part of the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.
The Royal celebrated its 100th Anniversary in 2022.