After standing unused for over 15 years, Niagara Parks Power Station has been reimagined to give visitors a fascinating exploration of the only fully intact, decommissioned hydroelectric power plant of its era remaining in the world.
A world-leading team collaborated to restore the historic facility and transform it into a unique destination attraction. Phase one of the project opened in July 2021. Further experiences are in development to launch in July 2022.
At night, The Niagara Parks Power Station comes to life with Currents: Niagara’s Power Transformed. This groundbreaking experience by Thinkwell Studios Montreal combines interactive media, lights, and a musical score to interpret the building as a breathtaking cathedral of power. It won first place in the blooloop Innovation Awards 2021, in the Places category.
Gail Lord, co-founder and president of Lord Cultural Resources and Dov Goldstein, principal consultant at Lord, spoke to David Adames, CEO at Niagara Parks Commission, Kim Viney, senior director of business development at Niagara Parks and Émilie Grenier, head of creative at Thinkwell in Montreal about the project.
A special place
“It’s a very special place,” David Adames says. “We at Niagara Parks Commission are the environmental and cultural stewards of the iconic Niagara Falls, but also the Niagara corridor on the Canadian side. One of the important stories about the Niagara River in Niagara Falls is the generation of power. We call it hydroelectric power generation in the Niagara corridor.
“We are very fortunate with geography here. Innovators, back in the late 19th century into the turn of the century, wanted to harness the power of the Niagara River and the elevation drop that Niagara Falls allows for. There was a competition to build power stations in the Niagara corridor on both the United States side of the Niagara River and the Canadian side.”
In the late 1880s, the Niagara Falls Commission set up a competition to find a way of generating electricity on an industrial scale that could be transmitted long distances. However, the entries failed to impress the judges. As a result, industrialist and pioneer of alternating current, George Westinghouse, and Thomas Edison, founder of General Electric, were invited to bid.
In the end, Westinghouse’s work in AC with Nikola Tesla, inventor of the induction motor, gave him the edge. He was awarded the contract.
The Niagara Parks Power Station
Following a massive construction project, the Niagara Falls Power Company began generating current at midnight on 16 November 1896.
Initially, they used three 5,000-horsepower generators. The project was extended to 10 generators, and in 1900, General Electric won the contract for 11 5,500-horsepower generators in Power House No. 2. By 1905, Niagara Falls produced 10% of the United States’ electricity.
“Niagara Parks were very fortunate to have three decommissioned hydroelectric power generating stations as part of our collection of heritage sites and attractions,” says Adames.
“So, we earmarked Niagara Parks Power Station for adaptive reuse. We wanted to create a new attraction and tell the important story of hydropower, and to be a new demand generator to attract visitors, to Niagara Parks, to Niagara, and Canada.”
A once-in-a-lifetime project
“We know the ‘what’, we know the ‘why’; now the ‘how’,” says Dov Goldstein. “How was this incredible attraction with so many amazing daytime and nighttime experiences created from a century-old power station that was decommissioned 15 years ago?”
“It has been a once-in-a-lifetime project, so I’m very proud and happy to have been working on it,” says Kim Viney. “Firstly, we started with a strategic conservation plan. We needed to determine which historic and cultural aspects of the building and the architecture we needed to keep. And that’s been an important part of the genesis of this whole project.
“From there, it was a matter of looking at attractions: what is it that is going to make an exceptional guest experience? What will they remember? What will be a memory builder?
“We looked at the artefacts, we looked at the building itself. We wanted to be so much more than just a static museum, so we were fortunate in working with Lord Cultural Resources to develop our interpretation plan.
“The goal was to celebrate the history and celebrate those personalities. It is about the building and the architecture and the history of hydro generation, of course. But it is also about the people, those innovators and those people that had the foresight, the guts, and the gumption to bring something like this to life. It has been a remarkable journey. We’ve all learned a lot.”
A connection with the building
During the process, the team had the opportunity to speak to many of the former workers at the power station:
“The first spark, when we thought that we were onto something here, was when we hosted the ‘doors open’. Here in Ontario, many historic or cultural sites open their doors to the public for free periodically. Tickets were free, but we did want to ensure that we had capacities managed,” says Viney.
In the event, 3,200 tickets sold out in two hours.
“We knew we were onto something. I worked that whole weekend because I wanted to see how people explored this space. I wanted to know what they were interested in, what sort of stories they were telling, what they were asking us about.
“Several of the former employees or families of former employees came through, and there were almost tears in their eyes. They got emotional about this building.”
The Cathedral of Power at Niagara Parks Power Station
The building’s atmosphere is, Viney says, singular:
“We call it the ‘cathedral of power’. It really does have this sense of reverence and awe, in terms of the architecture and the scale of the building. It’s quite dramatic.”
The genesis of the story that Lord Cultural Resources developed for the attraction was not the atmosphere of the building, however, but the formidable power of the Falls:
“That is the core of why this building exists where it does, the sense of place, the sense of time. And then from there, the stories grew. We knew we wanted to develop a daytime experience. But our tourism ministry has challenged us to develop tourism 365 days a year. We also felt there was a lack of guest experiences for nighttime. So, we went out with an RFP.”
The result was a partnership with Thinkwell out of Montreal:
“Together, we have created an amazing story and guest experience. The second phase was to look at how we create daytime and nighttime experiences that are cohesive, but different. We have a phase three plan for July of next year. In addition to the wonderful architecture and this amazing immersive nighttime show, we’re developing a Tailrace Tunnel experience.”
More experiences to come
Although largely invisible, the tunnel, which is 2,200 feet long, beginning at the powerhouse and ending at a portal in the gorge near the base of the Horseshoe Falls, was a vital component of the power plant’s operations.
“This building is like an iceberg,” Viney says. “For all the immensity of what you see above ground, there’s 180 feet of infrastructure below ground. We are going to take guests down in a glass-sided elevator, and they’ll descend to the wheel pit.”
Turbines at the bottom of the pit turn generators at the top using long vertical shafts. The water from the turbines runs out through a brick-lined tailrace. This then emerges at the base of the Falls:
“This tailrace tunnel is 25 feet tall. It is an amazing experience. Next summer, guests will have the opportunity to go down in the tunnel and walk 2000 feet out to the edge of the gorge, where the water was returned to the Niagara River. Here, they will have amazing views of both the Horseshoe Falls and the American Falls. They will be so close to the Niagara River that they will get a sense of that power that the Falls creates as the water returns into the river.
“We feel we’ve taken what could have been a static experience and turned it into something that tells many stories in many layers. Guests have been awed when they come in and take one of our guided tours. The response has been terrific.”
Using modern tools to tell a story
Thinkwell in Montreal’s Émilie Grenier says, “To me, it’s an absolute dream project. The challenge here was to wake up this dormant space and bring it back to life, which we can do with a blend of art and technology.
“As Kim mentioned earlier, guts and gumption was part of the brief, in reimagining how we approach these spaces, these stories, these experiences, in how to design ‘the anti-black box’. We see these amazing black box projects that tour the world and have scalable, repeatable experiences. This was the counter brief to that.
“It was about using the windows, the bricks, the artefacts and the floor; augmenting them and through that revealing the stories that were already ingrained within these walls, within those materials. It’s about using amazing high tech but hiding it in a way that means it doesn’t overshadow or overpower. It’s not a story of technology; it is the story of this specific place.”
Modern tools are being used to tell that story:
“It is the meeting of the human ingenuity that allowed for this space to come into existence. And it’s the high tech and human ingenuity of today, bringing poetry and bringing these tableaux to life, that creates the experience for the public.”
Gail Lord asks: “The vision is amazing. Can you give away any trade secrets? How did you approach this?”
“I don’t know if there’s a recipe. There’s definitely experience and expertise,” Grenier responds. “The invitation was pretty carte blanche.”
In terms of the creation of an immersive nighttime show, for instance, the initial sketch for the idea was a seated show: a one-dimensional façade-type experience.
“This was only a few months before the global pandemic. That reshuffled the deck of cards and any recipe that we might have.
“The invitation was also, perhaps, to challenge that initial brief, and to think about how people would want to engage with such a majestic space. Our intuitive reaction was that people should be able to walk and discover with their bodies, not only the story that we have for them and this immersive content that we’ve prepared but also the space itself. Because the generators are giants and have a sense of presence.”
Treating the space as a playground
Thinkwell designed, constructed, and implemented technology solutions fusing sound, lighting, interactive elements, animation, and 3D projection mapping to explore and celebrate the story of the Niagara Park Power Station’s history.
The nighttime experience, Currents: Niagara’s Power Transformed engages the participants’ senses. They become part of the transformation of water to energy and feel the power station awaken.
“It’s almost like we’re treating the space as a playground. We want people to walk around. We want people to keep being surprised and entertained and touched by the tiny stories that they trigger themselves by just being present and engaging with the space,” says Grenier.
“Our content augments reveals. There is an array of LED lights inside the generator speakers. They interact with the human bodies that come into their depth of field. With tools like generative reactive lights and sound, that relationship we are building between the guest and space is a focus.
“That relationship is a focus of anything we do at Thinkwell. We’re the guest experience experts, so we come at any project from the guest’s perspective, from how they might feel, what they might want to touch or interact with, and thinking about the legacy of those types of experiences in their lives.”
Inspiring audiences at Niagara Parks Power Station
“It is an artistic experience,” Lord says. “It’s not just about technology. Many very important artists, from Charles Dickens to Marilyn Monroe, have been inspired by Niagara Falls. It is a place of incredible inspiration to both ordinary folks and great artists in their own fields.
“I was also impressed by the music, which I believe is an original composition.”
“Our musical director and composer wrote some 20 minutes of linear music to go with the images,” Grenier says.
“The specificity of how we worked on this project is that every head of department was together, from animation to music, through interactive, technology, and lighting. These components didn’t come on a timeline. We intentionally brought everyone together as an editorial committee where everyone could share and be inspired by other departments’ realities. That is another element of our recipe.”
The illustration and the scoring happened together, she says:
“It created a truly woven show that feels like an integration, not only within a space but within the content. That was also the process by which we worked with Kim, David and their team: building it with them, sharing the vision as it was developing. We built it from the ground up with everybody involved almost at every step of the way.”
A guest-first approach
“It is important that the guest comes first,” Goldstein says. “In these types of experiences, sometimes we want technology to take over from what the guest experience is. This aligns with Niagara Park’s ‘guest first’ model, in terms of the guest experience. How did that play into your thinking about how you produced the show?”
By putting guests at the centre of a creative process, you have to think about their experience, how they come at this, whether they are new to these types of experiences.
“By putting guests at the centre of a creative process, you have to think about their experience, how they come at this, whether they are new to these types of experiences. Are they fans, who have seen all the touring work? You have to create a common language for this piece, that also educates the guest and teaches them the tools that they need to decipher and experience the piece to its full potential.
“And so, it is immersive, but it is also interactive and reactive. This means that, as guests move along, some of the content is tailored to their specific experience.”
Exploring the journey of power and electricity
The narrative of the show is both poetic and very simple:
“It is about the relationship between currents, from water to electricity, meeting at a centre point with human ingenuity. As guests walk in, then, they become rivers. Their gait draws rivers, quite literally, on the floor. It gives them an incentive to move, to explore. It gives them the understanding that they are a paintbrush on our digital canvas. “
“Throughout the show, there are these cues to move around. We bring the same kind of system from water to electricity, keeping guests connected to the content, to the experience, and, ultimately, to the space.”
“We have a very similar philosophy at Lord, concerning the daytime experience, which is a coherent story that people can follow, interact with, and so on,” says Lord. “With the evening experience, of course, it reaches the level of opera, of fine art.”
A positive response
Addressing the visitor response, Viney says:
“In terms of the guest experience, it has been terrific to see the wide range of guests that have come through. We wondered to start with whether it would be mostly engineering nerds or people who have a hydroelectric background. But it has been a very wide cross-section.
“What we are finding is, as our tour guides get more comfortable with the script and the property and their stories, they can read the audience and figure out what type of storytelling is going to connect with that particular audience.”
“We had the geotechnical society through for the first conference we’ve been able to host in a long time. We took them through and the feedback from them, coming from a technical side, was great. They had their cameras out and were photographing every nook and cranny and nameplate.”
A holistic experience
Different people, Viney explains, are taking away different elements from this.
“We are now starting to build more children’s programming,” she says. “We have developed a little inventor’s workshop that we’re doing for kids on the weekends. And we’re developing a kids’ activity book. We had our first school group through last week. So, we are just starting to tiptoe into all the various audience types that we had hoped to attract. It’s exciting to see the response, even to the retail store.”
I wanted the experience to be continuous….the flavour, the ambience, the aesthetic, continues through the entire guest experience
“I wanted the experience to be continuous, I didn’t want you to feel like you were leaving this beautiful generator hall, then suddenly finding yourself in a washroom or a retail store that felt like it could be anywhere. So those experiences, the flavour, the ambience, the aesthetic, continues through the entire guest experience.
“It’s been magical to see people respond to it. We’re looking forward to tourism ticking up as the months go on, and, hopefully, getting out of our COVID protocols. But we’re very encouraged with what we’ve seen.”
Meeting the project’s goals
David Adames agrees, adding:
“In terms of goals, the fundamental one was the restoration of the building and the sharing of its story. Back at the turn of the 20th century, Niagara Parks was only about 15 years old. Private-sector innovators were coming to Niagara Parks to negotiate, and, through a land lease, to build these power stations on our property.
“They had respect for the geography, the uniqueness of the location, and the significance of putting a power station along the Niagara corridor, at this global address, the famous Niagara Falls. The architecture is special. So, we wanted to make sure the restoration perpetuated the life of this building.”
“Mission accomplished: that goal has been achieved. At Niagara Parks, we have the environmental and cultural stewardship mandate. We also have a tourism mandate. We operate many other attractions, golf courses, heritage sites, a transportation system, restaurants, and retail shops, and so on.
“This goes into the family of those guest experiences that we offer along the corridor. But we also positioned it as an attraction that would be a new demand generator. We wanted to make sure that we were bringing new people to Niagara, to Ontario, to Canada. We wanted to extend their stay, hence the evening show, Currents.
“Next year, with the opening of the tunnel experience, it’s about scaling different experiences within this attraction over the years to make sure that we’re always top of mind from Niagara Park’s perspective.”
A memorable and enriching experience
The media response has been, Adames says, phenomenal:
“It is attracting global media attention, as well as attention provincially and nationally. It’s good to see that international coverage. We feel we have accomplished our key goals and will continue to build on them.”
“At Lord, we always try and think a little into the future,” Gail Lord says. “There seems to be a whole new way of looking at these historically fantastic natural sites. It’s not enough to have the site. There needs to be a very broad understanding of the story, so a crossover between the thrill attraction and the heritage story have developed.”
“I think it’s a trend that is here for the foreseeable future,” says Adames. “People are looking forward to an enriching experience and a learning experience. It’s also something to take away, to tell their friends and families. They want to learn more about the sense of place, the history of the place they’re visiting, so they can take that story back with them.”
“That’s what tourism and travel are about. It’s about exploring the world, learning more, enriching ourselves. This power station tells an important part of Niagara’s history, but it does it in a fun, innovative, engaging way. It also ties into industrial heritage history, which is another trend area. It’s such a rich and layered site. There is so much to play with.”
Going forward, Viney says:
“My goal now is to establish how we animate and program the space. We know we’ve got a terrific product; we’ve got terrific exhibits. But how do we continue with that animation so that the guest experiences so much more than a static museum experience?
“The programming, for me, is where we can take this over the top. We have started a speaker series, for example, which we sold out in two days. The repeat visits will be derived through programming and new content. This is the canvas. From here, we can build in many different ways, shapes and forms for many audience types. Our imagination is the only limiter.”