Preserving Toronto’s Architectural History

Discover a secret trove tucked in the city’s east end that reflects a bygone era.

When I was a child in the 1960s, Toronto was on a development spree, much like it is today. But back then, historic buildings were torn down without a blink and replaced by the shining towers that now spike the downtown skyline.

Luckily, pieces of those early architectural gems were preserved by a forward-looking couple and are now part of a sculpture sanctuary and formal garden. Go to this park, hidden away near the Scarborough Bluffs, and you will find a treasure trove of Toronto history. Formerly a 1930s artists’ colony, Guild Park and Gardens is chock-a-block with chunks of times gone by.

Driving up to this address, it looks like an old inn that’s been converted into a modern special events space. But take the path to the back of the property and you’ll discover the scattered remnants of an era that has all but disappeared. The 88-acre park is filled with pillars from banks that no longer exist, sculpted panels rescued from the wrecking ball, and fragments of Art Deco facades.

Highlights include the facade of the Temple Building (62 Richmond Street West and Bay Street) which was the city’s tallest building until 1905. From the Bank of Montreal building at King and Bay streets, came the animal-themed bas-reliefs created by British-born artist Phyllis Jacobine Jones, who emigrated to Canada in 1933. There is also a small log cabin built for William Osterhout, who was commissioned to survey Scarborough by John Graves Simcoe, first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada. It dates back to 1795 and is the oldest building in Scarborough.

What really caught my eye was the Greek theatre, constructed with white marble archways and pillars taken from the Bank of Toronto, built in 1913. This bank once stood on the southwest corner of Bay and King Streets and was demolished in 1960s to make way for the Toronto Dominion Centre. The pieces were jig-sawed together to form the Greek theatre in 1982 and it is now used for outdoor performances.

The property’s main house is a white stucco, arts and crafts style mansion built in 1914 as a residence for Colonel Harold C. Bickford, a decorated war hero. Set on 400 acres, the home was purchased by Rosa Breithaupt Hewetson in 1932, shortly before her marriage to Spencer Clark. A socially conscious couple, they decided to model their new property into the Canadian equivalent of Roycroft in East Aurora, New York. Roycroft was considered to be the centre of the Arts and Craft movement at the time.

The Clarks called their new co-operative The Guild of All Arts and their aim was to allow artists to preserve traditional skills and methods of fabrication. The site provided a base and a forum for artists and artisans, where their work was created and collected. Many of the artists were contemporaries or students of members of the Group of Seven, Canada’s famous art collective. By the early 1940s, the Guild had become a sort of country inn set amid working artisans and surrounded by magnificent gardens.

During the Second World War, the Canadian Government requisitioned the property and turned it into a training base for the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRENS). The hotel also served as a military hospital for victims of shellshock, with the craft facilities providing therapeutic rehabilitation for the service personnel undergoing treatment there.

The Clarks returned to the property in 1947 and for the next 35 years built a reputation as patrons of the arts and preservationists. In the 1960s, the couple noticed that due to a frenzied post-war building boom, many of Toronto’s heritage buildings were being demolished. Worried about the loss of significant examples of craftsmanship and irreplaceable artistry, Spencer became involved with preserving Toronto’s architectural heritage. When threatened buildings were demolished, he saved architectural fragments and had them re-erected at the Guild Inn site.

Today, among the lion’s heads, faces, rosettes and long forgotten facades there are also original sculptures commissioned by the Clarks and created by artists who were members of the guild.

In 1965, a six storey concrete hotel wing was added, together with a swimming pool. Visitation to the Guild Inn increased. All kinds of visitors came, from dignitaries and ambassadors to movie stars and musicians.

The Clarks, who were getting on in age by the mid 1970s, wanted to find a way to preserve their legacy for future generations. In 1978 the property and the architectural fragments were sold to the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority to be maintained as a public park.

Spencer Clark continued to run the hotel until 1983, when a Board of Management was formed to oversee operations. At the time of the City’s amalgamation, the board was disbanded and the City’s Economic Development and Culture Division took over responsibility for the sculpture and architectural fragments, while the Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division began to manage the surrounding parkland. The hotel continued to operate under contract management until it closed in 2002.

The building and grounds are now a popular spot for weddings and other special events. Open year round, admission is free and walking tours (with proper pandemic protocol) explaining the origins of the park’s many architectural pieces and sculptures can be arranged through Friends of Guild Park or you can take your own self-guided walk.

Address: 201 Guildwood Pkwy, Scarborough, ON M1E 1P5
Friends of Guild Park: guildpark.wildapricot.org

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