Some people go for antiques in a BIG way... especially the creators of Guildwood Park. And I do mean “big”. Big as in twenty feet high, or several tons in weight.
This was the case for collectors Rosa and Spencer Clark. During the post-WWII building boom, many fine examples of Toronto architecture fell under the wrecking ball to make way for modern glass and steel skyscrapers. Out of the debris, this couple assembled a startling collection of 70-odd columns, sculptures and building facades and arranged them in their own 88-acre outdoor museum on the edge of the Scarborough Bluffs. Today it’s known as the Guild Gardens or Guildwood Park, but I like to call it The Graveyard of Lost Buildings.
Guildwood contains the remains of several banks, the hoity-toity private Granite Club, an art-deco Toronto Star tower, the belfry of a 19th century school, a mantelpiece from the home of insulin co-discoverer Sir Frederick Banting, as well as countless ruins that are too far decayed to identify anymore. It’s both an art gallery and an outdoor museum of Canadian social history. As I strolled among these stones, the markers sparked my curiosity and led me to discover many unique individuals and organizations from our past.
Take, for example, the remnants of the former Temple Building, Toronto’s first skyscraper.
In 1895 its ten stories made it the tallest building in the British Empire. You have to love its moose head with the missing antlers. This beauty used to stand at the corner of Bay and Richmond, where it housed the offices of the Independent Order of Foresters, a fraternal society. At the time that it was built, the director of the IOF in Canada was Peter Martin, otherwise known as Oronhyatekha, an unusual and colourful figure in Canadian history. Born in 1841 to a Mohawk family from Six Nations near Brantford, this descendent of the famous Joseph Brant was a high achiever and a real Renaissance Man. He attended Oxford and the University of Toronto, became a physician, businessman, native spokesman, athlete, and author. At the same time, he championed the rights of women and children, and while he was leader at the IOF, he helped protect working people by making the organization the first one in Canada to offer affordable insurance policies to workers. He was a strong believer in the collective power of the IOF, and this ambitious building showed how far he was willing to go to raise the profile of his club.
Another imposing piece of Toronto architecture in this quirky collection at Guildwood Park is the Greek Theatre. Even if you haven’t visited the park, chances are you’ve seen this behemoth in a film (“The Skulls”), a television show ("Relic Hunter", "Katts and Dog") or a television commercial. It’s a popular spot for wedding photo shoots and serves as a summer stage (hence, the “Theatre”) for local plays and ballets. The impressive pink Bancroft marble façade came from the Bank of Toronto that stood at the corner of King and Bay from 1911 to 1966. Although the Clarks obtained most of their buildings from demolition companies for free, they had to pay to have the massive chunks moved and erected on site. The Bank of Toronto job was particularly pricey, costing the Clarks around $100,000.
Strewn around Guildwood Park you'll find chunks of the Bank of Montreal that once graced the northwest corner of King and Bay Streets. It was only built in 1946, but was torn down in 1975, less than thirty years later. The remnants include some of the most stunning pieces of sculpture in the collection. Most notable are the provincial panels.
Six of Canada’s top sculptors of the period created them. Jacobine Jones did the British Columbia and Alberta panels, which show muscular male nudes. The other artists are Elizabeth Wyn Wood, Emanuel Hahn, Frances Loring, Florence Wyle and Donald Stewart. The world of Canadian sculptors was very small indeed at the time, almost in fact incestuous. Wood and Hahn were married to each other and Loring and Wyle, also a couple, shared a studio, home and artists’ salon in Toronto for 48 years. “The Girls”, as Loring and Wyle were known, gained renown for their work on war memorials and for the Queen Elizabeth Way Lion Monument that now stands in Toronto’s Gzowski Park at the other end of the city.
Six other sculptures on the grounds of Guildwood Park originate from this same building, and they’re my favourite pieces in the park. These are the animal bas-reliefs by Jacobine Jones. The beaver, the Canadian symbol of industriousness, is hardly a surprise; you'd expect to find him on a bank. But look for the walrus. He's a little more unusual. This chubby fellow is charmingly rendered; not since the days of Rubens have rolls of fat looked so attractive. You just want to reach out and pet him. As for the coyotes, stare closely at them for a moment and you'll swear you can hear them howling.
If you’re an animal-lover like me, you’ll also enjoy the Bear Sculpture by E.B. Cox and Michael Clay, a modern piece (1979).
The Clarks bought the work from artists who worked at The Guild of All Arts that used to be housed on the site. The Guild was another brainchild of the Clarks; they founded this artists' colony in 1932 and operated it for decades. Sadly, the Guild closed some years ago and the buildings now stand bereft, waiting for a buyer.
So, who were these bold collectors of Toronto architecture, the Clarks? While researching this article on Guildwood Park, I learned that Rosa Breithaupt Hewetson Clark (1888-1981) was the daughter of a Kitchener industrialist and politician. She was a pianist and earned a gold medal in art at Ontario Ladies’ College. After the death of her first husband, she managed the shoe factory she had inherited from him, but her heart wasn't in business; it was in the arts. Herbert Spencer Clark (1903-1986), her second husband, was an engineer with a passion for art as well. Together, through the Guild and as patrons they encouraged a generation of artists and amassed a huge collection of work that they donated just before their deaths to the Ontario Heritage Foundation. They were well-connected and active in the issues of their day. Their letters, diaries, photographs and clippings files, which now rest in the archives of the University of Waterloo, are a gold mine for researchers interested in Canadian social history of the first half of the 20th century.
As I walked around the park exploring these relics, I wondered how anyone in the 1950s, 60s and 70s could have considered these works fit only for the garbage heap. Had the Depression and the rationing of the war years taught people nothing about the importance of preserving the beautiful and the useful? Was everything "disposable"? Even if you put aside the steep price of replacing a building that is less than thirty years old, the act of destroying these works of art still comes off as an arrogant waste of talent. Thank goodness the Clarks were there to recognize and save at least a few pieces of our creative past.
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