By Tatum Taylor
Magazine Issue: Spring/Summer 2016
At the edge of the Scarborough Bluffs, where Toronto meets Lake Ontario, remnants of the city’s past rest in peace. The grounds of Guild Park, a former estate and artists’ community, are scattered with fragments of local buildings that were demolished between the 1950s and 1970s. On the lawns, Corinthian capitals sprout from plinths like strange ferns; salvaged columns rise in pale groves.
Some building bits are labelled with little bronze plaques, epitaphs stating their provenance and their designers’ names. Other pieces speak for themselves through original lettering that spells out “Engine House No. 2” or “Bank of Montreal.” And elsewhere, this collection has the anonymous sense of a potter’s field, where the unidentified remains of condemned buildings have been gathered and saved from landfill oblivion.
The rescuers were Spencer Clark and his wife, Rosa Hewetson Clark, who purchased the Guild Inn estate in 1932. That year, they married on the property and founded the Guild of All Arts, inspired by their honeymoon at an arts and crafts co-operative in upstate New York. The Clarks’ artists’ colony—the only one in Canada during the Depression—followed the principles of Victorian-era social philosopher and visionary William Morris. The Clarks aimed to preserve traditional art forms, as well as to create a self-sufficient community in which craftspeople lived and worked collectively.
The Clarks’ preservationist mentality extended naturally to architecture. Spencer, in particular, advocated for Toronto’s built heritage at a time when mid-century urban growth was resulting in active redevelopment. Confronting the loss of fine architectural work by sculptors and stonemasons, the Clarks amassed significant sculptural elements from buildings that were demolished in the Toronto area and had these pieces installed within the gardens of their 88-acre colony.
Among the collection are carved blocks from the Temple Building, considered Toronto’s first skyscraper in 1895 and demolished in 1970. The Clarks spent $100,000 to save the marble arches and columns from the magnificent Bank of Toronto, which was replaced in 1965 by the TD Centre. They stored these enormous artifacts for years before a friend, the architect Ron Thom, recrafted them into a Greek theatre, which still stands on the grounds. Another showpiece is what the Ottawa Citizen in 1947 called “one of the most ambitious sculptural projects undertaken in Canada”—a series of bas-reliefs from the former Bank of Montreal at King and Bay streets, designed by Jacobine Jones, Donald Stewart, and two prominent sculptor-couples, Frances Loring and Florence Wylie, along with Emmanuel Hahn and Elizabeth Wyn Wood. Graced with allegorical images of Canada’s provinces, these panels have been reassembled into cubes resembling cenotaphs.
Guild Park might seem at first to be a cemetery for buildings. And, indeed, on an early spring day, there is an almost mournful hush among the sculptures and trees. But walking the paths reveals that Guild Park is less like a cemetery than an elephant graveyard—a place where grand old buildings have come to die. More than commemorating past buildings, the park holds their prettiest parts out in the elements. Some are familiar bits—columns and stones, scattered like bones—but others are less recognizable, harder to picture within their architectural anatomy.
To some visitors, this place is a picturesque garden of follies, a cabinet of curiosities—a park dotted with oddities and relics valued simply for their relicness. People might pose for photos against a tower of art deco panels from the Toronto Star building, for the same reason they pose atop the Bluffs: the sight is extraordinary. For others, Guild Park exists as a secret sculpture garden, exhibiting stand-alone artworks beside architectural elements. Marshall Wood’s marble nymph Musidora gazes from a pedestal, while E.B. Cox’s voluptuous limestone polar bear inhabits the grounds. Alongside these works, facade decorations are equally worthy of admiration. Guild Park attests to the role of sculptural ornament in architecture: this craftsmanship is the defining component of fine buildings, the collection declares, the legacy element that must survive.
In another sense, Guild Park is a landscape of ruins. According to John Mason, President of the Friends of Guild Park & Gardens, “The important legacy of the Guild of All Arts has, like so many of the park’s physical features and architectural artifacts, been neglected for so long that the origins are no longer well known, nor well appreciated.” Named to the National Trust for Canada’s list of Top Ten Endangered Places in 2011, the property still awaits a comprehensive revitalization that would restore connections between the park and the waterfront, balance both heritage and natural conservation needs, and bring new life to the Clarks’ dilapidated home.
At the same time, Guild Park’s ruinous qualities fill a void within Toronto’s urban identity, an alternative to the more common fates of old buildings: demolition or resuscitation. There is not much space for the dignified decay that William Morris would have favoured; as he said, “the natural weathering of the surface of a building is beautiful, and its loss disastrous.” Perhaps the Clarks had the right idea in moving architectural ruins to the Bluffs, an appropriately Gothic location at the seeming edge of the world, where they could settle into nature. The writer Pierre Berton put it best when he compared visiting Guild Park to “walking through history.” Guild Park preserves pieces of Toronto’s past, but more than that, this collection of ornamental work transcends its origins to remind us of the passage of time.
Tatum Taylor is a writer and heritage planner based in Toronto. She studied historic preservation at Columbia University and currently works on heritage evaluations and interpretation projects at ERA Architects. She is also the co-editor of The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood, published by Coach House Books.