When you happen upon Scarborough’s Guild Park for the first time, you might think it was a garden designed by someone with a love of replica Greek sculpture.
The story is much more complicated, and interesting, than that.
I first saw it many years ago, after a driving trip to eastern Canada. We were on our last day, returning to Ontario, and thought it would be nice to have one last dinner out before re-entering post-vacation chores. I lived in southern Ontario, he was in Toronto, and we rarely travelled to Scarborough, on Toronto’s east flank, but were going to be driving by this time, so decided to have dinner at the Guild Inn.
I thought it was an old hotel perched on the Scarborough Bluffs. It was that — and much more.
The extensive grounds, high up on the Bluffs overlooking Lake Ontario, are littered with stone pillars and sculptures. Most of these, we discovered, were hauled there in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s from downtown Toronto demolition sites.
The Guild property was owned and operated by Rose and Spencer Clark, a wealthy couple who bought the estate in the 1930s with the purpose of founding a “Guild of All Arts” to support artists and craft-makers, providing them with a place to live and work. Eventually, the original large Georgian-style manor built in 1914 on the property was expanded: the Clarks added cabins for artists, and then additional rooms and dining facilities for visitors attracted to the charming location.
Spencer Clark was aghast when he saw many stone sculptures and façade panels facing the wrecking ball as old buildings made way for the new glass towers starting to rise in Toronto’s Financial District. As the Guild Renaissance Group puts it, “he began collecting interesting fragments from them and transporting them to the Guild Inn grounds where today they provide spectacular backgrounds to the thousands of wedding pictures taken there every summer. The most popular of these is the facade that today is called the Greek Theatre.”
Clark also rescued a series of bas-relief panels originally commissioned for the Bank of Montreal building at the corner of Bay and King streets. Kate Kennedy, a member of the Friends of Guild Park and Gardens, itemizes these as “six animal panels by Jacobine Jones and 12 panels representing the Provinces of Canada” created by sculptors Emanuel Hahn (Arctic/Yukon and Northwest Territories), Florence Wyle (New Brunswick and P.E.I.), Frances Loring (Quebec and Ontario), Elizabeth Wyn Wood (Saskatchewan and Manitoba), Donald Stewart (Nova Scotia and Newfoundland) and more Jones (Alberta and British Columbia).
There’s even a piece of an old Globe and Mail building on the grounds: its former headquarters at the northeast corner of King and York streets was torn down in 1974 and two bas-relief sculptures made their way to Scarborough.
In one of those “definition of irony: see here” moments, since the Clark family, which rescued artifacts from demolition sites across Toronto, sold the 88-acre property jointly to the Province of Ontario and the Metro Toronto and Region Conservation Authority in 1979, neighbours and advocates have had to fight hard to prevent the original manor and subsequent hotel/inn from being demolished. They won for awhile, but then the government owners shuttered the inn in 2001 and, six years ago, the Heritage Canada Foundation declared the place “in imminent danger of demolition by neglect.” The grounds have continued to be maintained as a city park, but the property has been overshadowed by the crumbling, condemned buildings.
The Toronto Star recently reported that the Guild Inn has been reincarnated as Guild Inn Estates, an event venue, opening in June 2017. The current operators, Dynamic Hospitality and Entertainment Group, signed an agreement a couple years ago to revive the site. They have taken down later additions and restored the original manor, plus added event and ballroom spaces, all situated to overlook the gardens and the astonishing collection of building bits. There will also be a relatively small (60-seat) restaurant. Artwork purchased by the Clarks during the “Guild of All Arts” days, currently in storage, is being brought back. Yet another chapter begins for one of the oddest, beguiling corners of Canada.
Main photo: Ted Balant