Back about a month ago, my husband and I decided to take a drive into nearby southern Scarborough, Ontario. En route to the car, we ran into our neighbour who was born and raised in the area. She recommended we visit “The Guild“. I hadn’t heard of the place but our neighbour said it was a historic parcel of land on the coast of the lake. She said it had a large garden full of antique architectural features, which I was immediately curious about as a sucker for all things garden and architectural. She also said it had once been home to an expansive artist colony (in fact the first artist colony in Canada!), and still housed a large Inn. It all sounded very interesting, so off we went to visit the Guild.
I am so glad we ran into our neighbour that day! The first thing we noticed when we arrived (it’s free to enter and park) was a large building, boarded up and behind a chain link fence. This was the actual Inn – a structure built in 1914 that has been used as a residence, military hospital, shelter and hotel over the years. Obviously neglect has not been kind to this once stately home. It is in a sad state, and thus it was quite easy to imagine why the Inn has a reputation for being haunted. Our disappointment from the Inn, however, was quickly forgotten when we ventured further into the large park behind the building. We were immediately welcomed by towering columns and neatly kept trails through mature trees. The grounds in stark comparison to the Inn are well maintained. The large lawn ends in a tree line, and beyond a beautiful vantage point on top of the bluffs to the lake below.
The huge 88 acre grounds are composed of forested areas, large lawns, flower beds, and a few remaining smaller buildings. The most notable building (other than the Inn) is a small log cabin in the woods. This is the Osterhout cabin which was built in 1795 and is the oldest building in Scarborough. Scattered around, grouped but never very crowded, are architectural remnants of Toronto’s past. Beautiful archways, columns, and sculpture that once graced the city’s buildings are on display. Plaques give the history of the objects, although some of these have been lost over the years. You can enjoy the objects from afar or venture closer – often to discover a face carved into the facade. The day we went there were quite a few people around (it’s a popular spot for wedding photography) but it was easy to feel like you were alone in some historical wonderland.
The history of the Guild is very interesting. The original manor residence was built in 1914 in the Arts and Crafts style. In 1932 the residence and grounds were bought by Rosa and Spencer Clark. They were great lovers of the arts, and slowly transformed the grounds into an art colony during the Depression era. The Clarks rescued facades and ruins of various demolished downtown Toronto buildings to create the Sculpture Park. Altogether, pieces of more than 60 structures were amassed. The Guild Inn proved so popular as a lakeside resort and artisans’ community that in 1965 a 100 room addition and a swimming pool were added (I believe this addition was demolished in 2009). Many people who grew up in this area of Toronto have fond memories of staying at the Inn, or visiting the restaurant for a family meal and walk through the park.
The Guild is a unique and memorable historical site that unfortunately continues to languish without proper restoration. Now owned by the city, various plans including a college campus have been proposed to revitalize the land. Personally, I think any plan that can restore the Inn and the art colony would be ideal. There are so many people interested in crafting and the arts it seems like a missed opportunity not to build on what is already part of the land’s cultural background. I could easily see people taking everything from painting lessons on the grounds to metalwork classes in the studios. Most importantly, without some serious money and invested owners, the beautiful objects and buildings already on the land will continue to deteriorate.
Fortunately, the Guild Inn and surrounding park may still have a bright future. Many local people are active in preserving the space and organizing events that use the park and raise awareness. Just this month, CBC radio did an interview with Friends of Guild Park president, John Mason. I recommend a listen (it’s short and well done). There is also a Facebook Page devoted to The Guild, with regularly updated news. If you live in Toronto, you owe it to yourself to visit. Perhaps, like so many artists before, it will inspire you to capture its beauty either through photographs or drawings. Even if you just walk through the park and enjoy the scenery, it will almost definitely inspire you to return.