Historicist: Making Sunnybrook Military Hospital a Reality

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Historicist: Making Sunnybrook Military Hospital a Reality

A Toronto park becomes a much-needed veterans’ hospital.

The new Sunnybrook Military Hospital.  Toronto Star, April 17, 1948.

The new Sunnybrook Military Hospital. Toronto Star, April 17, 1948.

In 1928, the City of Toronto received an enormous gift: Sunnybrook Farm. The farm was a reported 70 hectares of mostly undeveloped land located just north of the city limits, stretching from Bayview to Leslie across a picturesque section of the Don River. The donor was Alice Kilgour, and Sunnybrook Farm represented part of the estate on which she had lived with her husband, Joseph, until his death a few years earlier. Alice Kilgour’s gift was conditional on the City maintaining the property as a park and opening it to the public for recreation. “In order to give the citizens the fullest enjoyment of the park,” she wrote, “it should, I think, be definitely understood that none of the roads in it be used as public thoroughfares for public conveyances or commercial traffic.” “It will make one of the finest parks the city has,” predicted Board of Control member and future Toronto mayor Bert Wemp in the Globe. “The scenery up the Don Valley is wonderful, and it will be a grand place for the children.”

Over the next decade, Sunnybrook Park became a popular destination for Torontonians. It was located relatively close to the city limits, but far enough away from the bustle of downtown to serve as a relaxing getaway. Through the 1930s, it was the scene of sporting events, picnics, botanical study, and the activities of many local clubs and organizations. In 1931, the Toronto Field Naturalists financed guided tours of Sunnybrook Park, supplied three days a week by Mr. L. T. Owens, whom the Globe reported was “ready to conduct [the public] through the park and reveal the secrets of nature.”

Toronto’s relationship with the property took a dramatically different turn, however, following the outbreak of the Second World War.

Sunnybrook Park, shortly after it was conveyed to the City of Toronto.  City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 468.

Sunnybrook Park, shortly after it was conveyed to the City of Toronto. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 468.

At the start of the war, Toronto’s primary veterans’s hospital was the Christie Street Hospital, located on Christie between Dupont and Davenport, in what was then still an industrial neighbourhood. The hospital was housed in an old cash register factory which had been re-purposed in 1919 was the city’s primary hospital for the care of veterans not just of the First World War, but also of other conflicts, including the Boer War.

When large numbers of wounded veterans began returning to Toronto during the 1940s, it became apparent that the facilities at Christie Street were woefully inadequate. The hospital was uncomfortably close to a busy rail corridor. Passing trains reportedly caused the building to vibrate, and spewed smoke into the hospital hallways. One Globe and Mail article noted that freshly laundered hospital linen had, by the end of the day, accumulated a layer of dust and dirt. In her 2014 book The History of Sunnybrook Hospital: Battle to Greatness, Francesca Grosso cites one example of a Christie Street doctor complaining that the noise prevented him from being able to hear the heartbeats of his patients. While the building had been scarcely suitable for use as a hospital at the time of its opening, years of neglect had caused it to fall into a state of disrepair.

Inside the Christie Street Hospital in 1930.  City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 19058.

Inside the Christie Street Hospital in 1930. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 19058.

By 1942, with no end to the war in sight, Christie Street was growing cramped, and there was no apparent plan in place to replace it. The Department of Pensions and National Health (DPNH), which oversaw the administration of veterans’s hospitals, announced plans to upgrade and expand the Christie Street Hospital. The people of Toronto, led by several prominent citizens including Lady Flora Eaton and Dr. Minerva Reid, vocally opposed this proposal, decrying the conditions at Christie Street and petitioning the DPNH to commit to building a new medical facility. Francesca Grosso writes that the DPNH’s initial lack of action was due in part to disputes between federal ministries, and claims that limited resources precluded the construction of any new hospitals until the war had concluded. “One would never consider just how may battles were fought to compel, or perhaps shame, the federal government into creating new veterans’ hospitals,” Grosso writes.

Lady Eaton at microphone. - [1933?]

In the summer of 1943, Toronto newspapers reported that the DPNH’s plan continued to favour expansion and improvement of the Christie Street Hospital, and that the Federal government still refused to start work on new hospitals so long as the war was ongoing. “A new military hospital couldn’t be constructed in time to handle the casualties we will be receiving from this war,” Dr. Ross Millar, an advisor to the Federal government, told the Toronto Star. Millar, and other representatives of the DPNH, advised the people of Toronto to, in the interim, consider identifying an adequate and available site for when such a facility could be built.

(Right: Lady Eaton, ca. 1933. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1634.)

In August, Toronto mayor Frederick J. Conboy, whose career in and outside of politics was dominated by projects related to public health, announced that the City was prepared to make land available for a new hospital if the Federal government would commit to constructing a new facility immediately. “There should be no delay until after the war,” Conboy told the Globe. “If priorities can be obtained for other projects, they can certainly be obtained for this very essential institution.” Despite growing public pressure, the DPNH reiterated that they had no intention of starting construction on any new facilities until after the war.

Two months later, the newspapers finally reported that an agreement had been reached between the City and the DPNH to begin work on a new veterans’ hospital, and a suitable site had been found. The site was Sunnybrook Park.

Breaking ground at Sunnybrook Park.  The Globe and Mail, November 12, 1943.

Breaking ground at Sunnybrook Park. The Globe and Mail, November 12, 1943.

The City of Toronto already owned the site, and unlike other City-owned properties in Toronto, it was large enough to accommodate a hospital with more than 1,000 beds and the numerous other buildings necessary for the varied needs of wounded veterans. Of course, permission was needed from the Kilgour heirs to allow for this use of the donated property, but given wartime pressures and the dire need for this facility, this was readily obtained.

Although frequently characterized in the press as plagued with delays, the work on Sunnybrook Military Hospital was remarkably swift. On November 11, less than three weeks after Conboy’s announcement, the official groundbreaking ceremony took place near the Bayview entrance to the park. DPNH Minister Ian Mackenzie turned the first sod with a silver spade, which he subsequently presented to Private George Young, a veteran who lost two limbs at Dieppe. “Let us work together to see that all medical science and tender nursing can do for those who serve will be done,” said Mackenzie. “This will be a meeting place for mercy, a healing place for pain.”

Sunnybrook under construction, 1945.  Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Sunnybrook under construction, 1945. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

In order for the hospital to accommodate patients as quickly as possible, construction took place in stages, so that the first patients could be moved in while the remaining structures were still being built. The scarcity of both materials and labour during wartime, along with several administrative hurdles, necessitated frequent modifications to the designs. Writing about the project in 1949, Hugh Allward, one of the principal architects of Sunnybrook, noted that “such difficulties were, in part, however, offset by the additional time thus made available for the study of subsequent buildings. As these buildings of early units proceeded, the architects were afforded constant opportunities to amend, simplify, and improve such details as proved unsatisfactory or costly in their early installation.” Allward noted that, due to the revisions, the number of drawings for the five main Sunnybrook buildings totalled between 800 and 900.

On September 27, 1946, less than three years after the project had been announced, the first 96 patients were transferred to Sunnybrook from Christie Street. Private Raymond F. Scott of Etobicoke, a veteran of both Dieppe and Normandy, was the first patient brought to the building, followed by J. W. Smith of Toronto, a veteran of the First World War. The Globe and Mail reported that the patients were in awe of the new space. “All morning long, nurses busied themselves trying to confine the patients to their own sections as they wandered about the building, attempting to inspect every room of this great institution. They played with the beds, their cigarette-proof bed tables; they wandered into the sunrooms, into the halls, and everywhere they could.”

Invitation to attend the opening ceremonies.  The Globe and Mail, June 12, 1948.

Invitation to attend the opening ceremonies. The Globe and Mail, June 12, 1948.

In June of 1948, with the patient population now up to 600, Sunnybrook held its official opening ceremonies. “Rising like a massive jewel in a rural setting,” wrote the Toronto Telegram, “Sunnybrook Hospital is Canada’s largest and most up-to-date hospital—a fitting tribute to Canada’s men and women.” Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King attended and officially opened the facility, saying “It will be, over the years, a memorial to those Canadians who were wounded or died in defence of our liberties.”

In 1949, the official publication of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada dedicated its October issue to Sunnybrook, outlining numerous aspects of the hospital’s design in great detail. By this time, Sunnybrook was mostly complete; the gymnasium, therapy pool, chapel, and biological test building were completed the following year. Sunnybrook now had space for 1,450 patients, and included a great many amenities necessary for a veterans’s hospital.

Prime Minister King attends to the opening of Sunnybrook.  The Globe and Mail, June 14, 1948.

Prime Minister King attends to the opening of Sunnybrook. The Globe and Mail, June 14, 1948.

“Departmental hospitals for the treatment of veterans present problems not encountered in civilian institutions,” wrote hospital superintendent K. E. Hollis. “The percentage of ambulatory patients is greater. These patients, who may be in for investigation, or for the fitting of some prosthesis, or for an accurate assessment of physical disability, must be provided with opportunities for diversion.” As such, Sunnybrook’s facilities included many rooms dedicated specifically for patient recreation, including an auditorium capable of seating 800, a library with 5,000 books, and four bowling alleys. Considerable attention was also given to the landscaping, which was designed to be aesthetically pleasing as well as functional, including a vegetable garden to be tended by patients.

Many of Sunnybrook’s features were, of course, more medical in nature. In addition to thoroughly modern patient suites and surgical theatres, care was taken to ensure the hospital had adequate dedicated laboratory space for both tests and research. Also of note was the Prosthetic Service Factory, where customized prosthetic limbs were designed on site for patients’ requirements.

“It is a 14-million-dollar palace equipped with everything that a modern hospital should possess,” proclaimed the Star after Sunnybrook’s official opening. “By general consent it is the best general hospital in America and the British Commonwealth and that, probably, means anywhere in the world.” “It’s all so new, so grand,” RCAF veteran Fred Desbiens told the Globe and Mail. “It is like something we dream about and never expect to get.”


Additional material from: The Globe (and Mail) (May 10, September 15, 1928; June 19, 1931; August 11, 1932; December 8, 1942; July 12, July 26, July 30, August 10, August 13, October 16, October 23, October 30, November 9, November 12, November 15, 1943; May 30, August 4, August 15, September 4, November 2, November 7, November 13, 1944; April 5, November 12, 1945; March 21, September 27, 1946; June 11, June 12, June 14, June 29, 1948; January 31, 1949); Francesca Grosso, The History of Sunnybrook Hospital: Battle to Greatness (Dundurn, 2014: Toronto); The Journal: Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (Vol. 26, No. 10 – October 1949); The Toronto Star (May 9, September 14, 1928; July 27, August 12, September 1, October 16, October 29, November 12, November 26, 1943; January 18, September 11, November 14, 1944; September 5, September 26, October 25, 1946; June 12, June 14, 1948); The Toronto Telegram (October 16, October 18, 1943; June 12, 1948).


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