Don of a New Day
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Don of a New Day

Central rotunda with snake and serpent brackets supporting walkways.

At 9 a.m. on Saturday—one full hour before the notorious Don Jail opened its heavy, ominous doors to the public for the first time in thirty years—hundreds of curious visitors were already camped out at the back entrance, chomping at the bit to get inside. Thanks to the gracious folks from Bridgepoint Health, the jail’s new owners and landlords, Torontoist was able to sneak in early to see what has got to be this year’s most riveting Doors Open venue.

We first ventured into the central rotunda, a soaring space that cuts through all four floors and ends in a domed ceiling. Brackets in the shapes of snakes and serpents circle the room, facing the central area used for communal activities, to remind prisoners of the evils of temptation. Paula McColgan, Vice President of Strategy of Public Affairs at Bridgepoint and our guide, told us the awe-inspiring grandeur was not necessarily for beauty. “It’s so big,” she says, “and it was built that way to make the individual inmates feel really small.”

Paul McMaster, current Don Jail correctional officer and self-described history buff, in a 1960s-era guard uniform.

Displayed in the rotunda is a historical collection of guard uniforms, handcuffs, riot gear, photographs, and documents, collected and assembled by current Don Jail correctional officers (the adjacent “new jail” is still a functioning prison), Paul McMaster and Clive Reddin. McMaster, who was dressed for Doors Open in an impeccable 1960s guard uniform and sported a waxed moustache said, while puffing on his pipe, “Being historical buffs and packrats, we collected stuff and this was the perfect opportunity to display everything.” Of all the items, the most haunting was the photographs of the last two men executed in Canada: Arthur Lucas, 54, and Ronald Turpin, 29, both hanged in the gallows on the second floor in 1962.

“Father Time” oversees the jail’s main entrance. Correctional officer McMaster said, “Every man who walks through these doors walks through time.”

As we climbed higher and higher, fascinating and macabre historical details were everywhere. The general population cells measure just three-and-a-half by eight feet, and used to hold up to three inmates, but no toilet. Slightly larger “family” cells existed to contain men along with their wives and children back when entire families were incarcerated for failure to pay debts. A basketball-sized crater in one of the death row cells is evidence of an inmate desperately trying to claw through stone to escape. Triple-barred windows were a precaution taken after members of the infamous Boyd Gang escaped for the second time. (Two members were later hanged back to back.) And the gallows are so deep that looking down from the vantage point of the executioner feels like peering into a well.
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Evidence of an escape attempt on death row (top); A death row cell (middle); General population cells, sized 3.5’x8′ (bottom).

By the time we finished at 11 a.m., the line-up was nearly a kilometre long, snaking down St. Matthews Road to Gerrard, then along the length of the Don Jail Roadway to Broadview. The reason why so many came out today is probably part curiosity and part fear that once renovations begin this November, this part of Toronto’s history might be gutted and lost forever. What was evident from speaking with McColgan is that Bridgepoint—which is actually the present day incarnation of the House of Refuge built in 1860—bought the jail to preserve it. “We’ve been sitting side by side with the jail for 150 years,” she said. “It’s a heritage building and it needs to be saved. We wanted to save it.” Bridgepoint went through extensive planning with the City in order to be able to repurpose the building while honouring its status as a historic site. The exterior will remain untouched, the rotunda will be restored to its former glory, and several of the prison cells will be kept as museum displays. The finished facility will be used for administration, research, and teaching.

At top: Rendering of the future Bridgepoint facilities that incorporate the Don Jail. At bottom: Rendering of the plan for the interior of the Don Jail.

Only a fraction of the people who want to see the jail will be able to get in before Doors Open officially closes for the year. However, Slingshot Inc.—an event planning company selected by Bridgepoint—is offering both historical and ghost tours from now until the beginning of November. The jail is also available to be rented as a venue, with some weddings already booked. The majority of the proceeds generated by these activities will go to the Bridgepoint Health Foundation, and help fund research and outpatient programs for people suffering from chronic diseases.
Though the Don Jail became a symbol of inhumane incarceration, it was also groundbreaking in its efforts to reform (and ultimately help) prisoners. Bridgepoint is harnessing that spirit to build an integrated campus that joins the restored jail with a new yet-to-be-built hospital and walking/cycling pathways that link to Riverdale Park. All new construction will be built at a distance from the jail in order to respect its stature and retain its commanding presence on top of the hill.
All photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist. All renderings courtesy of Stantec Architects / KPMB Architecture: Architects in Joint Partnership for Bridgepoint Health.