The Spadina Museum's Too-Great Gatsby Party
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The Spadina Museum’s Too-Great Gatsby Party

How a quiet heritage manor went from hosting strawberry socials to throwing one of the city's most hyped summer parties.

Imagine this field filled with 1,600 people, and that’s the Spadina Museum’s annual garden party. Photo by Michael Fraiman.

“I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”

– Jordan Baker in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

On March 11, 2015, the Spadina Museum’s part-time social-media employee created a Facebook event for the building’s third annual Gatsby Garden Party. She didn’t do anything differently from previous years—in 2013, the event attracted around 200 Facebook RSVPs, while 2014 saw slightly fewer than 1,000. The museum staff were pleased with the growth, and hoped the numbers would continue to climb in 2015.

Which they did.

By March 19, 20,000 people had RSVPed to the event. The number has since levelled out at around 45,000—nearly enough to fill the Rogers Centre.

“The growth of this event has taken us a bit by surprise,” the Spadina Museum’s administrator, Karen Edwards, says sheepishly.

“We were trying to grow it, but it just kind of catapulted a bit ahead of us.”

Of course, nobody is expecting all 45,000 virtual attendees to actually show up on the afternoon of Sunday, June 28. But museum staff have nonetheless taken precautions: tickets will be sold exclusively online ahead of the event at $5 apiece, to a maximum of 1,600 guests.

If the numbers seem a bit absurd, it’s because they are. The Spadina Museum is an inconspicuous mansion across the street from Casa Loma, and few Torontonians had ever heard of it until recently. That’s changing.

The mansion’s story dates back to 1818, but it owes its current heritage status to James Austin (founder of The Dominion Bank, which eventually became TD Canada Trust), who bought it in 1866. Since opening as a museum in 1984, the Spadina House has been filled with three generations’ worth of Austin family antiques and furniture. For the first two decades of the museum’s life, each room represented a different time period—one would encompass 1806, for example, while another would transport visitors to the 1930s. “It was difficult to communicate and difficult to understand,” Edwards says.

When Edwards joined the staff in 2000, she helmed a complete re-restoration of the museum, completed in 2010, that cohered everything to a single time period. Since the bulk of their collection is comprised of artifacts from 1913 onward, they settled on the 1920s.


The Spadina Museum Gets a Historically Accurate Revamp

Despite the restoration, outreach remained low. The museum had been known for hosting strawberry socials in its six-acre garden, where organizers and volunteers served shortcake with whipped cream to all-ages guests. But Edwards and her team wanted something more period-appropriate to complement the re-restoration. Inspired by Mary Austin’s luxurious garden parties, she and her team began digging through archived newspapers for ideas. When Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 uptempo remake of The Great Gatsby reinvigorated interest in 1920s style, the museum curators hopped on the trend, and the Gatsby Garden Party was born in 2013. “Gatsby says ‘1920s’ to people,” Edwards says.

This year, they’ve reached out to likeminded groups for the event: a croquet club will set up games in the garden, and five Mclaughlin automobiles will be brought in from a vintage car club in Oshawa. Food trucks will set up shop in the parking lot, and volunteers will serve lemonade and ice cream behind the house.

The Spadina House sunroom addition, overlooking the garden.

It’s anyone’s guess why the event went viral this year. The museum staff have tapped into a resurged public fascination with the 1920s that’s manifested in Midnight in Paris, Boardwalk Empire and Downton Abbey‘s later seasons. The Roaring Twenties were, after all, a kinetic, romantic decade of futurism, birth control, jazz music, and new technology. As Gizmodo editor-in-chief Annalee Newitz wrote on the subject in 2013, “Times were changing so fast that each new generation seemed to grow up on a different planet from their elders.”

Edwards can see a correlation between the Roaring Twenties and today. “There’s issues about our economy, and certainly the ’20s were the precursor for that problem,” she says. “There was a huge amount of change going on. Society was changing, women’s roles were changing, technology was changing—and all those kinds of things are still happening now too.” The 1920s represent a certain optimism toward, and fascination with, an exciting and totally unknown future.

For instance, how a quiet museum is going to handle the possibility of 45,000 people showing up to its front steps.

“I don’t really know,” Edwards confesses with a laugh. “But I’m glad we’ve tapped into it.”