From High Park to Under Gardiner, how private donations shape our public realm.
Shaping Toronto looks at the decisions, processes, and trends that form the city we know and love.
When Judy and Wilmot Matthews announced a donation of $25 million in November to revitalize the land underneath the elevated section of the Gardiner Expressway, it was one of the largest gifts of public space from a private donor in Toronto’s history. The Matthews’ Under Gardiner project follow in the footsteps of past donors who, especially in the realm of parks, have used their generosity to provide spaces for residents to enjoy.
One of the first philanthropists to look after our public space needs was John Howard. One of the first professional architects in Upper Canada, Howard worked for the city during its early years as its official surveyor and engineer. Among his projects was the Bank of British North America building at the northeast corner of Yonge and Wellington and the Provincial Lunatic Asylum on Queen Street (now the site of CAMH). In 1836 Howard purchased 165 acres outside the western limit of the city, and spent decades beautifying the properties which became Colborne Lodge and High Park.
In 1873, Howard acted on his desire to see his property become a public park. During negotiations with the city, he donated 120 acres up front, with the remainder reserved for his personal use until his death. Several conditions were imposed on his gift: the land would be forever held as a free public space for Torontonians to enjoy; a grave plot was reserved for Howard and his wife, surrounded by an iron fence originally belonging to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London; and that no intoxicating liquor could ever be sold on the grounds. Howard requested an annual annuity of $1,200 per year, and an appointment as the park’s forest ranger for $1 per year.
City council mulled over the offer for six weeks. Arguments against accepting Howard’s gift included the amount of the annuity, and the park’s location outside the city limits—how many people would venture that far west? Farsighted councillors who sensed the city would expand to the park and beyond carried the day in a 13-2 vote in favour of Howard’s wishes. Two years later, following Howard’s advice, the city added to the park 170 acres purchased from Percival Ridout.
Howard, who maintained his remaining property until his death in 1890, had issues with those who abused his gift. He complained to the press about development schemes infringing on the park and offered reminders about the alcohol ban. There were also problems with people who didn’t respect his private boundaries, as shown in an 1877 letter to the Globe:
This morning, in driving through the park from the rear, I was very much surprised to find five or six cabs with a picnic party had driven through my private grounds. The cabmen had forced the lock off my front gate and driven the cabs off the road into my meadow, and although my cook informed them they were trespassing on my private property, one tall, big woman in black silk (I am sorry I cannot say lady) was determined to take possession of that spot in spite of all remonstrance.
Howard’s wishes were generally respected by his trustees and their successors. Colborne Lodge underwent a major restoration in the late 1920s and operates as a museum. You still can’t buy a drink inside the park, though some have tried to bend that rule. In 1981, Grenadier Restaurant owner Pierre Moreau pleaded with the city to support his liquor license application, citing lost wedding party sales and confused tourists. Toronto Historical Board managing director John McGinnis pointed out hypocrisies in Howard’s regulations—while he had forbade estate employees from drinking, Howard made wine from grapes he grew and frequently recorded brandy purchases in his diary. Opponents, such as legendary temperance advocate Bill Temple, argued that the lack of booze was one of the park’s greatest assets. The city turned down Moreau’s request.
After High Park, one of the largest land donations for public use was offered by Alice Kilgour in May 1928. Her husband Joseph made their fortune in the paper industry. Their estate, Sunnybrook Farm, was fully equipped with cattle, horses, and dairy buildings, and hosted the first edition of the International Plowing Match in 1913. Three years after Joseph’s death, Alice bequeathed 175 acres of the property, including buildings, stretching between present-day Bayview Avenue and Leslie Street to the city. “In order to give the citizens the fullest enjoyment of the park,” she wrote to City Council, “it should, I think, be definitely understood that none of the roads in it be used a public thoroughfares for public conveyances or commercial traffic.” Kilgour put few strings on the gift, other than keeping around 30 acres for personal use.
Various uses quickly arose. By 1930 the horse stables were used as a training school for mounted police, while the Toronto Field Naturalists set up one of Canada’s first urban wilderness trails. During the Second World War, Kilgour trustees approved the selection of a section along Bayview as the site for a military hospital which evolved into today’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. Other parts of the former Kilgour properties are used by CNIB, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, and the Lyndhurst Centre.
Other significant private donations of land for public use in the city include the parklands along the Humber River between Bloor and Dundas (controversially given by developer Home Smith in 1912), Craigleigh Gardens (donated by the estate of Sir Edmund Osler in 1925) and Dentonia Park (gifted by Susan Denton Massey in 1926). While the Matthews’ gift for Under Gardiner differs in that they are providing funds to build public space instead of turning over personal property, we’d like to think that it may inspire other philanthropists to help improve the city’s public lands, even if it’s as small as William Meany’s financing of the restoration of the Toronto Islands maze.
Additional material from the August 2, 1877 and May 10, 1928 editions of the Globe; the April 2, 1960 and September 9, 1981 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the May 10, 1928, September 9, 1981, July 6, 1998, and February 17, 2003 editions of the Toronto Star.