Finding Refuge in Allan Gardens

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What secrets of the city could this park tell?

An area of 16,000 square feet, sandwiched between Jarvis and Sherbourne Streets and hemmed in by three majestic churches, Allan Gardens is a prime swath of land in the heart of Toronto. At first glance, it might not seem impressive. The grass is pale, the pathways dusty and meandering, the greenhouses cloudy-glassed. But there's life here—a man wearing flip-flops watches his dog roam the off-leash area; a tourist clutching an iPhone enters the greenhouses to capture pictures of the lush tropical plants; a crowd gathers to listen to a group of local musicians drumming in the park.

As the city has grown up and around it for more than a century and a half, one wonders what secrets this park could tell. Its greenhouses, gardens, and green spaces pull the community in—protesters, lovers, and children alike.

The Horticultural Gardens, as they were originally known, were formed in the late 1850s after George William Allan donated five acres of his estate to the city. He also sold an additional five acres on the condition that the city would use the land for activities approved by the Horticultural Society where he served as president. A prominent Torontonian to eventually become the city’s mayor, Allan wanted Toronto to have horticultural gardens within its core that would serve residents and attract visitors.

In September of 1860, the park was formally opened by the Prince of Wales, who was sent by his mother, Queen Victoria, on the first British royal visit to Canada. Over the next two decades, the park received a number of additions: gardens, lawns, benches, a grand fountain, and most notably, the pavilion in 1879.

Although concerts and events were already being held in the gardens before the pavilion was built, inclement weather often caused cancellations, and the facilities weren’t exactly comfortable. Toronto residents encouraged the city to consider funding a suitable building; some even wrote letters to the editor of The Globe, convinced that an updated venue would be a credit to the city that “hundreds of our citizens as well as strangers visiting Toronto on their summer tours” would enjoy. Moreover, those citizens and visitors could avoid “the inconvenience of sitting through a performance on a bare rough board seat without any back and with their feet in the sand.”

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The enthusiasm of city residents prevailed, and plans for a pavilion were drawn up by the architecture firm Langley, Langley, and Burke, the same firm responsible for the design of Grace Toronto Church, formerly known as St. Andrew’s; construction began in March of 1879. Later that year, the pavilion opened with a concert by the Toronto Philharmonic Society. On that occasion, a writer for The Daily Globe described the pavilion as “admirably suited for a performance by a number of individuals, its acoustic properties being excellent, its interior cheerful, and its ventilation perfect.” The city continued to take advantage of those acoustic properties and cheerful interior to host a number of concerts and events over the next 30 years. Oscar Wilde lectured at the pavilion in 1882, and one Christmas, it was used to host a Salvation Army holiday dinner for the poor where a food-laden table collapsed “to the detriment of crockery and eatables and the chagrin of the hungry ones.”

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But the 20th century brought unfortunate changes to the Horticultural Gardens and its famed pavilion. In 1901, after the death of George Allan, the park was renamed Allan Gardens. The following year, the pavilion was destroyed by fire. At 2:30 a.m. on June 6, the fire brigade was called to Allan Gardens where the pavilion was nearly engulfed in flames. Bunting and flags still decorated the space from the Board of Trade banquet the night before. The Toronto Daily Star reported on the disaster: “Formerly the pleasant reminder of happy evenings, of social gatherings, of banquets and conventions, now it is a mass of charred timbers.” Some blamed the fire on a lack of hydrants and the slightly battered condition of the pavilion. Others blamed the caretaker’s carelessness: he had left the pavilion before the last of the waitstaff from the Board of Trade event.

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The city couldn’t ignore the pavilion debris—and vocally disgruntled Torontonians—forever. After countless proposals, budget reallocations, and disappointing votes, the city approved a plan for a replacement structure. The Palm House was constructed for $30,000, using mostly insurance money the city received after the pavilion fire, but it was much less grand than the original pavilion.

Despite the loss of the pavilion, Allan Gardens remained a popular destination for picnics, concerts, and romantic rendezvous—so popular that in 1906, The Toronto Daily Star donated 12 precious inches to a reporter’s account of a walk through the city’s “lovers’ resort” where he encountered such audacities as “spooning” and fellows with “their arms lovingly around the waists or shoulders of the girls.”

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The years marched on as Allan Gardens played host to countless flower shows, speeches, and Toronto residents simply enjoying the sun.

In 1965, its everyday joys were broken, however, by the sound of clubs raised in fury and mob shouts of “kill, kill, kill.” A week earlier, Toronto Nazi leader John Beattie had announced that he and 50 of his supporters would stage a rally in the gardens to share their platform with the public. The morning of the expected rally, over 4,000 people showed up ready to protest. But confusion reigned, and the riot resulted in eight men being beaten, many of whom were likely just innocent bystanders. The riot sparked discussions of hate literature, free speech, and freedom of expression. But it also cemented Allan Gardens as a witness to the city as it groans and grows.

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As the neighbourhood around Allan Gardens changed, the media noted a shift from band concerts to crime reports. In the 1980s and 1990s, the homeless sought Allan Gardens as a refuge: Clive Fell and Linda Shanley made the park their home until they were “evicted from their his-and- her park benches”; desperate youths rotated between bug- infested rooming houses and Allan Gardens for overnight stays. The poverty and homelessness crisis came to a head in 1999 as over 100 people set up camp in Allan Gardens to advocate for turning the park into a refuge for homeless people. After three days, the police broke up the protest, and the crowd scattered. But the temporary tent city didn’t seem to accomplish much for the neighbourhood’s reputation and disadvantaged people. In 2005, Lonely Planet dimly described Allan Gardens: "The jewels of this scruffy city park are its early 20th-century greenhouses... [but] after dark the entire area is dangerous enough to be not recommended, and that includes even taking a shortcut through the park."

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In 2002, the beleaguered Allan Gardens received a glimpse of reprieve in the formation of the Friends of Allan Gardens, a volunteer group made up of neighbours, civic leaders and engaged city builders. Their mission was clear: “to reinvigorate the park through creative strategies that will improve open spaces, nurture local culture, and attract a larger and more diverse group of users.” With the support of city councillor for Ward 13 Toronto Centre, Kristyn Wong-Tam, this goal now echoes from city hall chambers to park benches in Allan Gardens. Wong-Tam explains: “We now have a group of neighbours and park enthusiasts that we work with so that we can prioritize the work.” It’s not a plan to sanitize the space, ignoring the diversity of the community and turning a blind eye to some of its challenges, but instead a commitment to give the park the care and attention it needs to create a space that benefits everyone who calls the neighbourhood—and city—home. An 84- page proposal created in February of 2017 and available on the Friends of Allan Gardens website outlines all the ways they hope to invigorate and refresh the space. From supporting the cultural uses that already take place in the park to creating seasonal light displays, facilitating public art, and restoring the Palm House and conservatories, the plan proposes a refresh for one of Toronto’s long-standing cultural jewels.

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Today, when you stand in Allan Gardens, the joyful shouts of children clambering over the updated playground equipment reprise the exclamations of children 100 years ago leaning over the fountain edge to dip their fingers in the water. The image of a couple sitting on a park bench in 2018, gazing into each other’s eyes, is superimposed over that of a couple in 1906, enjoying the city’s lovers’ resort. Food-laden tables that fed yesterday’s hungry feed them still today. The park has seen thousands of sunny days and weathered many winter ones, too. And with its cracks that resemble laugh lines, its grounds softened by age, Allan Gardens continues to be treasured by the people who pass through it.

Text: Katrina Togeretz
Archive Photos: Toronto Public Library and City of Toronto
Current Photos: Wasim Hossain