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A brief history of the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital

Posted by Agatha Barc / April 29, 2011

Toronto, Etobicoke, Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, Mimico Branch AsylumI've been exploring the history of Toronto's heritage buildings and other bits of local lore for about a year now, and so this week I decided to devote some space to what I consider one of the most fascinating groups of buildings in Toronto in terms of social history. They are located near the shore of Lake Ontario in Etobicoke, and now house the Lakeshore Campus of Humber College.

Toronto, Etobicoke, Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, Mimico Branch AsylumAccording to the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital fonds at the Archives for the History of Canadian Psychiatry and Mental Health Services, the institution officially opened as the Mimico Branch Asylum on January 20, 1890. However, its early development traces back to 1871, when the annual meeting of provincial superintendents took place at the Provincial Lunatic Asylum. Then, the existing overcrowding at 999 Queen Street West, which had been a problem from the beginning, compelled the authorities to recommend a construction of a separate "branch" that would care for the incurably mentally ill patients. They reasoned that those, who still had a chance of recovery from their maladies, would benefit from more attention from physicians and less crowded wards that would result from the separation of the incurable.

Toronto, Etobicoke, Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, Mimico Branch AsylumIn 1884, a group consisting of male patients and attendants were sent to Mimico, on a site of a provincial farm, to construct the asylum. Kivas Tully, the chief provincial architect at that time, designed the buildings in the popular combination of Gothic and Romanesque Revival styles. The so-called "cottage system" of asylums was considered to be superior to one sprawling structure that allowed for a better classification of inmates, and Mimico was the first institution for the insane in Canada that was based upon it.

Toronto, Etobicoke, Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, Mimico Branch Asylum

Under the guise of moral management, advocated by Dr. Joseph Workman, the first superintendent at 999 Queen Street West, which styled productive work as a form of therapy, the patients did not receive any pay for their labour. This exploitative pattern continued through the 1930s and the 1940s, when the patients performed renovations on the physical plant of the hospital. It did not cease until the 1950s, when the asylum farm was being sold for suburban development.

Toronto, Etobicoke, Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, Mimico Branch AsylumIn addition to farming and construction, the inmates were also employed in gardening, cleaning, and carpentry. Work was assigned according to the existing gender roles: women were thus engaged in domestic tasks such as laundry and cooking. The patients also assisted in burials of the deceased by making coffins and assisting in burying of the bodies at the asylum cemetery, which is currently being restored due to the efforts of volunteers.

Toronto, Etobicoke, Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, Mimico Branch AsylumThe inmates were housed in so-called cottages, which were built on both side of the main administrative building in the centre. The cottages numbered 1 to 5 and located to the south were for female patients, while the cottages A to E were for males. In addition, moral treatment stressed the influence of the immediate environment on the well-being on patients. Hence, the wards were designed to have cheerful, home-like appearance. The inmates were also escorted daily on walks and were encouraged to participate in sports. A cricket rink, still in use today, was leveled by patients in 1896, and the incorporation of the Mimico Asylum Cricket Club soon followed. The assembly hall, constructed in 1898, was used for Sunday worship and weekly dances.

Toronto, Etobicoke, Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, Mimico Branch AsylumIn 1894, the asylum was renamed Mimico Insane Asylum and became an institution in its own right. This was due to the increasing patient population at the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, and it was decided that a branch institution no longer sufficed.

Toronto, Etobicoke, Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, Mimico Branch AsylumThis represented the first step in the long-term decline of the hospital, which would continue until the late 1950s. The overcrowding soon became an issue and the standard of care drastically worsened, particularly during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The funding was so scarce that markers could not even be provided for the patients buried at the cemetery and violence was a daily reality within the institutional walls.

Much changed when Dr. Herbert Clayton Moorehouse became the superintendent in 1959. He aimed to revitalize the institution by reducing the patient population through the expansion of outpatient services. It was most likely him who put an end to forced patient labour. He was fondly remembered after his retirement, and the association of volunteers, which financed a patient lounge, named it after him.

Toronto, Etobicoke, Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, Mimico Branch AsylumDr. Donald Ross Gunn, as the research director for many years and later as the superintendent between 1967 and 1972, worked to make the hospital more respectable and prestigious through his research initiatives, which included the discovery of succinylcholine as an effective muscle relaxant administrated to the patient prior to electroconvulsive treatment.

Toronto, Etobicoke, Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, Mimico Branch AsylumThe institution, which was renamed as the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital in 1964, closed on September 1, 1979, following the decision of Dennis R. Timbrell, the Minister of Health, to shut it down due to its "substandard facilities." As with the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, large scale-Victorian asylums were seen as inhumane and monstrous, not to mentioned antiquated. It must be noted that the closing was part of the bigger trend of deinstitutionalization, which began after World War II. Although Timbrell did promise that the services provided by the hospital would be replaced by the Lakeshore Division at Queen Street Mental Health Centre, over time they proved to be highly inadequate, and many patients became homeless.

Toronto, Etobicoke, Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, Mimico Branch AsylumNot surprisingly, owning to the fact that many of the buildings stood empty for a number of years, the site has inspired countless ghost stories and urban legends among other nonsense. I rather strongly feel that they tend to overshadow the life narratives of the people who lived, worked, and died there, with many of them remaining untold.

Images from the Archives of Ontario, City of Toronto Archives, and author's collection. I would like to acknowledge John Court for his assistance with the research.

Discussion

28 Comments

art / April 29, 2011 at 09:55 am
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Those buildings are crazy...old.
Sandra / April 29, 2011 at 10:16 am
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The cemetery for the hospital is located at the corner of Evans and Horner. It totally looks like an empty lot, but a group of community members have been slowly unearthing the grave stones. It's fascinating to take a walk through, and see the names of those who have been forgotten. I drop by to pay my respects every now and then. I find that it is a reminder of the lives that were lived and lost there, like you said.
CT / April 29, 2011 at 11:15 am
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I used to live down the street from there and would go for daily walks on the grounds to admire the old architecture, big old trees etc...so glad that the area has been revitalized for new use. It would have been a shame if it all got razed to another condo project!
Hi replying to a comment from Sandra / April 29, 2011 at 11:42 am
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I have dropped by there a few times as well, sadly only a 100 stones unearthed out of 1500 burials.

http://www.psychiatricsurvivorarchives.com/cemetery/cemetery.html

Really is a sad place to visit, so many died and are forgotten.

But i also like walking around the old buildings on the hospital site. I am also happy they have been restored and protected. But the history of the area should never be forgotten.
jess / April 29, 2011 at 11:44 am
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Where exactly is this located? I'd like to talk around the area, looks awesome. Is the building now occupied?
notsure / April 29, 2011 at 11:52 am
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Not sure how far they got with making a monument for cemetery, but the idea was a good one: http://mycanadianshield.ca/mindscape/?p=181
Toba / April 29, 2011 at 11:54 am
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My friend and I both attended Humber College while the 'Cottages' were being renovated. Because they were being renovated as part of an on-going campaign to modernize the campus they were done one at a time. This allowed my friend and I to sneek into one of the cottages that had not been touched yet. Needless to say it was quite an spooky experience with some of the medical equipment still lying around and a lot of creepy signs of troubled mental patients. Still have the photographs somewhere
Sil / April 29, 2011 at 12:05 pm
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Jess - this is at Kipling and Lake Shore. The 501 Queen streetcar bound for Long Branch goes right by it. It's now part of Humber College.

I live not far away and the old buildings are a treasure for the neighborhood. So much history in an area that's being overtaken by condo towers with no character.
Rob / April 29, 2011 at 12:21 pm
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This is a great story. I went to Humber's Lakeshore campus and had many classes in the cottages. It was awesome how they were able to renovate the space. I've heard there are underground tunnels that link some of the cottages together. It's too bad the school doesn't highlight this more and offer walking tours. It seems like a natural thing to do.
GrewUpInEtobicoke / April 29, 2011 at 12:55 pm
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I grew up in South Etobicoke and the 'looney bin' was a popular place to ride bikes and enjoy the landscape.

We were 10 years old of course the poorly chosen moniker for the property by the locals was all we knew it as.

I witnessed several movies filmed on the site including classics such as a few of the Police Academy movies and my favorite, 'Strange Brew'!

I too am glad that they have revitalized it. A property with a lot of history for sure.

A peaceful walk anytime of the year as well.
katt / April 29, 2011 at 02:50 pm
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I spent 8 months of my life at Humber due to a poor judgement call... I still remember going to my interview and thinking there was a weird vibe going on there but I couldn't quite place my finger on it...

While in class I would often stare out the window and imagine paitents making a run for it on the grass... Really did a lot of learning there. Some of the instructors know the history of certain buildings, like the present caf used to be the sanitorium, the coputer lab in the media building used to be the morgue and there are tunnels that connect each building. My whole time there freaked me out to the max in more ways than one.
Jordyn Thompson replying to a comment from Toba / April 29, 2011 at 03:16 pm
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I would seriously LOVE to see these photos! A few years ago, my friend and I had the opportunity to sneak into a couple of old abandoned buildings and I find that there is nothing more fascinating! I can imagine that these cottages have much more of a story than the little buildings I've seen though!
fritz / April 29, 2011 at 03:44 pm
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Little bit of trivia: I remember talking to a very shy young landy there when Police Academy 3 was being filmed around 1985, a pretty brunette. She turned out to be Kim Cattrall!
thebin / May 6, 2011 at 10:26 pm
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heres an interesting website with some pics from the past and when the buildings were abandoned.

http://www.asylumbythelake.com/
Joanne Macleod replying to a comment from Rob / June 16, 2011 at 11:51 am
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There certainly was a tunnel system at the hospital. I worked there in the children's unit in the late 60s and we routinely used the tunnel to go to other buildings, especially the cafeteria. The tunnel system must still be there but maybe the doors leading to the tunnels are blocked off now. The tunnel was painted yellow as that was a basic "cheerful" institution colour.
Melissa replying to a comment from Toba / October 21, 2011 at 11:25 pm
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Hi Toba, have you posted your photos anywhere online? I would love to see them. I am currently a student at Humber at the Lakeshore Campus.
Bob Tunney / March 5, 2012 at 06:03 pm
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i worked at the hospital from 1964 to 1974.i enjoyed every minute of that time.there is a lot of stories.none bad.
Bruce leighton / April 2, 2012 at 08:05 pm
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Im told my grandmother was there most of her life,
If any one remembers Hazel mary Baker..or just Hazel Sutherland Born abt 1906 in went in the hospital around 1936 to 1940 and was there the rest of her life..so im told, Please get in touch with me..I cannot seem to track her down !
Karen / July 14, 2012 at 10:31 pm
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Hi I just moved to the area ,and love the area and the history, i was born in Toronto and have just moved back it is a breath taking beauty in the buildings and recently looking up its history , my dad said when he lived in Toronto the place was so crazy and would never go bye it , i showed him pics of it and is ahhed it its beauty now,I am blessed with moving back to a city that holds its history so well . Thank you Toronto
late 70'sto80's / September 20, 2012 at 12:29 am
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We used to frequent the hospital in our teen years & early 20's, prior to it being closed & well into the 80's. We toured the abandoned buildings & would enjoy our "private" park & areas to explore. We never vandalized the property or buildings & we did offer it the proper respect. Lots of memories. We knew something would eventually happen to the property & I'm thrilled it has been given the Heritage status it deserves. It would have been just another deveastating sin & shame to see it disappear like so many other places of history & personal memories.

I wish I could still roam the entire property like it was my own personal castle, but I'll give up that wish for the properties survival & future to the next generations.
Brenda Fisher replying to a comment from GrewUpInEtobicoke / March 6, 2013 at 11:39 am
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In the mid to late sixties, some school mates were sent there due to bad drug experiences. Also another FYI, the small gated graveyard at Horner and Evans was a burial ground for unknown
patients from the Hospital. There is an ongoing search for background information and names of those interned there.
JamiMcMaster replying to a comment from Hi / July 31, 2013 at 02:21 am
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One of my family members died at the asylum back in 1933, sadly there is no headstone. After walking through the cemetery myself, my own personal guilt and empathy towards these forgotten souls makes me want to purchase a headstone for my ancestor. Makes me more than a little annoyed that i can't even really SEE her exact resting place. it isn't even marked, and she at least deserves to be remebered by SOMEONE, right?
Ed Janiszewski replying to a comment from JamiMcMaster / August 20, 2013 at 12:56 pm
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To see if your relative is buried at the Lakeshore Cemetery go to
http://www.psychiatricsurvivorarchives.com/cemetery/cemetery.html
Click on the word LIST to see those buried there. Also you can learn about the group helping to memorialize the site.
Christina replying to a comment from Bob Tunney / September 12, 2013 at 06:47 pm
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I was an 8 year old daughter of a wonderful woman who was admitted there, against her will, in I believe would have been 1964, her first time. She was there twice. Both times she was given shock treatments which destroyed the rest of her life. She was never the same. She is no longer alive, and had I been older when she was put thru that torture, I would have done everything possible to have it stopped. That torture should never have been allowed to be performed on an animal, never mind a human being. She lived to the age of 70, and was NEVER the same after the age of 30 - when she received these horrific treatments.
Kimber / November 10, 2013 at 02:32 pm
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My great Grandfather was in Mimico Asylum, before being transferred to Pentaguishene Asylum
His name was George Wesley Church, if anyone has any information on him, please message me
He was at mimico from roughly 1899 until 1904
Me / November 10, 2013 at 05:45 pm
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Lot's of personal information here. Have people really gotten that careless (Stupid.) about the internet?
Cindy / November 15, 2013 at 11:27 am
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I grew up along the Lakeshore in the 1970's and for a time lived on 13th St. Our backyard backed onto the "Loonie Bin". I can tell you as kids, we spent much time playing at the "nut house". The parkland was beautiful. There was an awesome park for kids and a cave on the beach where the older kids would hang out at night. My mother worked in the cafeteria for a time and she told me about the tunnels. The history in those buildings! If only the walls could talk. There are stories that should be told, I'm positive.
D / August 13, 2014 at 04:21 am
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The stuff that went on in there was as great as they made it seemed. I lived my whole life and still do right across the street, I used to see stuff walking down specifically by the powerhouse. But the tunnels were used to transfer patients that were freaking out or deceased because they couldn't outside do to the residential area. They used those poor patients as lab rats, did what ever they wanted to them and if they died they would transfer them right over to the morgue and just burry them. Some say they killed them purposely for space wise.

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