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How Toronto demolished the finest mansion in Canada

Posted by Chris Bateman / November 16, 2013

toronto chorley parkLieutenant Governor of Ontario David Onley is one of four Canadian viceregal representatives to be (officially) homeless. Toronto pulled down its last government house, an astonishingly opulent mansion even among its Rosedale neighbours, in 1959 in the name of cost saving.

98 years ago, on 15 November 1915, the first official guests were welcomed inside the grand hall of Ontario's million-dollar palace. 20 years later it was be derelict. Chorley Park is now largely forgotten, save for the small piece of it that remains on the edge of the Don Valley off Douglas Drive.

toronto government houseOntario's first three official government houses were located outside the western boundary of the town of York, which was then largely clustered around Front Street, east of Yonge.

The first residence, a basic single-floor brick building near Fort York, was destroyed when British troops detonated the grand magazine, a giant weapons cache, while beating a hasty retreat out of town during the War of 1812.

As the city grew, Ontario's viceregal residence found its way to a mansion at the centre of a large plot of land on the southwest corner of King and Simcoe, where Roy Thomson Hall is now.

In the late 1800s, the four corners of that intersection were nicknamed "legislation," "education," "salvation," and "damnation", with Government House representing "legislation." Neighbours Upper Canada College, St. Andrew's Church, and the British Hotel represented the rest.

toronto chorley parkElmsley House, the first of two government houses to occupy the King and Simcoe corner, stood among lush woodland west of the town. Built in 1798, the two-storey home would have been a short walk from the centre of commercial activity and was originally the private home of Chief Justice John Elmsley.

The province bought the building in 1815 and it was occupied by successive lieutenant-governors until 1841. In 1870 a purpose-built government house was built on the former site of Elmsley House and remained there until the arrival of factories and rail lines gave the area a distinctly industrial feel.

The land was sold to Canadian Pacific, which built a rail yard and freight office on the site.

(Interestingly, when the CP building was demolished in the 1970s a mysterious underground room containing a locked safe was revealed. The safe, hauled to the surface by the builders of Roy Thomson Hall, vanished shortly after its discovery.)

With the loss of Old Government House, as it came to be known, the province sought a location for a new residence, one that would outshine of its predecessors in grandeur, a "conspicuous ornament to the city," in the words of William Dendy, author of Lost Toronto.

The province bought a site on Bloor backing on to the Rosedale Ravine - where the Manufacturer's Life Building is now - and held an architectural competition that produced several viable designs. Several were given serious consideration but eventually rejected because of cost.

Fearing the Bloor site would become surrounded by heavy industry like King and Simcoe, the city decided to sell the land and use the proceeds for the purchase of a new location.

toronto chorley parkInto the search stepped William James Gage, a wealthy philanthropist and businessman. He offered to sell his estate at Bathurst and Davenport, just west of Casa Loma, for the same amount Ontario was willing to pay for a site in leafy Rosedale. Gage also pledged to use the money he would earn from the land to establish a public botanical garden nearby.

The deal appeared to have the support of council and it was suggested the city buy the Rosedale land being eyed by the province, thereby seizing the chance to get two parks for the price of one.

The province, however, had other ideas. It rejected Gage's offer and forged ahead with the Rosedale site, known as Chorley Park, after the town of Chorley in Lancashire, England, the birthplace of Toronto alderman John Hallam.

The final design for the grand residence was drawn up by Francis R. Heakes - the province's official architect also responsible for the Whitney Block on Queen's Park Crescent - in the style of a French Loire Valley château.

Heakes' blueprint borrowed heavily from submissions to the 1911 design competition, including many of the exterior details and the floor plan, and was limited to a budget of $215,000.

toronto chorley parkWhat rose from the scrubby ground in east Rosedeale between 1911 and 1916 was unlike any other building in Canada. Grey Credit Valley stone exterior was worked into ornate detail; little tourelles - small pointy-roofed turrets - embellished the corners of the three-storey palace - even the chimneys had little architectural flourishes.

As author William Dendy writes, the château style was in vogue in Canada at the time due to its popularity in France. The railways would build the Château Frontenac, Banff Springs Hotel, Château Laurier, and the Royal York with the same look in the years to come.

Chorley Park's grey stone exterior was capped with red ceramic tile and surrounded by carefully landscaped gardens that included a large square forecourt for receiving official guests. The winding driveway reached the main entrance via arched concrete bridge that still stands today.

toronto chorley parkInside, an imposing three-storey reception hall basked in sunlught from a massive rooftop window. Passageways led off to a ballroom with a domed glass ceiling, the official State Dining Room clad in carved fumed oak and Caen limestone, a suite of reception rooms, and a glass conservatory that overlooked the Don Valley.

Much of the interior design work was done by the T. Eaton Company. A photo taken in 1916 shows a full polar bear skin rug with the head still attached at the centre of the reception hall floor.

The bill, when it finally arrived, was more than $1 million - more than four time the original budget. It was deemed worthwhile, however, to secure such a stunning work of architecture. That feeling wouldn't last long.

toronto chorley parkThe ongoing cost of maintaining the ostentatious mansion proved to be its eventual undoing. The Conservative provincial government found the cost even harder to justify as the Depression began to take hold in the 1920s.

Despite voices calling for the house to be abandoned, it lingered on as the official home of Ontario's lieutenant-governor until 1937 when the fine furnishings and fixtures were stripped out and sold at auction.

When world war two began, the gutted interior was converted into a military hospital for wounded soldiers.

Chorley Park met its eventual end in 1959 when, with the last of the patients gone and a brief period as a refuge for Hungarian immigrants fleeing the revolution over, the Metro government under Fred Gardiner ordered the building torn down.

All that remains today is the concrete arch bridge and square forecourt. The land is now a public park, as W. J. Gage once planned.

Ontario's official viceregal residence is currently located in the west wing of the legislature building.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library, Archives of Ontario



Rex / November 16, 2013 at 08:44 am
Please keep doing these pieces, they're fascinating.
Chezlani / November 16, 2013 at 10:18 am
Great article, good work Chris
This is great / November 16, 2013 at 11:07 am
Love these historical works you do. I'm surprised Daves not on here talking about taxes bring saved by knocking down that building.
Realist (mostly) / November 16, 2013 at 11:42 am
Pieces like this are why I come back here despite your troll infestation.
Dave / November 16, 2013 at 02:16 pm
Hi Dave
jb / November 16, 2013 at 06:47 pm
Another reason why government's power should be restricted - poor decision making
Roger / November 16, 2013 at 07:15 pm
Why do we need old buildings sitting around collecting dust? If Toronto wants to be a world class city we have to look to the future. These old buildings served their purpose, I'm glad their gone.
Logan / November 16, 2013 at 07:26 pm
Roger - I wonder why millions of people visit Europe every year...hmmmmmmmmmm
??????? replying to a comment from Roger / November 16, 2013 at 07:35 pm
That's disgusting sentiment. Check all the world class cities in Europe, they are full of historic architecture. Toronto has plenty of modern buildings, there is not need to destroy masterpieces like this.
Earl replying to a comment from Roger / November 16, 2013 at 07:36 pm
It's small-minded people like you with the "old equals useless" mentality that are ruining this city. As Logan said, look at Europe, but you probably haven't been outside of your mother's basement... so I don't know why am I surprised at your ignorant comment.
LearnToSpell replying to a comment from Roger / November 16, 2013 at 07:37 pm
Gil / November 16, 2013 at 07:40 pm
Wow, that entrance hall is stunning. Must have really made dignitaries who theought they were visiting a backwoods british protectorate second-guess who they were meeting with.
Dave / November 16, 2013 at 09:06 pm
Hi my name is Dave. I love talking with myself.
Moaz Ahmad / November 16, 2013 at 09:27 pm
Now that building is worthy of the title "Toronto's Downton Abbey" (Sorry Spad"eee"na House).

Cheers, Moaz
Roger / November 16, 2013 at 10:25 pm
Sorry you guys are not living in the times. If you want the busted up cobble streets of Europe, maybe move to Europe. The best argument you have is tourists go there for how it looks? Yeah, people go to Disney land for the same fantasy. I'm proud Toronto is a forward thinking place, and the more infastructure we have the better off we'll be in the future. I'm sure your mad when a lion eats a zebra in the forest. Well cities (buildings) have the same process of selection. Strong things take the place of the weak and useless. Nuff said.
Chris / November 16, 2013 at 10:27 pm
this is probably the saddest post on this website
AC / November 17, 2013 at 02:16 am
Great piece!!!
Just like every other historical building, it got torn down becuase of money reasons.

(Small Tip: "World War II" is used by Americans, and "Second World War," by Canadians, same concept implied for the First World War")
Lionel / November 17, 2013 at 04:06 am
Many thanks for this very interesting paper!
Dave / November 17, 2013 at 07:53 am
Hi Dave, we know it's you Dave. Oh Dave, so predictable you a Davey Dan Roger Dave. Spreading your Etobicoke self hate wherever your tiny digits will take you. Oh Dave.
Jay / November 17, 2013 at 08:55 am
Great article. But please proofread before posting!
Nick / November 17, 2013 at 09:27 am
Gary and I used to hang-out and play in Chorely Park before and after the destruction of the beautiful old building. Gary lived almost next to it. We were able to go into the building before demolition. It's a nice park now. I really enjoyed reading the article, brings back memories. My other friend Derry and I used to visit there often and also into the ravine adjacent. Standing on the hill top, one could play out a kite for a heck of a flight over the Brick Works.
M / November 17, 2013 at 10:11 am
What a beautiful building. The detail, the time put into creating it. I like that Toronto is trying to move forward, but not always in the most visually appealing ways. Its like teenagers going through that awkward phase, where they are figuring things out until BOOM one day they find what interests them, their style, etc. It feels like a big mash-up of buildings in different styles. Which makes the city interesting but at the same time looking like a mess. There are many cities in Europe and outside of Europe that use the old and the new. They keep that history, which I find Toronto lacking.
michael / November 17, 2013 at 05:50 pm
How did "Toronto" tear this mansion down? The Ontario government owned it and took it down. Toronto had nothing to do with it.
bloop / November 17, 2013 at 06:53 pm
A crying shame. What a beautiful piece of architecture.
Craig U / November 18, 2013 at 01:58 am
One of the best pieces on Chorley Park I've seen. Not overweeningly sentimental, not an empty lament, not polemical, but poignant and austere in form and style. I like it. A hundred essays like this stitched together with media would make an excellent architectural / social history of the city.
Craig U / November 18, 2013 at 02:09 am
One thing about this building: In the hard-scrabble 1930's, it was a symbol of everything government shouldn't be. A lot of the hatred of the building was social. Not a lot of people lamented the knocking down of the building at the time. We forget the amount of social change that went on at the time, as well, from the 1910's-1950's.
Anne / November 20, 2013 at 06:28 pm
Could such an exemplary historic property not have been saved? Selling the property, even at a loss, to a private buyer and granting historical designation seems much preferable to demolishing the thing? Call me sentimental. No wonder this city has so few heritage buildings. I didn't even know properties like this ever existed in Canada! Thanks for the piece.
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