Caveat hic dragones: The Guild Inn
The Guild Inn Architectural Gardens and adjacent path down to the Scarborough Bluffs, leading to a scenic walk, may be one of the best-kept secrets in Metro. Visitors can enter the Bluffs at the south end of Galloway Street. From the edge of the cliff, they can peek at Lake Ontario swishing stubbornly against the sand below. On faintly foggy days, they may feel that they've come to the edge of the world, and could really drop off or meet all manner of monsters, like those warnings say on medieval maps: "Caveat hic dragones: here be dragons." It's a fitting feeling, both here and turning northwards to the bustle of West Hill with its own urban demons.
In and of themselves, the nearby well-shaded and stately abodes of Guildwood are already a universe away from the sticky, sweaty, raucous and rickety neighbouring Kingston-Morningside-Lawrence triangle just up the road – but The Guild is from another era entirely. You can still wander the grounds and feel a bit of the history left behind: the log cabin and the smoke house, though closed, are not torn down yet. The cabin dates from circa 1845 and is one of the oldest buildings in the province. The legacy of the Studio, where a stream of artists took refuge in the Dirty Thirties, seems woven into the atmosphere. Couples still hold their weddings in the gardens. People jog around the paths and take their dogs for a walk. A wooded path leads down to the shoreline and an upward view of the bluffs, themselves a beautifully sculpted monument to nature's ingenuity.
Put together in the 1950s, the architectural gardens alone are a true national landmark. They were the first of their kind in Canada. All over the grounds of the Guild, as if wrested by a giant pirate's hand from the demolished banks, churches and office buildings they adorned, are graceful Corinthian doorways to nowhere and bas-reliefs with neo-classical motifs such as one-breasted Amazons aiming their arrows at the bluffs' edge or kneeling men and maidens carrying various sheaves and implements. There is even an entire stage, actually a former Bank of Montreal façade, with its semi-circular stairs and row of columns intact for theatrical productions on summer days.
However, one of the saddest events in Scarborough these days – and there are several – is the demolition of the severely deteriorated Guild Inn hotel. The place was boarded up like a haunted house for several years. Its state of disrepair was more than a disgrace; it was practically a cosmic joke.
The Inn was closed down by the city in 2001. Residents had been hearing for years how the developers had been chosen and the renovations would be starting soon, but not a single shovelful of concrete reared its stubby head. A meeting recommended the demolition of the Bickford residence, the core of the structure, as late as April 2005. A councillor explained this was because nothing of the original 1914 structure remained that was visible and the interior of the building was not up to the building code. However, to quote his letter to Guildwood residents: « The most memorable and historical elements of the Bickford building, such as the main staircase and wood paneling from the library and dining room, will be saved and re-incorporated.» This was one more political promise that was never kept.
Technically, the Guild Inn was more than one structure. There are several outlying buildings, including the sculpture studio (made of wood); the artists' studio (a small white house near the main residence); a big square one identified as Building 191; and the log cabin, called the Osterhaut Log Cabin (a misnomer, since it was most probably built by James Humphrys). The Bickford house is the main residence: a 33-bedroom pseudo-Georgian villa built in 1914 by Colonel Harold Child Bickford.
The Clarks bought the house in 1932 and gave it its artistic vocation. They also added dining facilities and guest rooms. By the 1940s, the Guild Inn had garnered a reputation as a country inn located within a world of talented artists. The Clarks bought adjacent land and properties until they had almost 500 acres, from Lake Ontario to Kingston Road and from Livingston to Galloway. The six-storey, 100-room east wing was added to the main residence in 1965. Rising taxes prompted the Clarks to sell 400 of their acres, with the remaining property on view today. The 400 acres in question became Guildwood Village, of the abovementioned well-shaded and stately abodes.
The Metropolitan Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, acting for Metropolitan Toronto and the Provincial Government, bought the Guild Inn and its surrounding lands in 1978. In 1993, the Municipality of Metro Toronto inherited ownership. The place is now administered by Toronto Parks and Culture and they still haven't fixed it up. It isn't for lack of public interest and effort, as the Guild Renaissance Group has been lobbying to enhance preserve the place since 1997.
All this said, if you can put your hands over your eyes just long enough to pretend the inn is still there offering shelter and splendid meals to guests, and get to the park, you will still enjoy your experience. And maybe catch one or two of the ghosts said to be haunting the remnants of the artists' refuge.
Guild Inn photos.
(c) 2005, 2011 Dominique Millette