From Brewing to Horsebreeding: E. P. Taylor and Windfields Estate

Wes Farris 

In 1936, businessman Edward Plunkett ‘E. P.’ Taylor (1901-1989) commissioned the construction of Windfields Estate, which would serve as the Taylor family home in Toronto for the next fifty years. By the 1950s, Taylor was, in the words of Peter C. Newman, ‘the most successful Canadian businessman of his generation, and one of the most influential financiers in the world,’ and his residence became one of the most prominent in the city, hosting members of the Royal Family on numerous occasions. At one time comprising a thousand acres, Windfields Estate was also home to Taylor’s horse-breeding business, and such famous horses as Northern Dancer once grazed in the Estate’s fields.

Portrait of E.P. Taylor by Yousef Karsh, 1944.

Portrait of E.P. Taylor by Yousef Karsh, 1944.

E. P. Taylor began his business in brewing, inheriting Brading Brewery from his grandfather. Through a series of well-timed buyouts and amalgamations in diverse industries he built a business empire, culminating in the creation of Argus Corporation, Canada’s largest conglomerate, and which included among its holdings Massey-Ferguson, Dominion Stores, Domtar, Hollinger Mines, and Canadian Breweries. Taylor’s interests were not limited to Canada – his companies had significant operations in the United States and Britain, while he developed the exclusive and gated Lyford Cay community in the Bahamas as a getaway for the super-rich.

As he grew his business empire in the early 1930s, Taylor sought land on which to build his family home, having rented to that point. He settled on 20 acres of farmland situated along Bayview Avenue, which was first extended north from Eglington Avenue in 1929. Having purchased the land in 1932, Taylor commissioned architect Ian Jocelyn Davidson to design the buildings of the estate. The main house, completed in 1937, is a two-storey dwelling in the American Colonial Revival style. Built of cut grey stone, the house is long and of one piece, eschewing wings. Colonial revival themes are reiterated in the front hall and staircase, while paved patios at the rear of the house provide a transition between the interior and the garden. The main house was set approximately 300 yards behind Bayview Avenue, to which it was linked by a long, circular driveway. Three cottages, a gatehouse, and a greenhouse were designed by architect Earle C. Morgan and built in the late 1940s, and the buildings complemented the architecture of the main house, though built of brick and wood instead of stone. The gatehouse, with a large living room and a window looking east over the farmlands, was used by Taylor as his office. According to Taylor’s son Charles, the estate was named Windfields by Taylor’s wife Winnie – as the couple were walking across their land, Winnie noted that it was rather windy in the fields, and the name stuck.

From the beginning, Windfields Estate also included stables for horses, one of the profitable passions of Taylor’s life. He had purchased his first racehorse in 1936, and was soon active in racing and breeding horses. As his breeding business grew after 1945, Taylor expanded the original Windfields Estate to a farm of almost a thousand acres. By 1950 there were three large brick stables and a series of barns, as well as thirty-eight mares and two stallions. Taylor’s breeding business was enormously successful – Taylor-bred horses won the Queen’s Plate 12 times between 1949 and 1963. His most famous racehorse, Northern Dancer, raised at Windfields Estate, won the Kentucky Derby in 1964. Taylor’s prominent place in racing, combined with his place among the nation’s elites, brought Taylor into regular contact with the Royal Family – on three occasions, the Queen Mother, a noted racing enthusiast, stayed at Windfields Estate during visits to Canada.

E.P. Taylor, jockey Bill Hartack, and Northern Dancer in the winner's circle at the 1964 Kentucky Derby. Taylor's Northern Dancer won most of his races and became the most successful sire of the 20th century.

E.P. Taylor, jockey Bill Hartack, and Northern Dancer in the winner’s circle at the 1964 Kentucky Derby.

Taylor also contributed to the post-war suburban growth of Toronto, which remains one of his most prominent legacies in this city. In 1947, he built one of the first shopping centres in the city on the southwest corner of Bayview Avenue and York Mills Road, with his Argus-owned Dominion Stores as its main tenant. In the early 1950s, Taylor spearheaded the creation of the community of Don Mills, the first North American development of its kind to have been planned and funded privately. Having acquired 2200 acres of land by 1952, it was sold off in lots to builders, and the first houses were being raised by 1953. Taylor remained closely involved in the design of the town, wanting to ensure that Don Mills consisted of distinctive but inexpensive homes. He also stipulated that roofs could be any colour but blue, fearing they would fade in the sun.

By the 1960s, the growth of Toronto was encroaching on Windfields Estate itself – most of the surrounding land had been developed, and the Borough of North York had designated the land of Windfields Estate for residential purposes. At the time, Taylor and his wife were spending less time in Toronto, instead preferring to live at the residence Taylor had built at Lyford Cay in the Bahamas, where American President John F. Kennedy had stayed in 1962 during a summit with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. In 1968, Taylor agreed to sell most of Windfields Estates to Morenish Land Developments Ltd. for $13.7 million. Though the sale meant the end of one of the top racehorse breeding facilities in North America, he was able to transfer operations to the previously-purchased National Stud Farm in Oshawa, subsequently renamed Windfields Farm, and a farm in Maryland, where Northern Dancer became the most successful sire of the 20th-century. In the same year, Taylor made a gift of the remainder of Windfields Estate to North York, which was valued at $4 million. Thirty acres along Wilket Creek was donated as parkland, and is now known as Windfields Park. The remaining twenty acres, which included the Taylor home and gatehouse and is the parcel of land currently referred to as Windfields Estate, was also given to North York, though Taylor and his wife held the exclusive right to live at the estate for the rest of their lifetimes.

In the 1970s and 1980s, discussions occurred between Taylor, the Borough of North York, and others regarding the future use of Windfields Estate. In 1976, it was suggested that the Estate be transferred to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts for use as a visual arts gallery and workshop. Though that particular proposal did not come to fruition, it was clearly Taylor’s preference for his family home to find a place in the arts community. In 1986, it was announced that Windfields Estate would become the home of the newly-founded Canadian Centre for Advanced Film Studies, headed by Norman Jewison. The film school opened in 1988, one year before the death of E. P. Taylor at his Bahamas residence.

Taylor's son, Charles, and Norman Jewison look at plans for Canadian Film Centre.

Taylor’s son, Charles, and Norman Jewison look at plans for Canadian Film Centre.

Now known as the Canadian Film Centre, the school has grown from an initial class of 12 filmmakers to encompass over 100 students in 16 programmes todays. The CFC operates on eight acres of the Windfields Estate, comprising the main buildings, while the remainder of the estate is managed by the City of Toronto’s Parks and Recreation department. In 1992, Windfields Estate was designed as a property of historical significance under the Ontario Heritage Act, and the estate remains as a reflection not only of E. P. Taylor’s role in Canadian history, but also as a symbol of the early suburban history of North York.

Material drawn from the Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, and E. P. Taylor: The Biography of Edward Plunket Taylor, by Richard Rohmer.

Links:

Don Mills -> http://heritagetoronto.org/don-mills/
The Queen’s Plate -> http://heritagetoronto.org/the-queens-plate-turns-150/
Donalda Farm -> http://heritagetoronto.org/donalda-farm/
Green Meadows -> http://heritagetoronto.org/green-meadows/

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