The Guild Inn
By Gary Miedema, originally published in 2009.
If you grew up in Scarborough, you likely know what the “Guild Inn” is. Until it was closed in 2001, it seems like 3 degrees of separation connected everyone to the place, located roughly where Eglinton Avenue runs into Lake Ontario in Scarborough. Like the Inn on the Park in Don Mills, it was a magnet for wedding receptions, anniversaries, and photo shoots.
And for good reason. The Guild Inn was a place of romance and loaded with charm. A rambling collection of additions upon additions, the core of the Inn itself was the country estate house of Colonel Harold C. Bickford. Born in what is now Trinity Bellwoods Park in a demolished house called ‘Gore Vale‘ (Bickford’s family name was given to another parkalong the Garrison Creek between College Harbord and Bloor), Harold became a military man, fought in the in South Africa during the Boer War, rose to the position of Brigadier-General in World War I, and then led western anti-Bolshevik forces in Russia. He built his house in Scarborough in 1914, with stables for his horses and a garage for his cars. It was a perfect spot on the edge of the Scarborough Bluffs, on beautifully forested land. From his windows and lawns, Bickford and his large family enjoyed stunning views over Lake Ontario.
For a few years at least. Bickford sold the home in 1921, and the building first became a house for Roman Catholic missionaries destined for China, then the home of a wealthy businessman. Then, after sitting empty for a few years, the rambling estate was purchased by the daughter of a leading Ontario family and the heiress of a Brantford shoemaking company, Rosa Breithaupt Hewetson.
The year was 1932 – the darkest year of the Great Depression. Meeting Spencer Clark, a young man who shared her vision, Rosa got married again and began “The Guild of All Arts” in earnest.
At the heart of the Guild of all Arts was the Clarks’ commitment to the arts and crafts as elements necessary for the fullest enjoyment of life. Influenced by Roycroft in New York, Rosa and Spencer invited artists and craftspeople to the Guild of All Arts, where they were provided room and board in return for sharing their work and skills with the Guild and its visitors. Some of the original 40 acres of the guild lands were converted to fields in order to produce food on site and as cheaply as possible. Goods produced at the Guild – everything from weaving to leatherwork and sculpture – were sold in its gift shop. Further income would be gained from visitors who would come to take courses from the skilled artists and craftspersons on site, and to enjoy the beautiful surroundings on top of the bluffs.
The plan struggled at first. The arts and crafts never made as much money as hoped, but much of the art and furniture at the Guild was produced on site. The Clarks themselves invested their wealth in the place, converting Bickford’s stables and garages into studio buildings, building new cottages and studios, and purchasing hundreds of acres of additional surrounding land. Best of all, visitors came, and the Clarks began to develop an Inn that did make money. To make room for more guests, the Clarks themselves moved out of the original Bickford house in 1934. It was then extended dramatically on both sides in the ’30s and early ’40s to accommodate guests.
During WWII, the Guild of All Arts was requisitioned by the Canadian Government, and served as a training centre for the Women’s Royal Naval Service, then as a military hospital. But the Clarks got it back in 1947 and picked up where they left off. Having acquired nearly 500 acres in the area prior to the 1950s, the Clarks then lead the development of about 400 acres of their land into what is now “Guildwood Village” – a small scale version of Don Mills, complete with the idealism and attention to detail of that landmark of urban planning, but without its industrial zone.
Some of the income from that development must have been invested in the new six storey concrete hotel tower the Clarks added to the east of the old Inn in 1965. That six storey addition sticks out on the grounds today – a “what were they thinking” kind of structure. But it really embodies what the Clarks were about. At the time of its building, the couple were known as architectural preservationists. Members of numerous historical societies, they fought to save Toronto’s landmarks, and when many of those fell, they claimed or purchased some of their significant architectural elements. They then hauled those carved chunks of stone out to Scarborough, where they hired stonemasons and craftspeople to reconstruct them around the grounds. The Guild became a beautiful graveyard for remnants of some of Toronto’s grandest late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century buildings.
In their heart of hearts, however, the Clarks were never people committed to a historical era. They were, instead, people committed to ideals which transcended particular dates – “Let us mingle the beautiful with the useful” read the motto of their now classic ‘50s suburb, Guildwood Village. When developing that village, the Clarks insisted that each home be designed by an architect in the latest modern style, and they had those homes placed on winding streets, minus sidewalks, that were influenced by the latest theories of urban planning. Little wonder, then, that when it came to expand their hotel, they virtually ignored the historic architecture of the site, and went for the latest and best – a high rise concrete structure with flowing balconies looking out over the lake.
Over the years, the Guild played host to an array of Canadian artists, craftspersons, and musicians – including Frances Gage, Sir Ernest MacMillan, A.J. Casson. Visitors included Glenn Gould, Sir Lawrence Olivier and Lester B. Pearson. Provincial and Federal governments held cabinet retreats on its beautiful and historic grounds.
By the late 1970s, however, the Clarks were aging, and they were eager to secure the future of their lives’ work after they were gone. The best way to do so, they must have calculated, was to put the Inn in public hands. In 1978, they convinced the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority to purchase the site (largely for the shoreline and bluffs), and Metropolitan Toronto to control it, at a price of eight million dollars. As part of the deal, the Clarks would continue to manage the Inn, without pay, for the next 5 years. Rosa died in 1981 at the age of 93. Spencer carried on with the place until his hold on its management expired in 1983. He died in 1986.
Without the lofty ideals and impressive commitment of the Clarks, the Guild Inn languished in need of a future. It became a series of failed plans as governments struggled to find a vision and tenant for the aging property – someone who would invest in it, and not just run it. Delta Hotels managed the place for a couple of years, followed by CN Hotels, until Metro Toronto signed a 95 year lease with a company that planned to add two more hotel towers and two new parking garages to increase the number of rooms from 96 to over 400.
The surrounding community pulled together to fight that plan, and have worked hard to shape its future since. The development never broke ground, the lease was broken, and another suitor stepped in. Somehow, the Inn continued to function until 2001, when in the chaos of amalgamation it was closed at the end of the season in October. The City of Toronto has carefully maintained the Sculpture Garden and grounds since, but the Inn itself has remained boarded up, and has badly deteriorated. As the city issued multiple requests for proposals for the site (and actually moved to alter the historical designation of the site in order to demolish the crumbling Inn itself), urban infiltrators and paranormal enthusiasts have found their way in to document its crumbling interior and rumoured (ghostly) inhabitants.
Today, after years of exhausting and divisive arguments over its future, the Guild Inn seems close to finally getting the life the Clarks hoped it might have. Last year, the City of Toronto entered negotiations with Centennial College, which hopes to acquire the site as a home for its new Institute of Culture and Heritage Management. In what appears to be a textbook perfect example of adaptive re-use, Centennial wants to use the restoration of the old Inn and its operation as a boutique hotel, restaurant, and conference centre as a training opportunity for its students. Above and beyond that, Centennial seems at least interested in City plans to spend millions to turn the Guild Inn into a “Cultural Precinct” – to bring artists and craftspeople back to the site which, for over 50 years, played an important role in the development of the arts and crafts in Canada.
The latest plans call for the demolition of the 1965 concrete tower. And in a cruel twist of fate, the former stable of the Bickfords – converted into artists’ studios and later a reception centre by the Guild Inn – burned to the ground this past Christmas. The rest of the Guild, however, is perhaps poised to finally rise from the ashes.