The Place of My Dreams

a visual arts exhibition featuring
Toronto Island's Homes and Gardens


March 19 - April 25, 1999

Map from A History of the Toronto Islands

Curated by Delwyn Higgens

The Toronto Island Homes ......

The 262 homes of the Toronto Islands are clustered at the eastern end of the island archipelago, but this was not always so. In the early decades of this century, there were houses at Hanlan's Point and Centre Island in addition to those at Ward's Island and, later, Algonquin Island. Residents numbered in the thousands and there were many more commercial establishments serving the community and visitors than there are today.

Michael O'Connor opened the Island's first hotel in 1833. He catered to the growing number of Torontonians seeking an escape from city life. For these people the Island was a place where they could relax with long walks and sporting events or dance and socialize. Even in winter, people came to fish, skate and sail their iceboats. By the late 1870s, Hanlan's Point had become the "Coney Island of Canada" with a vaudeville theatre, dance halls and a large amusement park. In 1897, a baseball and lacrosse stadium was built on the site of the present-day Island Airport. It was here that Babe Ruth hit his first major league home run! And it was during this time that numerous cottages began to appear, as city residents embraced the landscape and lifestyle of the Island. By the turn of the century, Hanlan's Point had grown to be a "summer suburb of the city" and this it remained for more than 50 years.

Similarly, Centre Island was once home to many people and to businesses of every description: a pharmacy, a "Parisien" laundry, a movie theatre and a barber shop, among others. Cherokee, Mohawk and Shiawassie Avenues were just three of the sites of homes described as "new antique" and "Venetian inspired," bordering as they did on the Island's lagoon system. It was here, and especially on the lakefront, that large Victorian summer homes were built by Toronto's leading families seeking refuge from the summer heat and proximity to the Royal Canadian Yacht Club.

With the establishment of Metro Toronto Council in 1953 came a radical change in policy toward the Toronto Islands landscape and its residents. Following in the footsteps of Robert Moses, chairman Fred Gardiner wasted no time in instituting the "modernization" of the area. With the transfer of Island lands and leases by the City to Metro came the rapid removal of businesses and the systematic demolition and burning of homes. With the last of the Lakeshore houses gone by 1968, residents on Ward's and Algonquin Islands rose up in protest. The fight to save their community lasted over 20 years until the 1993 establishment of the Toronto Islands Residential Community Trust and the procurement of 99-year land leases for residents.

The Ward's Island community began in the 1880s as a settlement of tents. A writer for the Ward's Island Weekly reports that the intent of campers was to "keep it simple." Residents envisaged a "city" of tents, each having a slight individuality, yet standing together as a whole. The first summer colony on Ward's in 1899 consisted of just eight tenants, each of whom had paid a fee of $10 ground rent for the season. By 1913, the number of tents pitched had increased to the point where the city felt it necessary to organize the community into streets. The evolution from tents to cottage structures progressed in stages with the building of floors, the addition of kitchens and then porches, resulting in the creation of the homes you see today.

Originally, Algonquin Island was simply a sandbar providing a protected channel for the passage of small boats. Known first as Sunfish Island, it was expanded by landfill operations. 1938 saw its streets laid out to accommodate 31 cottages that had been floated down by barge from Hanlan's Point. These homes had been moved to make way for the building of the Island Airport; residents were given a choice: move their cottages further south at Hanlan's or resettle on Algonquin island. Leases entered into for lots on Algonquin contained a provision for minimum set-backs (hence the need for larger lot sizes) and required that the lessee erect a house of "new construction and materials of a value of not less than $1500." Most people seeing Algonquin Island for the first time were not impressed; to them it was "sand just sand." Indeed, it took years and a great deal of hard work by residents to transform this "flat as a billiard table" island into the lush environment it is now. -- DH

Map by Steve Varga, from The Toronto Islands

The Gardens of the Toronto Islands ......

In the late 18th century, Lady Elizabeth Simcoe recorded her first impressions of the Toronto Islands. She describes in her diaries a "low spit of land covered with wood" that "breaks the horizon of the Lake" and "greatly improves the view." In a similar way, the Mississauga Indians before her had seen the Islands as a "place of trees standing out of the water." Both parties had marvelled at the way the sandy shoreline changed with every storm.

In these early years the island archipelago was really a peninsula, connected as it was to the mainland by a narrow strip of sandy shoreline. This landform was created over millennia by the collective action of waves, winds and lake currents. Having dislodged portions of the Scarborough Bluffs, these forces deposited this material to the west in a five-mile-long hooked shape, broken on the inside by tiny lagoons and inlets. This process of natural "landscaping" continued until the spring of 1858, when a particularly powerful hurricane sliced its way through the neck of the peninsula, creating a channel four to five feet deep. By June of that year, the Eastern Gap was a waterway, and the Island became an island in the true sense of the word.

Maps drawn prior to the 1880s show that the bulk of the Toronto Islands was marshland. Water lilies, bulrushes, cat-tails and the wildlife that inhabit such wetlands were abundant.

The decision of Toronto's city fathers to establish a public park on the Island changed all this. A reporter for the Globe writes that city work crews braved the cold winter of 1885, threading their way through skaters and iceboaters to take landfill and fertilizer to the new Island park. Acres of low land and shallow lagoons were filled in while larger bodies of water like Long Pond were dredged deeper and banked higher. Huge expanses of sandy soil were top-dressed and seeded, and thousands of willows, acacias, poplars and other trees and shrubs took root.

By October 1887, what had once been a "barren, sandy tract" was now a "beautifully landscaped oasis of public resort" -- a "people's park" on the Island. Just what this park should look like has been a contentious issue over the years. There have been those who have criticized the manicured look created by such "parkifying." An argument has been made that the so-called "passive system of parks" -- the "simple grass, flowers and trees philosophy" evinced by Metro and other city officials -- is actually quite involved and intrusive both in terms of park planning and upkeep.

Despite conflicting ideals and the many, often contradictory policies that have been implemented over the years, pockets of native plant materials can still be found on the Island. Many of the original grasses remain, as do certain wildflowers. Milkweed and goldenrod grow freely and there are foxgloves, forget-me-nots, wild roses, marsh marigolds, water hyacinths and wild strawberries, among others. False dragonhead, purple gerardia, Kalm's lobelia, marsh bellflower, fringed gentian, hooded ladies tresses, northern green bog and other orchids are rarer. Some writers believe that the many kinds of herbs growing in the area are the legacy of a Great Lakes Indian culture that regarded the Island as a sacred place of healing. At one time members of all tribes were welcome here provided that they lay down their arms first.

It has been said that at one time it seemed possible to cross Toronto bay on the backs of the salmon. Visual records of night fishing by the Indians show them spearing large numbers of fish by the light of pine-knot torches. The abundance of bass, pickerel and pike drew the first modern-day visitors to the area. Wild game was also plentiful, especially wildfowl. During the 18th and 19th centuries, sportsmen came to shoot passenger pigeons, sandpipers, pheasant and plovers. Mud and snapping turtles, water snakes, freshwater mussels, carp and frogs shared the Island with the hundreds of thousands of tourists who came each summer. Today, visitors to the Island might encounter these species but are more likely to see Canada geese, mallards, owls and black-crowned night herons.

It is this sumptuous natural environment that provides a perfect backdrop for the magnificent gardens of Toronto Island's current residents, gardens expressive of the fertile imaginations of their creators. Many Islanders choose to "go with the flow" in celebrating plant life that thrives in local conditions: a moist, sandy soil and temperatures moderated by the surrounding bodies of water. Others choose to alter conditions to introduce more "exotic" varieties. This practice, in itself, has a long history, beginning perhaps in the 1880s with the efforts of Charles E. Hooper, who in order to improve his beloved Clandeboye Place had mounds of good earth dumped at the Island wharf. From this point, he brought it overland by wheelbarrow to his cottage, where he built multi-coloured, three-cornered flower beds edged with white stones collected from the lake. On a larger scale, enterprising individuals at the turn of the century established a fruit farm on Ward's Island. The apples, pears and peaches from the farm's orchards supplied the King Edward Hotel on the mainland.

Though one can get a sense of the richness of plant life and the intricacy of garden planning in the community simply by taking a walk down the streets of Ward's and Algonquin, a more in-depth experience is possible. Every two years Island residents open up their gardens to visitors. A highlight of the growing season, the Toronto Islands Garden Tours take place biannually on Sunday afternoons throughout the month of August. -- DH

Sources for above essays:

Gibson, Sally. More Than an Island. Toronto: Irwin, 1984.

Lennon, M. J. Memories of Toronto Island. Cheltenham: Boston Mills, ON, 1980.

Swadron, Barry. Pressure Island. Government of Ontario, 1981.

Sward, Robert. The Toronto Islands. Toronto: Dreadnaught, 1983.

Toronto Island Public School. A History of the Toronto Islands. Toronto: Coachhouse Press, 1972.

The Place of My Dreams
Curator's Statement

From Island to Island, a Shadowland production.
Photo: Gera Dillon

The Toronto Islands have always been home to artists -- Lucius O'Brien, Homer Watson and Fred Varley all spent time here. Lady Simcoe produced many watercolours of her "favourite sands" and recorded in her diaries precise details concerning the flora and fauna of this "exotic" landscape. In the summer of 1965, William Ronald completed a chapel design for the Island's rectory, a building which now houses the offices of the Toronto Islands Residential Community Trust, a café and an art gallery that showcases the work of Island artists.

This exhibition takes as its starting point the observation that Islanders first tend to see themselves, not in terms of the city of Toronto proper, but rather in relation to aspects of their immediate environment. They define themselves primarily by what they (and others before them) have built, and also in accordance with the natural beauty that surrounds them: the local habitat that they have played a part in creating and maintaining.

The Island's natural landscape has always been in flux, the product of constantly changing conditions of sand and surf. Thus, to live on the Island is, in a very real sense, to live with some degree of uncertainty. This uncertainty is echoed in the marks of human habitation which have shifted over the years along with the land itself. It must be remembered that all those who live here have made a very large investment, perhaps monetarily, but certainly in terms of their own commitment to maintaining their place on the Island in the face of tremendous and, until recently, constant opposition. Those who have chosen to live here have done so on faith -- that their work would stand, that they and their children would remain despite the odds.

Toronto Islanders have a great interest in returning something to the land they live on, and this has often taken the form of a garden. Indeed, the Island community gardens are popular destinations for visiting tourists. But here, the concept of "garden" takes on wider meaning and goes much further than the backyard. Residents see themselves as year-round custodians of the Island landscape. Visitors come and go and the city maintenance crews are skeletal in winter, but the Islanders remain along with the rest: the trees, the plants and the wildlife that occupy this tiny sandbar. Thus, a view of the island as garden -- and the belief that the island garden is integral to human existence -- underlies the Islanders' commitment to maintaining a fresh and vibrant alternative to the harsh, concrete environment of the city. I believe that the works in this exhibition will both reflect and amplify these qualities, qualities that are meant to be shared.

-- Delwyn Higgens, Curator

Michael Davey, from Frantic Follies 1984

York Quay Gallery, Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, Ontario
March 19 - April 25, 1999