asylum view
The Provincial Asylum In Toronto
Reflections on social and architectural history
A book from the Toronto Region Architectural Conservancy


asyum grounds
Detail from photograph by F.W. Micklethwaite

Emphasizing the architectural history has greatly helped build historical ideas, for this topic is given scant attention in the history of asylums. Buildings tell stories, and they do not forget. The architect given a project necessarily expresses certain values in what he does - it is impossible to design anything 'value-free' - and in the case of habitable buildings, those values are impressed on the public who must use them as well. Similarly, any later modifications must also be made from a value set, and may very well be a re-interpretation in conflict with the original values. All this is demonstrated over and over in any institution with a long history, and is perfectly normal. To focus on architecture to tell the history of the institution is not so usual.

From the Prologue

photo: City of Toronto Archives, series 8, file 23.


room in current facilities
Student and staff member in patient's room, 1973.

...[S]ince the press tended to headline negative events such as violent deaths and associated calamities, a sampling of news items provided a depressing and grossly unbalanced picture of life of life in the asylum...
              Unfortunately, since this was rarely considered newsworthy, stories about the dedication of the professional staff who shared many of the hardships, and were often repaid with harsh criticism, were rarely if ever noted by the press. The absence of first-hand accounts by patients of life at 999 Queen Street is also regretted.

From Madness and the Media, 1840s to 1990s
by Cyril Greenland


asylum and surroundings
Detail from George Ure's 'Handbook of Toronto', 1858.

At the very least [William] Hay seems to have ghosted many -and possibly all - of the architectural descriptions in [George] Ure's book, which are often distinctly architectural (and sometimes rather biased).
              ...For example, the author now moves west along King Street and turns north on Church Street, describing (and illustrating on the map) St. James' Cathedral. Appreciative at first, he credits this 'massive structure' in 'early English style of the middle of the 13th century' to Cumberland. Here the selection of the word structure conveys something of the tectonic quality of the building -as much a work of forceful engineering as of decorative architecture -and the fact that it does indeed seem massive in spite of all its vertical elements is owing largely to Cumberland's exceptional feeling for horizontal, solid and heavy forms. The text goes on to decry the "large flank porches giving the effect externally of low transepts, an effect which it could have been wished was realized in its internal arrangement." This sophisticated criticism must have come from Hay, who was drawing a comparison, in effect, with G.G. Scott's design for the cathedral in Newfoundland, which Hay had supervised and which called for full transepts (not built, however, until decades later).

From The Asylum in Context or William Hay's Overview
by Douglas Scott Richardson


fountain for grounds
Detail of fountain design: Kivas Tully, architect.

'Improved and quiet' male patients with farming experience were prime candidates for outdoor work. Women were given few such opportunities until 1918 when an acre of land around the convalescent hospital was fenced off to create a lawn and vegetable plot whose maintenance the women reportedly found 'quite a novelty...and one they enjoyed'. So late as 1949 the vegetable garden, lawns, and flower beds were offering patients 'useful occupation'.

From Asylum Landscape
by Pleasance Kaufman Crawford

picture: Archives of Ontario, RRG 15-113-2-41, 411 BP-3, K-539.


perspective of asylum front
Perspective drawing by J. G. Howard, architect.

It is hard for us today to realize the magnitude of the commitment that the government was making when it set out to build an asylum of the size proposed. One of the best ways to come to terms with that is to compare it with the other public buildings of its generation. The people of the city would wait 40 years to see a building of the scale and magnificence of Howard's. And that would be Toronto's third City Hall, by E.J. Lennox.
              At 584 feet -8 chains and 56 feet - the asylum was the largest non-military public building in the nation. Howard's task was to ensure that it did not appear a monolith. While at first glance it must not appear a threatening place, yet it should be taken seriously. For as a residential clinic where the ill were to be cured, neither should it be frivolous -a mere resort. Basing his design on the terrace pattern he would know well from London, his creation would remind some of an assemblage of 'many mansions'.

From Building Canada West
by Alec Keefer

picture: Toronto Reference Library, Howard Collection 422.


stairs in dome
The hanging staircase

Under the dome there was a spiral staircase, constructed round an inverted newel post that suspended the staircase from the central opening of the lantern on the dome's summit. The staircase was connected with the perimeter of the dome room via a steep ramp, shown on lower left.
        The dynamics of an apparent helical vortex seemed to hold the structure in mid-air high above the 12,000 gallon water tank that filled the lower half of the room.

Howard portrait
John George Howard
Detail of watercolour by Thomas H. Stevenson

As far as is known John George Howard was the first trained architect to practice in the Town of York (Toronto)...[H]e prepared a set of architectural drawings that in 1833 led Lieutenant Governor Sir John Colborne to arrange for his appointment at Upper Canada College where he taught until 1856....He also provided architectural services to the college and he designed the cast-iron lamps that still ornament the grounds.

From John George Howard, Architect
by Shirley Morriss

picture by permission: John Howard Collection, City of Toronto [1978.41.504]


Workman photo
Dr. Joseph Workman
Superintendent, 1853-1875

He stressed the importance of taking family histories, seeking hereditary traits, because he was aware that many patients seemed to be born with a tendency to mental illness. He observed dysfunctional families but saw the illness as the cause and not the result of the family dynamics. Freud, Jung and psychoanalysis had not yet arrived on the scene. He studied alcoholism and even noted what we now call 'fetal alcohol syndrome'.
        At Workman's suggestion, the study of alienism (now known as psychiatry) was introduced into medical schools in the USA and Ontario.

From Joseph Workman, Asylum Superintendent
by Christine I.M. Johnston


Tully wing, close view
Portion of 1866-1870 Kivas Tully/Joseph Workman wings

Although a clear building evolution is easily understood, Tully's design for the elevations of the wings evokes a different reaction when studied against the very formal nature of the Neo-Classical Howard block. In general, the Tully elevations appear more picturesque in character. From a distance the wings appear as an eclectic assembly of row houses.

From Howard vs. Tully. A Contrast and Comparison
by Steven Bell


crowd of bowlers
Lawn bowls in the quadrangle, about 1910.

When Clark arrived the quadrangle was dominated by sheds, lean-tos and containers to store materials entering or leaving the building. It had proved impossible to keep the yard in order and clean so three new sheds were erected along the south wall. Ever the poet, Clark had one built of stone, one of brick and one of wood. Then he had the quadrangle resodded and a flower garden planted. A bowling green and grounds for croquet were laid out.

From Dr. Daniel Clark: Asylum Superintendent
by Alec Keefer


nurses and patients in ward
Men's ward, about 1910.

Clarke wrote: 'The very best nurses for mental cases, or indeed for all classes of cases, were those who had passed a period of probation in the care of the insane, and graduated in an up-to-date General Hospital.' The probationary period served to teach the nurse flexibility and 'the ability to lead and persuade': what Clarke called 'psycho-therapeutics.' 

From Dr. C.K. Clarke and the Training School for Nurses
by Bill Brown


The asylum buildings. 
The asylum buildings. 1956

At Queen Street all of Howard's original front elevation was now obscured except for the landmark dome and ward 8 directly below it. Lawns and gardens formerly fronting the Howard building were paved over for parking lots. A multi-level covered walkway was punched into the north elevation of Howard's building. The implication was clear and unmistakable.

From 999 to 1001 Queen Street: A Consistently Vital Resource
by John Court


plan detail
Detail of plan, State Lunatic Asylum, Utica NY.

He [Howard] took enormous care, by designing discrete systems of staircases that separately connected from each floor to the ground, that each floor could accomodate a different class of patient. These exclusive staircases by-passed all other floors above and below. This feature perhaps uses space extravagantly, but it is designed to contain each 'class' of patient within his or her own environment.

From Asylum Layouts
by Edna Hudson

illustration: Toronto Reference Library Howard Collection, 459.41.


current facilities
Detail of isometric of 1001 Queen Street West, 1972.

The conundrum which sealed the fate of 999 Queen lies at the heart of most struggles around heritage structures. Heritage is not always a popular issue and it often runs contrary to today's common wisdom, as well as its development pressures. The secret for 'living' heritage is obviously to try to find a balance between yesterday and tomorrow - the entirely human challenge which all of us face on a daily basis.

From the Epilogue
by John Sewell


Review by John Bentley Mays

THE DARK SIDE OF THE WALL: The asylum's present state

Heaven Preserve Us!




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