Sixty-five years ago, when the historian G. Mercer Adam wrote Toronto, Old and New, he described the park that is now known as Allan Gardens in these words: "The beautiful Horticultural Gardens and Pavilion, a shrine of Flora much frequented by the citizens."
Adam's phrase would hardly apply to the Allan Gardens of 1956. Though to a few it may remain a shrine of the Roman goddess of flowers and spring, most Toronto citizens regard it with something close to distrust, if not with distaste. Its reputation suggests that sensible people should not visit it in the evening and delicate people should not visit it at all.
Yet Allan Gardens, despite the vagrants and violence clouding its recent past, is probably the most articulate symbol of the parks situation in present-day Toronto.
This year the city will spend $150,000 in an overall renovation of Allan Gardens. This fact alone makes the park the most notable item in the revitalization of the Parks Department under George Bell, parks commissioner appointed in 1954.
The results of the changes in administration wrought by Bell have been seen piecemeal in many parts of the city. But next year Allan Gardens will be the first real showcase of the Bell administration.
And in another sense Allan Gardens symbolizes the parks situation here. For it is this piece of land, and Bell's plans to extend it to Queen St., that have resulted in the only really open statement of the opposing views held by Bell and the city planning director, Matthew Lawson.
Bell, who emphasizes large parks serving a diversity of purposes, wants to make Allan Gardens, Moss Park and 55 acres more into one huge park bounded by Jarvis, Carlton, Sherbourne and Queen Sts. Lawson, who believes Toronto has a critical shortage of small neighborhood parks, opposes the Bell scheme. City Council has made no decision.
Thus Allan Gardens' future is in doubt. But whatever its future, the park has had a distinguished past. As parks go, it has seen everything. It has seen the cream of Toronto's turn-of-the-century society stroll through its lovely gardens and it has watched uneasily as the district that contained the cream went sour.
It was originally a gift from George William Allan and though it is the gift for which he is remembered it was by no means his only service to the young city of his birth.
Allan, the son of a pioneer who settled here under Governor Simcoe, was a distinguished lawyer, an alderman for several years and Toronto's mayor in 1855. He was first principal of the Royal Conservatory as well as one of its most important founders, an early president of the Ontario Society of Artists and president of the Horticultural Society of Toronto for more than a quarter of a century. He served in the Legislative Council and later became a Senator.
It was to his own Horticultural Society that he gave the original five acres of Allan Gardens in 1861, making explicit in the deed that it was to be developed as a horticultural garden. Three years later the city bought five acres around the original land and gave this to the society. In 1888 the whole park was sold to the city for $40,000.
In the 1880's an elaborate Romanesque pavilion went up on the land and soon made Allan Gardens the centre of non-commercial Toronto. It was the Massey Hall of its day and it brought thousands of visitors streaming into the park. No public building could have been mourned more than the pavilion was after its 1902 burning.
Seven years later the Palm House was erected on the same spot and in the decades that followed it was filled with hundreds of exotic plants, the pride of the Parks Department. But as the Carlton-Sherbourne district went, so went Allan Gardens. The deterioration was not swift but after the Second World War it was obvious. The proposal to chop up the noble 10 acres for low-cost housing came in 1952 and constituted the crowning indignity.
Today Allan Gardens is filled with workmen spending the city's $150,000 on botanical and water gardens, demonstration hedges and a nature area.
Meanwhile, the city Real Estate Department is negotiating to buy the land that will permit Allan Gardens to stretch over to Jarvis St., a natural expansion that has been the hope of many civic officials and politicians for years.
Allan Gardens may become a 65-acre multi-use park, as Bell would have it, or it may become: only a 10-acre horticulturist's paradise. Either way it seems that a noble old park that has seen more than its share of Toronto history will regain at least part of its former glory. And perhaps it is not far-fetched to suggest that the Allan Gardens development may be only the first in a long series of changes that will permit Toronto's parks to attain the glory they have never owned.
Last of a Series.
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