Industrial on the Outside; Glorious within. The Studio Building

IMG_0902IMG_0905IMG_0903355722_2“Well,” I comment to Louis,” all the detective work it took to get us here was well-worth it wasn’t it?” He agrees and like me regrets time-traveling back into the bustling world of present-day Toronto.

We’ve spent the last 90 minutes poking into the nooks and crannies of the National Historic Site  “The Studio Building” in mid-town Toronto. Designed and built by Group of Seven founder Lawren Harris and his friend, art patron Dr. James McCallum  in 1914 , the Studio Building’s intent was to provide studio space for the builders’ artist friends including Group of Seven painters Tom Thomson, A.Y. Jackson,  Franklin Carmichael and JEH MacDonald.

Now a private residence, the public is not welcomed to this historic site without permission. A long and winding trail led me to the present owner and an invitation to tour the building, located on the edge of the Rosedale Ravine at 25 Severn Street.

“The exterior of the building is pretty unremarkable,” I suggest to Louis as we approach the door. “It looks like it could be an office building or even a factory.” “Industrial design pretty-well describes it,” he counters.  “I hope the inside is more remarkable.”

We need not have worried.

Tag along with the art-loving Silcoxes  as we explore Canada’s first “purpose-built artistic studio and residence in Canada.” The Studio Building’s  live-in caretaker Abe will show us around.


“As you probably know, Lawren Harris and his friend Dr. James McCallum were the brains, and the money behind the Building,” offers Abe. “Harris came from a wealthy family and was generous with it, especially when it came to helping his artist friends.” The builders’ plan saw six apartments providing living accommodation for artists who planned to work in the Studio for some time.

“At the time it was constructed, it was big news in Toronto,” continues our guide. “Not because of its purpose but that people thought it was ugly.  Critics in 1914 called it a ‘factory-looking building.'”

“I know that Tom Thomson lived here for a time, but he didn’t paint inside,” I question Abe. “Yes it’s true,” he answers and points out the area at the back of the building where Tom Thomson’s  “shack” sat. (see photo of area and of shack) -“Thomson much preferred the outdoors to the inside and felt his creativity was stifled in the modern and comfortable environment of the Studio Building.”

So, Group of Seven lore tells us that Harris and McCallum (the patron of a number of artists) located a suitable one- room shack and moved it to the back of the property for Thomson’s convenience. Lore tells that “renter” paid “landlord” $1 a month rent.

“And when spring came, Thomson cleared out for Algonquin Park where he spent the summer,”says Abe.


Thomson’s shack “explored,” we climb the stairs to the Studio Building’s main floor and enter a studio.  I’m stopped in my tracks by the effect of the strong January sun shining on the rich wood floors and furniture. “I’ve admired the huge windows from the outside,” I offer to Abe, “but they can’t even begin to convey the effect of light from the inside.”

“Light,” says Abe “was the whole purpose.” Harris left much of the design of the building to his architects, but he was firm about one feature–the windows. They had to be big, allowing the maximum light into the rooms.”  Six massive north-facing windows over the 3 floors of the building measure 3 meters (approx 10 feet) high by 4.5 meters wide (approximately 15 feet). On this sparkling January day, the effect is magical.

I close my eyes and images of A. Y. Jackson, Franklin Carmichael, J.E.H. MacDonald and Harris himself filter by. “I can’t believe I’m standing in the very spot where members of the Group of Seven painted,” I say, with reverence,  as a shiver runs up and down my spine. Abe laughs. “I live here and I still feel that way.”

Passing out of the first studio,  my eye is drawn to the numerous paintings on the walls. A fan of artist David Milne, Louis stops to admire several of his works. I’m an A.Y. Jackson fan and am not disappointed either as I move on.

“It’s obvious that cooking and eating wasn’t tops on the artists’ list of priorities” says Louis, as he peruses the small utilitarian kitchen on the main floor.

In 1948, Harris sold the Studio Building to artist Gordon McNamara. On McNamara’s death in 2006, his son James Mathias inherited it. It was designated as a National Historic Site in 2004. Mathias, a successful underwater photographer spends most of his year in Fiji and resides in the historic Studio Building for only a few months a year.

I speculate to caretaker Abe that keeping up such a historic building surely cannot be inexpensive. He agrees, noting that all the windows and doors have undergone recent replacement. “And it was a huge expense.”

And what does the future hold for the historic Studio Building? “Maybe someone wealthy with a last name of Thompson will buy it?” I suggest. “Or maybe it’ll be turned into an office building?” Images of other proud historic buildings now neglected and crumbling  leave me troubled.

National Historic Site “The Studio Building” is not open to the public.








LUCY MAUD MONTGOMERY AND THE LEASKDALE MANSE National Historic Sites Alliance of Ontario

When in 1911, newly-wed Lucy Maud Montgomery left Prince Edward Island for Leaskdale, Ontario, where her pastor husband was to take up his first ministerial post, she left something precious behind.

That “something” was Daffy, her beloved cat.


Lucy Maud Montgomery entered this world the same day her mother died. Her father, unprepared to raise a daughter alone, ran away. The babe was raised by a flinty-stiff Highlands-born grandmother, in a home where love seldom came calling. Growing up lonely, high-strung and introspective, Maud’s temperament invited heart-ache.

In such a joyless world, she looked outside the family for affection. Girl and boyfriends were fleeting but cats were there when you needed them. She was especially partial to grey ones. “The best cats are always grey,” Maud maintained. And the best of the best was Daffy.

Young adulthood saw Maud supporting herself as a teacher by day, writing short stories and poetry late into the night. She was also working on a novel, the story of a hot-tempered, red-headed orphan named Anne Shirley. As always Daffy sat beside her as she wrote.  He purred and closed his eyes. 

In 1908, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables was published. It vaulted her into the public eye.

In 1911, she married Pastor Ewan Macdonald and set out with him as he took up God’s calling in far-off Ontario. While it broke Maud’s heart, her beloved Daffy remained behind to be cared for by strangers.


The village of Leaskdale, northeast of the booming Toronto was not much to look at. Blink twice and you’ve passed it by. The Manse into which she and Ewan set up house was a disappointment too.

“It is not an ideal house by any means, but it will do,” she admitted in her journal. “My greatest disappointment in connection with it is that it has no bathroom or toilet. I had hoped that I might have a home with these at least. But what is to be will be! It is Allah! We must submit!”

Playing her requisite role as Pastor’s wife by day, Maud continued to write more  of Anne’s adventure late into the night. But the feeling wasn’t right. Always her thoughts turned to dear Daffy back “home.”  And she wept.

The delightful children’s book Lucy Maud and the Cavendish Cat by author Lynn Manuel, illustrated by Janet Wilson recounts Daffy’s train journey from Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, to Ontario where he was reunited with his beloved mistress. Over the next dozen years, Daffy filled the role of “muse” in the many Anne of Green Gables sequels.

When Daffy passed away, Maud grieved. She buried her grey friend in the garden behind her home.


Eleven of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 22 novels were written at Leaskdale, each one lauded. But despite world-wide acclaim, her life was an unhappy one. Prone to depression, she was also taxed in supporting Ewan, whose battles with mental illness outdid her own.

In 1942, Lucy Maud Montgomery took an overdose of sleeping draughts and passed away. Only recently have her descendants made her struggles public ones.

The Leaskdale Manse, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Ontario home between 1911 and 1925 was named a National Historic Site in 1996. Now a museum, and open to the public, it is administered by the Lucy Maud Montgomery Society of Ontario.

The Lucy Maud Montgomery Society of Ontario

11850 Regional Road 1, P.O., Box 84

Leaskdale, ON. L0C 1C0