“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.