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.












At Banting House in London, Ontario, there’s a map of the world on the wall. Hundreds of push pins with brightly coloured tops are stuck into various countries of the world.

“These are the countries our visitors come from,” says Grant Maltman, Curator of Banting House. The National Historic Site honours the memory of Dr. Frederick Banting, the co-discoverer of insulin.

The biggest cluster of pins covers the map of Canada. It’s followed by the U.S and The United Kingdom. But the pins show visitors from the nations of Africa, the Middle East, South America, the Far East and Australia.

Many of the visitors are diabetics, says Grant, come to pay homage to the great man who saved their lives, and of others who went before them.

As visitors walk through the museum–once the home and medical office of Dr. Banting, they enter his small bedroom and immediately head for the bed. Some touch it reverently; others sit on it. For many, the experience brings tears to their eyes.

 “People who come to visit us, especially those with diabetes just feel a need to sit on the bed, to have that connection to Dr. Banting,” says Grant Maltman.

With no diabetes in my family, or friends, I still followed this ritual. And I was moved. Dr. Frederick Banting is my hero.




For this was the very bed where Dr. Banting, an insomniac, worried about his unsuccessful medical practice and consumed by a burning desire to find the cure for the ravages of diabetes, had a blinding epiphany.

It was here in the dead of one sleepless night, pouring over his medical textbooks in bed, he unlocked the insulin secret, hitherto undiscovered.    

Visitors to Banting House can read Banting’s hand-written diary entry of October 31, 1920 that describes what transpired on that fateful night.

It was one of those nights when I was disturbed and could not sleep…Finally about two in the morning, the idea came to me…I got up and wrote down the idea and spent most of the night thinking about it.  

Banting’s idea was that extracting insulin from a dog’s pancreas might be useful in treating human diabetes. He scribbled down a 24 word formula and made plans to share it with the medical world.  

Photos and letters on the walls of Banting House tell other stories. A child, no more than five or six, little frame wasted, his face pinched and drawn stands before the camera. Diabetes has ravaged his body and taken away his boyish spirit.

A second image shows the child again. Robust, smiling and spirited, he rides his tricycle and looks confidently at the world.

Between the two photos is a letter from the boy to Dr. Banting.

Dear Dr. Banting:

I wish you could come to see me. I am a fat boy now and I can climb a tree. Margaret would like to see you.

Lots of love from

Teddy Ryder


A stroll through Banting House will show you the examining room where the treated his patients. But there were so few of them. One week he counted one–a World War 1 veteran looking for alcohol.  

His medical tools—tweezers, needles, forceps and stethoscope–are there too. So seldom were they used, that the good doctor bought himself some oil paints, a few brushes and canvass to fill the long hours waiting for patients to come. His failure drove him to despair—and into debt.

Then one memorable night, the insulin epiphany came—and Dr. Fred Banting’s life irrevocably changed. So did the world’s…


Many visitors to Banting House are surprised when they enter a second floor room to see an art gallery. The art displayed is Dr. Frederick Banting’s.

After Banting closed his London practice and moved to Toronto, he took up the hobby in earnest, rubbing shoulders with the Group of Seven. Group founder A.Y. Jackson became Banting’s friend and mentor. A photo of friends Alex and Fred draws many comments from visitors.

Dr. Frederick Banting’s War Medals, his Knighthood which made this shy country doctor from Allison, Ontario a “Sir,” and a replica of his Nobel Prize for Medicine are also on display.

Outside Banting House an eternal flame burns. It was lit by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother when she visited London in 1989. The flame burns as a reminder that insulin is only a treatment, not a cure for diabetes. When a cure if found, the flame will be extinguished.

Banting House was designated a National Historic Site in 1997.

442 Adelaide Street N


Telephone: (519) 673-1752