Guild Festival Theatre
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About The Guild

The Guild is comprised of the historic Guild Inn and its remarkable Gardens, situated high above Lake Ontario on the rugged Scarborough Bluffs, in the east end of Toronto.

It is a place of abiding mystery, shrouded in history and legend. Over the years, it has continued to attract local and international visitors. It has been a sanctuary and academy for artisans and artists of every kind. The Guild of All Arts, as it used to be known, is a legacy that the years cannot erase.

The Guild Inn sits amid 88 acres of forest, gardens, lawns and woodland trails. An impressive collection of vintage architecture and sculpture dots the landscape. In this scenic 'installation' where nature meets culture, the centerpiece is an open-air theatre modeled after the ancient Greeks. This is a summertime home to the Guild Festival Theatre.

The eight columns and Corinthian capitals, with arches joining the columns, were saved in 1966 from the demolition of the Bank of Toronto formerly located on the corner of Bay Street and King Street. The bank had been built in 1912. When the Guild of All Arts celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1982, stonemason Arthus Hibberd erected the eight-columned monument. As such, it became the only theatre of its kind in Canada. 

Future plans for this open-air theatre venue included a tiered seating plan, with steps up each side and at the back. Behind the theatre would be change rooms with two public washrooms. The steps and stage area were built from poured concrete and not relocated from a demolished building.

The adjacent Guild Inn was built in 1914 as Ranelagh Park for General Charles Bickford. He owned the sprawling two-storey pseudo-Georgian manor until 1921. With its balcony and veranda, a stable full of polo ponies and a garage, it made a fine summer residence including ample room for his seven children. After an impressive military career, private life brought financial setbacks and he and his family moved to Buffalo.

The property was sold to St. Francis Xavier China Mission Seminary which in turn sold it to an American creosote industry executive who spent little time there. In 1932, the site was sold to Rosa Breithaupt Hewetson, a widow who had four children to raise and her late husband's successful shoe company to run.

Rosa met Herbert Spencer Clark through their work with the Robert Owen Foundation, an organization which Rosa helped launch in the tradition of her family's values "to promote ideas of social concerns." Rosa and Spencer were nothing more than like-minded colleagues until she bought the Bluffs property as a site for her as-yet-unformed co-operative experiment.

Rosa was interested and involved in the arts; the Group of Seven artist A.Y. Jackson was her cousin. As for Spencer, according to Scarborough archivist Richard Schofield, he "wanted to encourage the Group of Seven and offer them a place to work." Spencer understood that artists cannot worry about earning a living if they are to nurture their talents.

Rosa and Spencer Clark honeymooned in upper New York State at Roycroft, an arts and crafts co-operative modeled on a William Morris innovation and supported largely by an inn, which thrives to this day. Upon their return, the Clarks formed the Guild of All Arts in 1932, an arts and crafts collective which put into practice their high ideals during the severe economic conditions of the Great Depression.

Artists and artisans of all types came from far and wide to stay, working in exchange for room and board. Employees were hired to cater to the burgeoning community. Cabins were incorporated into the property to accommodate the artists. Many of their finished pieces were purchased and added to the Spencer and Rosa Clark Collection, some of which are still on-site at The Guild.

Visitors flocked to the Guild of All Arts to watch artisans at work and to enjoy the beautiful Carolinian woods overlooking Lake Ontario. The Clarks began to offer meals and guest accommodations, and the Guild Inn earned a reputation as both a country inn and a centre of fine arts and crafts. Author Carole Lidgold's book The History of the Guild Inn explains that the Guild Inn "was very, very popular. In the thirties it was the only thing going."

As Roycroft had learned in New York State, selling the resident artists' output was not sufficient to keep an inn operational. According to the son of a former Guild Inn employee, the variety of homemade buns had something to do with the venue's popularity, as did the post-sleigh-ride party menus. Also, many were attracted by the unique character of the rooms. Each was appointed with handmade furniture made by resident craftsmen that included stylish wooden headboards carved with Canadian wildlife. Rooms were decorated with upholstery, curtains and bedspreads created on The Guild's unique handlooms. These were designed or modified by Spencer Clark and built by a German master cabinetmaker, Herman Reidl, who worked at The Guild for thirty-two years.

World War II saw the Guild Inn and surrounding property requisitioned by the federal government. It was used to train WRENS (Women's Royal Naval Service) in highly secret telegraphy work and as a hospital for veterans, later replaced by Sunnybrook Hospital. All the while, artists struggled on in spite of wartime privations.

In the 1950s and 60s, Toronto experienced a renovation and building boom. Inevitably, some of the older downtown buildings decorated by master stonemasons were now demolished. This horrified Spencer Clark. As the buildings came down, he salvaged large, interesting and representative architectural pieces from their facades and transported them to the Guild Inn grounds. These fragments became part of the sculpture gardens that remain today, including the Greek Theatre which is home to Guild Festival Theatre.

Spencer Clark created Guildwood Village, a subdivision where homes started selling half a century ago, in August 1957. His aesthetic sensitivity and love of nature determined that many old trees be preserved. Mr. Clark also named many of the streets.

In 1979, the Guild Inn was sold jointly to the Province of Ontario and the Metro Toronto Region and Conservation Authority. Lessees took over the running of the Inn while the government assumed responsibility for the care of the grounds and artifacts.

The possibility that the Guild Inn might be torn down spurred caring citizens to action. The Guildwood Village Community Association was successful in helping to repel developers with unpopular intentions.

In 1986 Spencer Clark died, predeceased by Rosa in 1981. The passionate advocacy of their loyal followers was not enough to save their beloved vision for this beautiful site. In 1995, Elizabeth Fraser Williamson moved from her cottage on the grounds into Livingston Lodge. This marked the end of the era of artists-in-residence at The Guild and, thus, the end of the Guild of All Arts. Sadly, the condition of the Inn deteriorated and eventually it was closed.

In 1997, local citizens formed the Guild Renaissance Group (GRG) in the hope that they could assist the City to repair and upgrade the Inn and put the site back into operation as a centre for arts and culture. They have worked with the City to study, design and assess the feasibility of restoring cultural programs and activities at the Guild. Recent studies concluded that the Inn is economically repairable but have suggested that a separate precinct be built into the site to accommodate the arts in all forms.

The City of Toronto has issued a request for proposals to find a private investor committed to building a new restaurant and banquet facility at the Guild Inn. In combination with Guild Festival Theatre's annual summer season, this marks the re-birth of a unique destination for Torontonians and all visitors to the city.

This short history is presented courtesy of the Guild Renaissance Group, with contributions from Lee Graves, Anne Livingston and Carole M. Lidgold.

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