North York Centre. Lansing. Uptown. The House that Mel Built. What was intended as a simple errand at Yonge and Sheppard turned into a tour of this downtown away from downtown.
It’s been a few years since I frequented the area on a semi-regular basis, so I was slightly shocked at the amount of growth since I was last here. At Yonge and Sheppard – the fortuitous cross-section between two subway lines – towers in differing stages of development have displaced the Metro-flanked strip mall.
Walking up the street, I can see even more cranes with upcoming condos in the distance. Below them, big box stores and restaurants line the streets. My destination is Gibson House Museum – one of the few historic sites operated by the City of Toronto that I have not visited. The towers I saw earlier surround the museum and tell me that a certain Gibson Square is coming to the corner of Yonge and Park Home. I’m compelled to do me a little look around of the museum to see the extent of the ‘takeover’. From Park Home I can see the hint of the brick building beyond the construction site. I continue to Beecroft, where I pass a parkette . I would examine it better after my museum visit. I notice a a house across the street which I immediate recognize as being of an earlier architectural style. I snap a photo and make a note to ask the Gibson House staff about it.
Moving around Gibson House via Basil Hill Court, I’m struck by the contrast of the back of the house and the condominiums going up in front of it. I circle to the front of the house where I’m greeted by a familiar blue plaque. This marker was erected by the Ontario Heritage Trust (interestingly known as the Archaeological and Historic Sites Board in the text) to commemorate David Gibson. I take a few steps back to admire the entirety of the house – but am stopped by the construction wall behind me. Finally, I go around to the side where the entrance is a modern addition to the back the house.
I’m greeted at the desk by a nice administrator and I immediately mention my observations while getting to the museum. She concurs that it’s tough situation being “landlocked by condos.” It has affected their foot traffic. I pay my 6.29 for an adult visit, she takes my bag to store while I take the guided tour, and I wait for a costumed interpreter in the Discovery Gallery, reading up on textiles and the Gibson story.
This was not the first home the Gibsons owned on this property. A wood frame house stood here, but after the rebellion of 1837, Gibson – a traitor – fled to the United States and the house was burned. Was he returned in 1850, he built this grand Georgian house.
We start in the living room where Claire tells me about Mr. Gibson and the room we are in. He was a land surveyor, which caused him to be often away doing work . This allowed the family the ability to be financially stable enough – not rich, not poor. Of the room itself, Claire tells how the idea was to give off that the impressions they were well off – “perception becomes reality” at work. It sounds like a pompous attitude to have, but it’s a dynamic I have seen in my own life in the 21st century, so perhaps it’s become somewhat normalized. The room is seperated by doors, which divide the room into an entertaining space for guests and an area where the children could play. The public/private divide comes up again later in my tour.
The room is decked out in Christmas decor, although a tree would have been anachronistic for the time. Christmas as a whole was not a big deal; perhaps a meal was had and that was it. Hogmanay was the big holiday celebration. Although, if there were adult drinks involved, at least Eliza Gibson was not involved in them, as she was temperate (I think?).
We go to the upper level where Claire tells me about the hired hand David Gibson employed to run the farm (because Gibson was often away). His room was sizable enough for a comfortable enough living, and was situated far away from the children’s bedrooms (locked as well). Claire says there is speculation about his relationship to the family – whether it was strictly an employer-employee dynamic or the family and their good friend. His room faces westward and allowed him a view of the property he managed. The Gibson farm extended all the way to Bathurst from Yonge but wasn’t very wide. He could look out and see all flat fields. Today, the view presents a challenge in interpreting the site because as Claire mentions one sees “a lovely building” when one looks out today.
The children’s bedroom – consisting of a boys and a girls – are low-key in their appearance. And this was on purpose. Nobody went into the bedrooms save for the children themselves and that was in the morning and at night. All the bells and whistles, with the notable exception of the master and guest bedrooms, were reserved for the public areas of the house. The idea, as Claire presented it, was to create a facade for guests: impressing them into thinking they were better off than reality.
As mentioned before, the Gibsons weren’t poor, but they weren’t the elite of the elite. They owned this great house that, if not for the lack of indoor plumbing, might suit a family today. These facts prompt to ask myself – and Claire – “If the Gibsons were nothing special, why does the family’s story survive, as opposed to other comparable households in the area?” The answer includes a couple of factors working together. First, because of his line of work, David Gibson wrote a lot of things down that inform us about the family and their lives. Unfortunately Gibson House records do not include records from the other occupants (Claire says it is not even known if Eliza Gibson was literate), but his paper trail is sizable enough. Second, it helps that the house itself survived. Being brick, it did not burn down like other residences. It also survived demolition even after the farm was broken up for development. During the Centennial celebrations of 1967, the Canadian government alloted money to restore historic houses and turn them into museums. The Dempsey Brothers Store/Joseph Shepard House that I saw on Beecroft might very well have been a museum, but the Gibson home instead was commemorated.
In addition to these rooms, there is a place for the seamstresses hired by the family, as well as a guest room (which is the nicest of the non-master bedroom rooms).
Downstairs, Claire takes me through the Gibson’s office, the kitchen, and dining room. The former is populated by the man’s surveying equipment (not original, of, course). In the kitchen, my guide takes me through the Gibson’s diet (a lot of potatoes) and says Eliza Gibson took care of the kitchen herself, no help. The focal point of the room is the fireplace. One can only imagine the difficulties in cooking an entire meal on it – and worrying about the real hazard of not catching fire. (Tidbit: museum workers and volunteers need safety training just for this reason). The nearby dining room is a showcase of how great the Gibson had it (or were believed to have it, anyways. It also houses two original artefacts: a clock and a cabinet.
Our tour ends where it began. Claire shows me a posted map where visitors have plotted their place of origins on a map. Also presented to me is a full family tree of the family. I heard about it upstairs, but I need to visualize it. Interesting fact: Eliza and David Gibson were related before they married. I forgot the exact connection, but perhaps it was 2nd cousins. My guide says they didn’t grow up together, so it might alright by today’s standards? I might agree with that.
I thank her and she leaves me to browse a little bit. After that I pay my appreciation to the staff and head my way. My adventure in understanding the area and the museum is not done, however. I head down to Gibson Park to see some public installations related to the Gibsons. You may read about that here.
After the park, I head back to Yonge. My final stop for the day will be Mel Lastman Square. This is the Nathan Phillips and Albert Campbell Squares of North York. The former civic heart of the borough and a cultural gathering place. Just to note a few events associated with it, it hosts skating, a farmer’s market, and Canada Day celebrations. Lastman himself was a former mayor of North York and the first mayor of the Mega-City. His fingerprints are all over the borough.
I have a look around, noting the North York Central Library, where I ventured to on a few occasions during university, and a gazebo of sorts. Satisfied, I head for the subway.