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Scenes From The Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens

The Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens is a beautiful park in midtown Toronto which dates back almost ninety years. The cause to memorialize its namesake Alexander Muir was so great that he had the gardens dedicated to him twice.

Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens, 2020. Source: Google Maps.

The first Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens was located near Lawton Boulevard. It was in a triangular plot of land caused by the unusual eastward veering of Yonge Street near Heath Street. The “correction” was made to directly align Yonge Street in the original Town of York with Lake Simcoe when the street was originally surveyed in the 1790s. Yellow Creek flowed through the park.

Tremaine’s Map of the County of York, Canada West, 1860. Source: Old Toronto Maps.

With construction beginning in 1933, the Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens were officially opened on August 6, 1934. It was established 24 years after Muir’s death on June 26, 1906. The Gardens were located directly across Mount Pleasant Cemetery — his final resting spot.

Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens, 1934. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

“Alexander Muir Memorial Garden Officially Opened”, The Globe August 7, 1934. Source: Globe and Mail Archives & Toronto Public Library.

Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens, 1947. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

The entrance to the gardens featured an ornamental gate at Yonge Street. This led to an impressive stone wall and terrace with a carving of a verse of ‘The Maple Leaf Forever” — Alexander Muir’s best known work. In the garden were 1,000 rose bushes and a well-manicured lawn. In the north of the park was a sunken rockery garden and lily pools below a willow tree. Other ‘Canadian’ trees and Japanese cherry trees were also planted.

Old Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens Gates, 1935. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Old Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens, 1935. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Old Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens with Mount Pleasant Cemetery, 1935. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Old Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens ravine or pond, 1935. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Alexander Muir himself was a hero of sorts of old, colonial, British Toronto, so the appetite to pay tribute to him in the 1930s was high, especially with centennial celebration of incorporation of the City of Toronto happening in the decade. Among other identities, Muir was a patriot, educator, and composer. In addition to Yonge Street, Muir’s geographic footprint stretches across Toronto from Scarborough to Leslieville to Little Portugal — all school sites associated with him late 19th century.

Muir, Alexander, 1830-1906, 1855. Source: Toronto Public Library.

His ‘Maple Leaf Forever’ is an anthem for British Canada. Its original lyrics made a point of celebrating General Wolfe — the man who led the English to victory over the French at the Plains of Abraham — and highlighted scrimmages in the War of 1812 — a conflict used heavily in the construction of  ‘Canadiana’. His funeral in 1906 was “impressive” and attended by “hundreds”, including the many older Toronto organizations Muir was affiliated with — the Loyal Orange Association, the York Pioneers, the Independent Order of Oddfellows, and others.

Muir, Alexander, gravestone, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, 1920. Source: Toronto Public Library.

In the 1950s, Toronto’s character was changing — both culturally and physically. The coming of Yonge Street subway almost spelled the disappearance of the Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens. The Toronto Transit Commission needed to fill in the ravine to make way for the Davisville Yard. The TTC eventually pledged to cover the $100,000 cost of moving the memorial. Proposed new sites for the gardens included on Lawton Boulevard itself which would have removed four houses and on Gladstone Avenue where Muir himself once worked. Eventually, a spot only several blocks north on Yonge Street was chosen.

“Subway Forces Move of Muir Memorial”, The Globe, December 29, 1950. Source: Globe and Mail Archives & Toronto Public Library.

Davisville Yard, 1956. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

The new location for the Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens was located near St. Edmunds Drive. The Lawrence Park neighbourhood was laid out in 1908 as a garden suburb with winding streets and comfortably sized lots. It also kept a ravine space extending south from the southeast corner of Yonge and Lawrence as parkland. This area would come to house the new Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens. In preparation, several hundred trees were cut down. A red maple from the old park was also moved to the new park.

Lawrence Park, 1934. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Lawrence Park, 1947. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

The new Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens opened in Lawrence Park on May 28, 1952. Impressively, the wall and terrace were reconstructed in the new location and new trees and gardens were landscaped. A new, maple leaf-ornamented plaque was added to the gates to mark the occasion.

“Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens,”, The Globe, May 23, 1952. Source: Globe and Mail Archives & Toronto Public Library.

Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens, 1952. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens terrace, 1952. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens, 1956. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

A walk through the Alexander Muir Gardens today is a marvel. Leading from the gates is almost a labyrinth of paths and corners to discover. Well-presented flora and accompanying fauna catch one’s eye at almost every look.

 

Leading off the spacious lawn in the west part of the Alexander Muir Gardens, the park’s contours show themselves on the way up to Dawlish Avenue. This tree-covered topography hides Burke Brook, a Don River tributary. Following Alexander Muir Road past the tennis and lawn bowling courts, the trail continues through several parks ending at Sunnybrook Park.

As it has historically, the central wall and stairs rightfully remain the focal point of the Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens. In its modern use, the structure is best known as a popular destination for wedding parties. One wonders how much would-be brides and grooms and other park users have a look at the additional words of re-dedication which accompany the poem by Muir and reflect on his legacy and origins of the park. With everything that may come with it, Muir loved his country, and his profession in education is generally a commendable one.

In a current social climate in which the focus of commemorating Toronto history should be on untold stories rather than its colonial figures, these Memorial Gardens likely would not be a priority if they were created today. But alas, their visual beauty is a positive. Alexander Muir and his poem still live on today within the park.

City building, expropriation, and lost histories

For all the houses, farmland, communities that been sold or expropriated to build infrastructure in and around Toronto – roads, highways, subway lines, airports, even our city hall – there isn’t a lot made of the losses that went into the gains. At least, I haven’t encountered a lot. Historian Jay Young explores the expropriation of homes to build Toronto’s underground transit network in his dissertation “Searching for a Better Way: Subway Life and Metropolitan Growth in Toronto, 1942-1978” . It is a fascinating read and I wonder if there’s more out there (Young does cites another article by Jason Gilliland about expropriation in Montreal). If history is about telling stories that haven’t been told yet and recounting perhaps lost perspectives, then I’d like to hear these stories and perspectives. Where are they and where did they go?

They are important ones and vital to how we see and experience the city today. When waiting for a plane at Pearson International’s Terminal 1 or for a bus at Pape Station’s loading bay, it isn’t obvious to think about the structures and the lives that pre-existed those grand transportation hubs. There’s no marker for their sacrifices. Urban landscapes shift and streetscapes change as the new replaces the old. And when the tangible goes, often so does the intangible. But they were here and I wonder what became of them. Progress shifted their life paths. How many of them expected to live in their settings for many years to come? There’s a segment of the population today that boast multi-generational ownership of their homes; perhaps that number could have been higher.

To be clear, I’m not lamenting the construction of the Yonge-University-Spadina line or YYZ or Highway 401. They move people around and are needed to accommodate a growing metropolis. I’m just left with the questions about the people that made it happen. How was the dialogue with the city to give up their homes? What was it like looking at their empty houses and properties for the last time? Where did they even go after? How did their lives differ? What was the good? What was the bad? Are there relatives today that claim those stories? I think those are stories worth hearing and remembering.

Future site of Pape Subway Station, 1927. Credit: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 4828

Future site of Pape Subway Station, 1927. Credit: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 4828

Future Site of Dupont Subway Station, 1954. Credit: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33b, Item 425

Future site of Dupont Subway Station, 1954. Credit: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33b, Item 425

For additional reading of a sad modern-day example, check out the expropriation of the Meyers farm to expand the CFB Trenton air force base.

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Random Scene: Rainy Broadview

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