[URBAN NOTE] “Making Sunnybrook Military Hospital a Reality”
Torontoist’s David Wencer describes how Sunnybrook Military Hospital came to be.
In 1928, the City of Toronto received an enormous gift: Sunnybrook Farm. The farm was a reported 70 hectares of mostly undeveloped land located just north of the city limits, stretching from Bayview to Leslie across a picturesque section of the Don River. The donor was Alice Kilgour, and Sunnybrook Farm represented part of the estate on which she had lived with her husband, Joseph, until his death a few years earlier. Alice Kilgour’s gift was conditional on the City maintaining the property as a park and opening it to the public for recreation. “In order to give the citizens the fullest enjoyment of the park,” she wrote, “it should, I think, be definitely understood that none of the roads in it be used as public thoroughfares for public conveyances or commercial traffic.” “It will make one of the finest parks the city has,” predicted Board of Control member and future Toronto mayor Bert Wemp in the Globe. “The scenery up the Don Valley is wonderful, and it will be a grand place for the children.”
Over the next decade, Sunnybrook Park became a popular destination for Torontonians. It was located relatively close to the city limits, but far enough away from the bustle of downtown to serve as a relaxing getaway. Through the 1930s, it was the scene of sporting events, picnics, botanical study, and the activities of many local clubs and organizations. In 1931, the Toronto Field Naturalists financed guided tours of Sunnybrook Park, supplied three days a week by Mr. L. T. Owens, whom the Globe reported was “ready to conduct [the public] through the park and reveal the secrets of nature.”
Toronto’s relationship with the property took a dramatically different turn, however, following the outbreak of the Second World War.
At the start of the war, Toronto’s primary veterans’s hospital was the Christie Street Hospital, located on Christie between Dupont and Davenport, in what was then still an industrial neighbourhood. The hospital was housed in an old cash register factory which had been re-purposed in 1919 was the city’s primary hospital for the care of veterans not just of the First World War, but also of other conflicts, including the Boer War.
When large numbers of wounded veterans began returning to Toronto during the 1940s, it became apparent that the facilities at Christie Street were woefully inadequate. The hospital was uncomfortably close to a busy rail corridor. Passing trains reportedly caused the building to vibrate, and spewed smoke into the hospital hallways. One Globe and Mail article noted that freshly laundered hospital linen had, by the end of the day, accumulated a layer of dust and dirt. In her 2014 book The History of Sunnybrook Hospital: Battle to Greatness, Francesca Grosso cites one example of a Christie Street doctor complaining that the noise prevented him from being able to hear the heartbeats of his patients. While the building had been scarcely suitable for use as a hospital at the time of its opening, years of neglect had caused it to fall into a state of disrepair.