Fire destroys a part of York’s prehistory

 Above: Chedington residence in a recent photo

John P.M. Court, a York alumnus and volunteer member of the Glendon Conservation Advisory Committee since 1993, has researched the history of York’s Glendon campus and submitted this history of the Chedington residence, which was destroyed by fire Oct. 30. Court is a member of York’s founding student class of 1960 and a member of the York University Founders’ Society. He is the archivist for the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health and a history professor in the Department of Psychiatry in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto.

On Friday, Oct. 30, a multi-alarm fire destroyed the former Chedington residence, built in 1928 for the daughter of Glendon Hall’s founding Wood family. Through a 1994 bylaw, this historic home had been designated under the Ontario Heritage Act by the City of North York, as part of the approval process for the adjacent condominium towers of the same name.

Mildred WoodLeft: Mildred Wood, 1924

Chedington was built by Edward R. and A.E. (Pheme) Wood in 1927-1928 as a wedding present for their daughter and only surviving child, Mildred, and her second husband (of four), a son of the locally renowned R.J. Fleming. The Woods had acquired the pioneer farm at Bayview and Lawrence avenues in 1920 and set about transforming it into what became the stunningly beautiful, 125-acre Glendon Hall estate. Under Pheme’s will, the estate passed to the University of Toronto in 1950 with the intent that it should inspire and form the nexus of an academic, scientific botanical garden – a U of T ambition for a century.

Throughout the 1920s, adjacent lots to the west – recently subdivided for Lawrence Park but not yet developed – were acquired by the Woods, for annexing to Glendon Hall. The Woods were attracted by the lots’ dense, natural condition. North York Township accepted a dedication of new roadway lands from the Woods and passed bylaws for the still-prominent, curving diversion of Bayview Avenue around to the west of the entrance woodlot, incorporated into the Glendon estate as Block D of R.P. 2716 (registered in June, 1931).

Glendon quickly evolved through a creative dedication that brought new groves of trees and gardens in bold strokes to the plateau, slopes and riverbanks. Through the winters, carefully chosen specimens of mature, native hardwoods were skilfully transplanted via horse-drawn sleighs, some from as far away as Thornhill. Canadian Homes and Gardens magazine, in a series of illustrated articles from 1925 to 1926, waxed eloquent about the main house and its decor as well as the formal gardens, parkland, slopes and valley. These endeavours were described by the writer in The Canadian Rose Annual journal of 1993.

In the late 1920s the Woods decided that their 500-by-150-foot patch of Lawrence’s Bush, then still on the opposite side of the original Bayview Avenue, remained vulnerable. They devised a bold plan to save much of the rest of it by tripling its land base while incorporating it directly into their estate. With the backing of North York Township, from 1927 to 1931 they set about acquiring the adjoining 19 lots below Lawrence, as well as the 23 lots north of Lawrence for their daughter’s new home, Chedington. Bylaws were passed to accept the Woods’ land dedication for rerouting the new curving Bayview while closing the original road allowance. A new, high-level bridge was opened over the Don River in 1929, built through a special levy on nearby residents (primarily the Woods). Their generosity was recognized through the township renaming Westbourne Avenue as Wood Avenue. The woodlot, exclusive of the Chedington parcel, was now enclosed in a triangle with dimensions of approximately 900-by-571-by 500 feet.

Right: Chedington in 1968. Photo by North York Historical Society, collection of John Court

As the years passed, the Woods realized that, through the whole of Glendon Hall they had helped to preserve and enhance a special landscape. In 1936 they first became interested in a plan to create a university botanical garden, to be based at Sunnybrook Park, while gradually adding several of the neighbouring estates. E.R. Wood died in 1941, his will ensuring that full ownership and control passed to Mrs. Wood. By 1948 she decided that a university botanical garden afforded the best outlook for the property, in keeping with the family’s own long-range vision for it. Accordingly, a codicil was added to her will, probated after her death in 1950.

The adjoining Chedington parcel had been registered separately in the Woods’ daughter Mildred’s name, later resulting in its permanent alienation from Glendon, and ultimately its development in the 1980s and 1990s for condominiums. Happily the woodlot to its south, known from the pioneer farming era as Lawrence’s Bush, remained with the Glendon Hall estate, passing to the University of Toronto through Mrs. Wood’s bequest in 1950, and then by transfer with protective conditions to York University in 1961. Each institution has respected and preserved the woodlot’s natural values, so that it remains today as one of the four major sectors of the campus having cultural and natural heritage significance worthy of preservation. The other three areas are the historic Glendon Hall manor and its surrounding formal gardens; the remaining lands of the upper campus as a park-arboretum of native and exotic trees; and the valley lands and West Don River, comprising a major part of the Glendon Forest Environmentally Significant Area.

After her Fleming marriage broke down, Mildred increasingly divided her time between the family’s vacation residences at Lake Rosseau and Beverly Hills, California, while raising her three daughters. About 1955 she sold Chedington to the Fingold family, who in turn later sold it to Ken Field of Bramalea Consolidated Developments for his locally contentious condominium towers proposal. The City of North York agreed with their heritage planners that the residence should be designated as historically significant, and preserved. Very sadly, last week’s fire may have ended that laudable ambition.