Toronto Hospital for Sick Kids, the Country Branch

Sick Children’s Hospital, the Country Branch

What is this place? Several years ago, that’s what I thought to myself when I first arrived at 51 Panorama Court.  An old historic building surrounded by other buildings hidden at the corner of Finch and Kipling Avenues. The company I worked for had sent me to make an assessment of the property’s environmental systems. At the main building entrance I checked in at the security desk and explained the purpose for my visit. From there I was granted a set of keys and I was on my own to open doors throughout the buildings. Besides myself and security guards, no one else was there.

20/20 is hindsight, right? At the time had I known I would be writing this blog I would have paid more attention to the buildings’ interior details and taken more pictures. I’ve recently been back and toured the outside grounds. My outdoor pictures reflect how things look now. The indoor pictures I took during my work visit.

You can walk around the property. Just be respectful – don’t do anything stupid. Security guards are on site.

Hospital complex outdoor grounds

The property began as the Country branch of the Hospital for Sick Kids in 1927 after the purchase of a 90-acre farm in 1925. 50,000 seedlings were planted on the pasture lands to return the area to a forested setting. Today, the property is 36 acres in size. The forested setting has pathways throughout the grounds. A tributary of the Humber river flows along on its east side and there’s an abandoned driveway that once provided entry from Islington Avenue.

Branching off from the abandoned driveway there’s a foot bridge crossing a dry creek bed leading to the hospital complex. I could hardly make it out because of a fallen tree over the staircase and handrail and an overgrowth of shrubs. Nature has her way of taking back, doesn’t it? 

The main building

The building for Sick Children’s Country Hospital is an example of the modern classical architecture design of the 1920’s and 1930’s.  The style was developed to achieve a simplified, modern look within classical traditions.  This design style provided greater volume, with fewer and less indulgent features.  Through the 1920s and 1930s, this style of building construction was the norm for corporate, industrial and government buildings.

Opening day at Hospital for Sick Children, Country Branch.
Aerial view of Hospital for Sick Children in Thistletown, looking east. (Credit: The Telegram)

When you visit this site, search through the bushes on the north façade, you’ll see the keystone dated July 4th 1927, inscribed with the name of the then Premier of Ontario, the Honourable G. Howard Ferguson, KC L.

Keystone at the Hospital for Sick Children, Country Branch

Main building, north side

The main north side is symmetrical and formal in appearance. The first and second floors have tall, paired, flat-topped, sash windows with transoms that run across the façade.  On the third floor are smaller sash windows in triads.  All of these elements serve to emphasize the horizontal lines, thereby giving the building greater visual presence.

Hospital for Sick Children, Country Branch main building, north wing

The main entrance door, though not original to the 1927 build, respects the scale of the main floor windows. Its decorative surrounding elements provide the building with its main classical tones. Two Doric columns flank the front door. They’re topped with a projecting cornice under a broken pediment consisting of two curving arches that frame a central urn.

Hospital for Sick Children, Country Branch. Front entrance door to main building

From inside the front door I stood in the sun filled rotunda. Here, I was able to appreciate why the hospital was also called a “Palace of Sunshine”, a theme repeated throughout the complex. A roof mounted tubular skylight brings sunlight down through the building to the rotunda. The natural light shining down shows off the domed tracery above and Caen stone fluted pilasters topped with pediments over each door case.

Main building, south side

The approximately 200-foot-long south facing wing was the patient dormitory of the hospital building. It was oriented and designed to receive maximum sunlight and fresh air as it was at the time, believed to be effective for the long-term recovery and treatment of tuberculosis. Rooms at ground level once opened out onto a wooden deck like area. The 2nd level rooms opened up to an outdoor balcony. Children’s beds could be moved outdoors for therapeutic benefit, to take in peaceful pastoral views and the tranquil sounds of nature.

Hospital for Sick Children, Country Branch. Main building ,south wing

Center section

The north and south wings are connected by a hallway section that contained school rooms and day rooms. The kitchen and dining rooms were also within this center section. Like the north and south sections, it too took advantage of available daylight and wind flowing through open windows on the east/ west exposures.

Power plant Building

The coal fired power plant was constructed at the same time as the main building. In later years it transitioned to a maintenance services facility.

Hospital for Sick Children, Country Branch. Power plant building

Power distribution building

In 1960 a new electrical power supply building with a backup generator was constructed adjacent to the original power plant after children’s incubators failed due to a power loss during Hurricane Hazel in 1954.

Garage/repair shop

Hospital for Sick Children, Country Branch. Garage/repair shop

Care provided

Constructed as a remote satellite branch to the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children, the Country Branch was designed to isolate and care for children inflicted with tuberculosis and then later, polio.

Tuberculosis was a leading cause of death for young and old. Sunshine, fresh country air and good meals were the common treatments for this disease until the antibiotic treatment streptomycin was developed in 1943 by Selman Waksman.

Rest Hour
The saddest words of which I ken
We’re coined for us poor TB men,
We hear them time and time again-
“It’s rest hour“
I’m resting twenty hours a day.
I eat my meals and hit the hay
‘Till I get sick, when doctors say-
It’s rest hour.
And often times I think, with dread,
That maybe someone, when I’m dead,
Will place these words above my head-
It’s rest hour.
Edna Grant, 1932
Queen Alexandra sanatorium, London, Ontario

Treatments also included some unorthodox methods. Elsie, The Borden Cow, was brought in to walk the hospital hallways and bring an afternoon of gladly welcomed relief to the children. Elsie was an important celebrity helping the Hospital for Sick Children with its fund-raising drives.

Elsie, The Borden Cow “Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Courtesy of Toronto Public Library”. 1950

Polio, another terrible virus commonly called “the crippler” affected tens of thousands of Canadian children until a vaccine was developed in 1952 by Jonas Salk and his team.

At The Hospital for Sick Children Canada’s first iron lung was used in 1930 to assist polio patients with severely diminished ability to breath for themselves. The barrel like metal cylinder regulated breathing for those whos’ lung functions were compromised by the polio virus.

https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/iron-lungs-polio-1930s-1950s/

With the use of vaccines, antibiotics and surgical improvements, the need for this type of hospital setting had greatly diminished by the mid 1950’s.

Repurposed hospital remains dedicated to children’s health

The Thistletown Regional Centre for Children and Adolescents.

In 1957 the Ontario Government purchased the property and in 1958 transitioned it to a mental health hospital for children, the first of its kind in Canada. The early years were learning years for most of the people charged with the care of special needs children. The staff had little experience in dealing the wide range of mental and physical differences the children exhibited. Improvements to teaching methods and the buildings elements changed over the following years. In 1967 the facility was named The Thistletown Regional Centre for Children and Adolescents. Invaluable staff knowledge and increased amenities provided families with methods to cope with developmental, emotional and behavioural needs of their children into adulthood.

 Pool and gymnasium

In 1961 a new pool and gymnasium were constructed. A covered walkway provided access between the pool and gymnasium facilities and the main hospital building.

Family style homes

In 1972, a series of small houses south of the main building were constructed. Here, as part of the learning program, children and young adults moved out of the hospital setting to learn and live in separate, self sufficient homes.

Hospital for Sick Children, Country Branch. Family homes

Etobicoke-Humber School

In 1977 the Etobicoke-Humber School was built. The school served special needs students from ages 4 to 19 years old.

The closing of Thistledown

In 1995 the provincial government indicated the Thistletown Regional Centre for Children and Adolescents would be closed and services moved to community centered care. Strong public protests caused the provincial government to reverse its decision.

In 2012 the provincial government announced the Thistletown Regional Centre would be closed and the property sold to land developers to build affordable housing.

On May 8, 2014 the City of Toronto’s Heritage committee declared the main building historically significant. All other buildings on the property were deemed to have no cultural or historical value making them available for development or demolition.

In 2019 the provincial government, seeking a better deal from land developers, placed a hold on the sale of the property. Today, with the province’s unexpected increased debt level due to the Coronavirus, the sale of these 36 acres of prime land will probably be coming sooner rather than later.

References

https://www.thestar.com/yourtoronto/once-upon-a-city-archives/2017/02/03/once-upon-a-city-how-sickkids-grew-from-its-austere-origins.html

https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDMDC-TSPA_0119175F&R=DC-TSPA_0119175F

http://www.etobicokehistorical.com/thistletown-hospital.html

https://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2014/ey/bgrd/backgroundfile-71273.pdf

http://www.emeryvillagevoice.ca/Yesterday-and-Today—April-2020

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-ontario-scraps-affordable-housing-plan-in-premier-fords-riding-says/

https://www.toronto.com/news-story/4290721-etobicoke-history-corner-rural-hospital-for-sick-children-was-a-palace-of-sunshine-/

https://www.cpha.ca/history-tuberculosis

https://immunize.ca/sites/default/files/resources/107e.pdf

https://www.museumofhealthcare.ca/explore/exhibits/breath/sanatoria.html

https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/iron-lungs-polio-1930s-1950s/

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