Last weekend I headed into the city to participate in Doors Open Toronto, an annual event in which “buildings of architectural, historic, cultural, and social significance open their doors”. Inspired by similar events in France, which launched its Doors Open program in 1984, and Glasglow, which followed in 1990, Toronto has been holding its Doors Open program since 2000. During the event admittance to all participating buildings is free and buildings not normally open to the public are showcased. Such is the case with George Brown House, a National Historic Site that is now used as a conference centre with tenant offices on the upper floors.
Originally called Lambton Lodge, the house was built between 1874 and 1876 for George Brown, his wife Anne, and their children. After George Brown’s death, the property was occupied by Duncan Coulson, the President of the Bank of Toronto, until 1916, when it was purchased by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and used as office space. It was declared a National Historic Site in 1976 but only a decade later was threatened with demolition. Thankfully the Ontario Heritage Trust rescued this beautiful property, restoring and re-opening George Brown House in 1989.
This example of Second Empire style architecture, so named for the French elements that were popular during the Second French Empire under Napoleon III, was the least captivating of the three historic buildings I visited, likely due to its commercial and private function, but was still worth visiting. On my visit the first and basement floors were open to visitors. While the basement floor contained mostly conference rooms, the main floor held two big draws.
One was the dining room, which was originally remodeled by the Coulsons in 1890 and has been restored to that period. Decorated in the Art Nouveau style, it has a “boardroom feel” to it, as the man on hand to answer questions explained, and features wallpaper that resembled William Morris designs.
Unsurprisingly, it was the library that appealed to me the most. The gorgeous Victorian library was re-created by the government and features 2000 of George Brown’s personal books.
Nestled amongst the books an information card explained that “Brown’s library reflects his interest in Liberal and reform issues of the period, notably the division between church and state, the establishment of a fairer penal system, and the abolition of slavery.”
I spent a great deal of time leaning sideways so I could read the titles of his many books. Since George Brown played a prominent role in establishing the Toronto Anti-Slavery Society of Canada I was not surprised to see a biography of important British abolitionist William Wilberforce in his personal library along with Wilberforce’s book A Practical View of Christianity. Other books that caught my eye were a work on Prince Metternich, a major player in the Congress of Vienna, a book labelled O’Connell’s speeches, probably referring to the Irish Member of Parliament who achieved Catholic Emancipation, and all four volumes of Stanhope’s Life of Pitt.
Tearing myself away from his collection, I read the short exhibit on George Brown’s life and accomplishments. He may be best remembered in Toronto for the college that bears his name, but his real legacy is as a Father of Confederation and founder of a major newspaper. Scottish-born Brown founded The Globe in 1844 and it became a leading Reform newspaper in Canada. Today we know it as The Globe & Mail!
There aren’t any interactive exhibits or guides in costume but George Brown House is worth a look if you have the chance to visit, especially if you enjoy historical texts. It is normally reserved for offices and private functions though so you may have to admire it from the outside during a walk along Beverley Street or wait for another event like Doors Open Toronto!