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Allan Gardens’ iconic glass-and-iron domed Palm House is a familiar landmark for Toronto residents and visitors alike, nurturing a permanent collection of exotic plants from distant climes inside its heritage walls.
Yet the conservatory and its protected flora are only half the story of Allan Gardens.
Designed by prolific city architect Robert McCallum and opened in 1910, the Palm House is the central pavilion of what is now a 16,000-square-foot conservatory, with five greenhouses added over half a century until the late 1950s.
The surrounding park, bounded by Carlton, Sherbourne, Gerrard and Jarvis streets, boasts some 300 trees, many perhaps as old as the pavilion, and today features a brand-new playground and two fenced off-leash areas for dogs.
The gardens began in 1858 with the gift of a five-acre plot to the Toronto Horticultural Society from George William Allan, president of the society and 11th mayor of Toronto, recently retired after a two-year term ending in 1856.
Guided by its motto, Beautify Toronto, the horticultural society built a rustic pavilion for its exhibitions that would also serve as a venue for evening concerts and social events.
The Horticultural Gardens opened Sept. 11, 1860, with the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, planting a maple tree in front of the new pavilion using a silver spade; he opened Queen’s Park the same day, making them two of Toronto’s oldest parks.
In 1864, the city bought five additional acres from Allan for $ 11,500 and leased them to the horticultural society, which maintained stewardship of the expanded park on condition the conservatory be open to the public free of charge until 8 p.m., after which admission could be charged for private events.
In 1879, a glass Horticultural Pavilion replaced the original wooden structure, financed by the society with a $ 20,000 mortgage, where budding aesthete Oscar Wilde lectured in 1882, before writing his more famous literary works.
When George Allan died in 1901, the conservatory and grounds were renamed Allan Gardens in memory of his contributions.
Six weeks earlier, the news had been much worse.
With the recent opening of Massey Hall, the loss of a concert venue was scantly mourned, but the resurrection of a horticultural pavilion had the sustained support of several city officials, and the current Palm House was built at a cost of $ 50,000, following council’s rejection of two more costly proposals.
Outside the glass conservatory, another, civic garden was sprouting political tendrils.
Situated near the seats of provincial and municipal government, amidst industrial and various strata of residential neighbourhoods, the 10-acre park was a natural seedbed for ideals carried in by the city’s two-legged fauna, who began thronging the park to voice enthusiasm or outrage over social issues.
The Star was quick to reveal some rather blunt tools in the city’s garden shed.
“Police smoke out meeting but crowd won’t disperse,” read the front-page headline on Aug. 16, 1933.
“Charging mounted policemen, motorcycle exhausts belching oily fumes and scores of constables on foot put a stop to speech making, but failed to disperse thousands of persons in Allan Gardens last night, at a meeting announced by the Workers’ Ex-Servicemen’s League . . . to protest against treatment accorded war veterans.”
“First Milton Acorn, a 39-year-old former carpenter, started with the Song of Solomon,” the Star reported in July 1962, explaining, “the bylaw allows religious speakers.”
Police scribbled in their notebooks as Acorn turned to his own material, proclaiming, “I shout love, love,” before addressing the back-row critics: “Listen, you money-plated b——. When I shout love, I mean your destruction.”
The Star observed that, ironically, “the poets couldn’t gather in their favourite position by the statue of Robert Burns because Frank Correnti, a religious speaker, got there first.”
Three years later, the free speech debate raged into a riot.
“Shrieking ‘kill, kill, kill,’ a hate-filled, hysterical mob of 4,000 watched as eight suspected Nazis at Allan Gardens Sunday were beaten with fists, clubs and boots,” begins the Star’s top story from May 31, 1965.
Angry citizens — and wary police — had gathered in anticipation of a scheduled Nazi Party rally.
“It began like an avalanche, slowly . . . Someone yelled ‘they’re Nazis’ and the whole park came alive.”
Allan Gardens remains a hotbed of political uprising, with demonstrations over homelessness, gender issues, abortion, environment and other concerns continuing to this day.
In 2010, the first of the G20 protesters began their rally at the park; since 2013, the annual Dyke March has ended there in one of many colourful Toronto Pride celebrations.
Back in 1893, in the shelter of the Horticultural Pavilion, 1,500 women shared a vision of equality with Lady Aberdeen, wife of the governor general, as she established the National Council of Women of Canada.
A glass ceiling was eventually broken in 2013, when a “century plant,” Agave americana, planted in the conservatory during the Second World War but dormant for 50 years, shot up suddenly, requiring a hole to be cut in the greenhouse roof so it could bring forth hundreds of tiny yellow blossoms.
“All these years, the succulent plant has been gathering energy to be marshalled into the buds, poetic in its one final flourish,” the Star wrote.
According to Allan Gardens superintendent Curtis Evoy, the stalk would wither and die within six weeks.
“But there is good news: offshoots, a new plant, is growing near the base.”
Radicals, you could call them.
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