51 Panorama Ct.: A Unique Medical Story from Toronto’s Past
By Grant Evers
Thousands commute along Finch Avenue between Islington and Kipling in northwest Toronto, unaware of a nearby historic building and its unique story. Nestled amidst the canopy of trees, at 51 Panorama Ct., sits an unoccupied, three-storey, weathered, brick building. Few are familiar with the historic role that this solitary edifice played in the medical care of the city’s needy children.
World-renowned Hospital for Sick Children, or Sick Kids, as it affectionately became known, humbly began in an 11-room house in downtown Toronto in 1875; it was expanded to a 320-bed hospital at College and Edwards Streets by 1891.
The demand for medical and convalescent beds in a fast growing city, led the hospital’s ambitious and astute chairman, publisher of The Telegram newspaper, John Ross Robertson, to spearhead the building of the resort-style, convalescent Lakeside Home for Little Children, on Centre Island’s Gibralter Point. Fresh air and heliotherapy (exposure to sunlight) were viewed as optimal treatments in the healing process. Lakeside was so popular that hospitalized children asked when it was their turn to go. It was so idyllic that staff holidayed at it and tourists visited. However, since Lakeside was only available during the summer months, Sick Kids’ trustees embarked on a search in the 1920s for a bucolic, rural site on which to build a new convalescent facility that would offer rehabilitative services throughout the year, similar to hospital branches in New York and Boston.
The hunt led to the purchase of 90 acres of farmland overlooking the Humber River, near the Etobicoke village of Thistletown, 20 km. (13 miles) from downtown. The site was not on a lake with a beach, but it was in the country, far removed from the downtown core’s dirt, grime and smog, byproducts of the coal-fueled city manufacturing plants. The 1920s was a prosperous decade. Funding from city and provincial governments, coupled with generous private and corporate donations meant that a prominent architectural firm, Sproat and Rolph, renowned for its iconic designs, such as the Royal York Hotel and Hart House at the University of Toronto, was hired to design the ancillary hospital. The result was a T-shaped building, constructed in the Modern Classical architectural style.
At a time when parents sent their children outside to play all day, skin damage from the sun’s ultra-violet rays received scant attention. Sunlight and artificial light became accepted treatments for debilitating diseases of darkness, such as rickets and tuberculosis. In 1903, Danish physician, Neils Ryberg Finsen, had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for his use of phototherapy to treat Lupus Vulgaris, a form of tuberculosis of the skin. The new hospital would employ natural and artificial light sources.
The Country Branch of the Hospital for Sick Children officially opened on October 24, 1928.
This new facility, touted as a “Palace of Sunshine”, was custom-designed for the use of heliotherapy in the treatment of rheumatic fever, osteomyelitis, chronic asthma, tuberculosis and polio. The building accommodated 112 patients in rooms with 6 to 8 cots that could be wheeled outside onto the building’s south verandah in pleasant, sunny weather. To enhance the natural environment, 50,000 trees and extensive gardens were planted on the grounds. Each child daily received schooling, heliotherapy, physiotherapy and occupational therapy.
The Country Branch remained an active convalescent facility throughout the 1930s and 1940s. During the 1937 polio epidemic, it was used exclusively to treat victims of the disease. Patients commonly remained for several months; some as long as four years. However, with advancements in medicine, such as the discovery of antibiotics, heliotherapy lost its medicinal allure and the Country Branch’s utility diminished. The final blow to the hospital came in October 1954 when Hurricane Hazel knocked out the hospital’s power plant.
By 1957 the hospital was sold to the Ontario government which converted it into a treatment facility for children with severe mental disorders. Its new mandate led to an evolution in psychiatric treatment. Novel therapeutic programs and childcare workers’ certification programs were developed. Beginning in 1967, ten additional cottage-like structures were added to the property to create family-like housing and counselling units.
Thistletown served a limited clientele in the following decades. Its lack of apparent activity led to occasional local rumours that the building was haunted. It was formally closed in 2012, as group-homes replaced institutional care. In recognition of its historic character, the main building was listed on Toronto’s Heritage Register in 2014. Its days as a heliotherapy oasis for children have long since passed. Today, Thistletown rests waiting to be appropriately repurposed by those who possess the inspiration of a John Ross Robertson.
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