Tuesday, 6 October 2015

EXPLORING TORONTO IN THE 1920s AND 1930s WITH THE AUSTIN FAMILY

WALK OF FAME

BY: AMANDA BARBOSA

If you are as interested in the period between the two World Wars as I am, then Spadina (pronounced Spa-dee-nah) Museum is the place to be. The 20,000 square foot manor, once home to four generations of the Austin family, perfectly captures what it was like to live in Toronto during the twenties and early thirties.

A grandiose home, sometimes overlooked next to neighbouring Casa Loma. Source.

For a period of about 10 months, I volunteered as a docent at Spadina, where I spent a lot of time getting to know the social and more intimate lives of Albert and Mary Austin and their five children. There is an abundance of documentations such as letters, photographs, magazines and even receipts, believe it or not, either left behind by the family or researched by museum staff. Not to mention, extensive research and archaeological excavations have been performed on many occasions. For this week’s Walk of Fame article, I want to share with you the significance of a particular historic home through two very influential and active individuals.

A young Mary Austin. (Screenshot from video at 2:15) Source.

Mr. Albert Austin himself. Albert would later become president of the Dominion Bank and the Consumers Gas Company, after his father. (Screenshot from video 2:11) Source.

Let me first start off with a brief history of the manor. The original Spadina was built by James Austin in 1866 on the foundations of the manor built by Dr. William Baldwin, who was a reform politician in Upper Canada. James was a successful businessman who became president of The Consumers Gas Company and was founder and first president of the Dominion Bank (otherwise known as TD Canada Trust). With his passing, one of his sons, Albert and his wife, Mary, inherited Spadina. Between 1898 and 1913, Albert expanded and updated the house to suit his family’s needs.

Spadina today reflects these changes in architecture and offers a variety of programs and events, from after hours speakeasies to Gatsby Garden parties, which are really quite fun! You get to dress up and party like they did in the 1920s. The guided tours are also very engaging and help to place everything in context. I especially appreciate how each room tells a different story about each family member. In the Drawing Room, visitors are told of Mary’s influences in the art and music world. She was the vice-president of the Women’s Art Association and president of the Women’s Committee of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. A strong believer in the healing power of music, she often set up concerts and other performances for charitable organizations. In the Palm Room, some favourite pastimes of Albert are highlighted, such as his interest in farming and science. In many rooms, visitors are reminded of the role of the servants. There are secret buzzers hidden all over the house, which allowed the Austins to request a service without having their guests noticing. But shh, don’t tell anyone!

The Drawing Room. This is where you might have had tea with Mary had you been invited to the Austin’s home in the 1920s. Notice the intricate detail on the ceiling. Photo credit: Amanda Barbosa.

The beautiful assortment of plants in the Palm Room. Photo credit: Amanda Barbosa.

During my time working as a docent, I found that as I learned more about the family and the house, I was able to get a sense of some of the social, economic, and political atmospheres and conditions of Toronto during that period. Spadina Museum is a sample of how lower- and upper-class people lived and it connects those people with the broader issues and events occurring in Toronto and all over the world during that time. I often find myself reflecting on certain questions whenever visiting a historic site or museum in hopes of better understanding and appreciating its value. What are the connections or maybe even disconnections to our current century? How and why did it become a historic home?

If you haven’t been to Spadina Museum, I highly encourage you to and perhaps check out the website, where there is a list of exciting events happening not only at Spadina, but also other museums run by the city of Toronto.

http://www1.toronto.ca/wps/portal/contentonlyvgnextoid=7899606b4d301410VgnVCM10000071d60f89RCRD 

Sources that were consulted:

http://www1.toronto.ca/wps/portal/contentonlyvgnextoid=821276b330c41410VgnVCM10000071d60f89RCRD&vgnextchannel=5aecd342acb31410VgnVCM10000071d60f89RCRD

http://www1.toronto.ca/wps/portal/contentonlyvgnextoid=d1a882426db62410VgnVCM10000071d60f89RCRD&vgnextchannel=919d2271635af310VgnVCM10000071d60f89RCRD

http://www1.toronto.ca/wps/portal/contentonlyvgnextoid=5b2028d6c7231410VgnVCM10000071d60f89RCRD&vgnextchannel=919d2271635af310VgnVCM10000071d60f89RCRD

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