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Flames engulf the Ward's Island Association Clubhouse and Island Café.Sean Tamblyn

Alison Gzowski is an editor at The Globe and Mail.

The vigil began at dusk. We gathered at the site, carrying lanterns, and hugged and cried with our neighbours and sang a couple of songs. People tied blue ribbons to a security fence which had been erected after the fire.

Yes, this was a vigil for a building. But this wasn’t just a building. The Ward’s Island Association Clubhouse (which also housed the Island Café) was the first thing you’d notice as the ferry pulled into the dock. Just 300 feet from the water, it dwarfed the tightly packed houses nearby. Emotionally, it was the heart of the community. It’s where we came together to celebrate, mourn and play. No wonder neighbour Anne Barber, who organized the vigil, said it felt like we’d lost a member of the family.

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The Ward's Island Association Club House was destroyed by fire on March 17.

The clubhouse burned to the ground in the early morning hours of March 17. (The cause of the fire is still under investigation.) The next morning, as word spread, we gathered at the site, now a smouldering pile of ash, in disbelief. We were soon joined by ex-islanders, who’d come to bear witness. Even after the fence went up around the rubble, so the investigation could begin, a scattering of islanders stood watching. We couldn’t leave the building alone – that‘s how it felt.

We’re a community of fewer than 700 people living on an island just 10 minutes by boat from downtown Toronto. Actually, the Toronto Islands are an archipelago: If you picture a banana, Ward’s Island is at one end, to the east, there’s an amusement park in the middle (Centre Island), and at the western end, you’ll find Hanlan’s Point (filtration plant, arts centre, school, clothing-optional beach). In its heyday, there were more than 8,000 people living on the islands, until the 1950s when Metro Council (which leased the land) began evicting people and tearing down homes. Ward’s and Algonquin Islands are the only remaining residential areas left.

I’m the current president of the Ward’s Island Association, as were my parents before me. When my now-90-year-old mother was in the role, she, an interior designer, picked the Williamsburg blue and white that would replace the original brown and helped to paint the clubhouse. She still has the reference numbers (Glidden 81 Q 5) for the shade she chose. As president, my father called for and co-chaired a pivotal 1969 community meeting in the clubhouse where islanders coalesced to fight city hall to keep our houses from demolition.

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Memorobilia on the interior walls of Ward's Island Association Clubhouse.

Built by volunteers in 1937-38, the clubhouse held the community history on its walls. Every available spot had some irreplaceable historical memorabilia – from awards and plaques to community group shots dating back to the 1930s to an honour roll of islanders who served in the Second World War, designed and signed by the Group of Seven’s A.J. Casson. Just being inside the hall tied us to each other and those who came before.

We assembled there for moments of import and mirth. Generations of us had our first dance under the clubhouse rafters. We’ve held weddings, feisty community meetings, elections, celebrations of life, concerts, pumpkin carvings, bake-offs, volunteer dinners and talent nights. Back in 1973, a theatre group spent some time observing and recording the community, then wrote and performed a play on the clubhouse stage called I’m Hanlan, I’m Durnan, He’s Ward in which they captured some of our more eccentric characters, such as Granny Coleman – who fed unsuspecting visiting politicians hash brownies.

Every generation of islander has a different set of memories of the place, but all of us associate the clubhouse with our annual Gala Day (actually three days spanning the long August weekend) which predates the building itself. We hold a midway, a masquerade, a beer garden with a different live band each day, an outdoor community dinner, a dance with another live band and two nights of the liveliest Bingo anywhere (just ask the guy who’s been calling it for more than 55 years). Former islanders always come for Gala, but in recent years we’ve been welcoming more and more people who don’t live here and never have.

It seems anyone who’s spent any time in the building has a lasting impression of the place. A few years ago Mike Stevens, a musician who’s played all over the world, including regular appearances at the Grand Ole Opry, came to perform at a fundraiser. He said, as he stepped inside the clubhouse, that it was like being inside a musical instrument. After he heard the news of the fire, he wrote to me to say he had sensed the spirit of the place instantly.

As Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” Since the fire, so many of us have been recounting what the building has meant to us. Our affection and devotion is collective, our memories more specific. We share grief for an irreplaceable gathering space, and some of us are lucky enough to also have a deeply personal sense of a building that encapsulated our lives from childhood through adulthood. As one friend said, so many important moments of our lives began and ended by crossing that threshold.

And yet, somehow the building still manages to surprise. Neighbours had been asking about cherished items that the fire may have taken – the air raid siren we’d put on the roof to alert people to come home when the sheriff came to evict us (safe; had been on the green for refurbishment). The deer’s head positioned on the long-unused projection booth (gone). The vintage Bingo cards that we’d been using (no daubing for us) for decades (gone).

Then, the fire inspector e-mailed me to say they had found a bell in the rubble. It hung outside, at the back, and had not been rung for years. I learned that it was used to call people to church services and meetings in the early days of the clubhouse. It had been on the building since its very beginning. Nobody remembers where the bell came from. But we do know where it will next be found – on the building where new memories will be made.

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