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After decades of neglect and uncertainty, an east-end relic gets a new lease on life

"When the mood for change is upon you and you can't rise to faraway places, why not plan for a revivifying week-end at the Guild Inn?"

So wrote Dining Around the Town Globe columnist Mary Walpole in 1956. Back then, the Guild had "a wonderful way of combining country peace and quiet and the tonic of clean, bracing air walking." It would retain that rustic charm for decades, too, as a place for celebrating the fine arts – as "The Guild of All Arts," it had been an artists' colony since 1932 – for family celebrations at the inn's restaurant, for short stays at the 1965 motel addition and as a place to stroll and admire architectural remnants collected by owners Rosa and Spencer Clark in the postwar period, as Toronto transitioned from a low-rise, stone city, to one of soaring steel and glass.

The Guild Inn in 1944.

Since 1986, however, when Spencer died (Rosa died in 1981), the Guild's main house, an Arts and Crafts beauty built in 1914 for Colonel Harold Bickford, and its luscious, forested piece of Scarborough Bluffs, has been on shaky ground.

To wit:

The stairs inside Bickford House. Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail
  • In 1988, Giant Step Realty Corp., which leased the inn for 99 years from the city (the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority purchased it in 1978 from the elderly Clarks), proposed an increase from 96 to 437 rooms (some in a 10-storey tower), relocation of the architectural remnants for parking and the removal of mature trees. Local protest and an economic downturn sent Giant Step running in 1993, but not before shuttering the building.
  • That same year, Ifield Hotel Association leased the building and began operations. After running “seasonally” for a number of years, things shut down for good in 2001. The city, once again, was calling for proposals in early 2002 and promising the 1965 motel would come down (occupancy rates were at 27 per cent). Nothing happened.
  • In 2005, The Globe and Mail reported that authorities had deemed the buildings “beyond repair.” Except for a staircase and some panelling from the Bickford house, everything else was to be demolished to make room for a 167-room hotel/spa by Ottawa-based Windmill Development Group.

The new porte-cochère at the renovated Guild Inn.

  • In 2008, not-for-profit good guys Artscape began talks with the city about taking the site over.
  • In the summer of 2009, with the historic house boarded up and surrounded by a chain-link fence, a Centennial College spokesperson announced a partnership with the city. The college’s winning formula was the “Institute for Culture and Heritage,” a centre for applied research into heritage tourism. Local Councillor Paul Ainslie trumpeted the site would become a “Distillery District East.” When the college revised the plan to include a hotel and seniors’ condo building, the plan was rejected in 2011.

Note that the above is not a full list.

A new wing meets the restored Bickford House at the Guild Inn during renovation.

What the Guild Inn has needed, all along, was a developer willing to respect the wishes of the community – so no high-rise condo or hotel towers – while undertaking an expensive restoration of the main house as required by the city. After all of that, they'd have to find a way to make enough money to survive. So, essentially, someone crazy … or as pugnacious as a dog on a bone.

"There have been a lot of failed attempts – and you can call me a pit bull," Dynamic Hospitality & Entertainment Group managing director Sam D'Uva says. "We kept going at it, we kept going at it … but it just takes time because there're so many different parties involved."

The new Guild Inn features a large outdoor event space.

Thankfully, unlike the half-baked, half-dozen other proposals, Dynamic's might actually work. How? By keeping things simple: a bistro open to everyone; a 12,000-square-foot, scalable hall to host weddings, corporate retreats and conferences; and a massive, 4,000-square-foot gazebo for what-have-yous and thing-a-majigs that may or may not involve Scotch tastings under the stars. Plus, with a grand opening and ribbon-cutting by the mayor on the fully restored Bickford residence and brand-spanking-new, glassy-and-modern wings by Queen's Quay Architects scheduled for June 14, it's too late to turn back now.

The interior of Bickford House has been restored.

It wasn't easy getting here, says Mr. D'Uva. His first walk-through of the "rat-infested hole" saw him wearing "masks and helmets and steel boots, and you'd see dead squirrels in the corner … but, you know, it's got so much character that we said: 'Yeah, we want to take it on.'

"It had to be gutted right to the studs," he continues. "I always said to the city it would've been cheaper to knock it down and replicate it, and probably half the price, but it's got historical meaning."

The refurbished Guild Inn features a 12,000-square-foot, scalable wing for hosting events.

And that meaning will propagate, as weddings and other significant events are held here; with the passage of time, they, too, will become historical events. Mr. D'Uva says they hosted their first wedding this past April – complete with sleeping backhoes and excavators as photo backdrops – and they've booked 260 more events for the coming year. These events, of course, will use the Bickford home's wonderful, restored staircase or fireplaces as backdrops in winter; in summer, the newly built, expansive terraces that overlook the Clarks' garden of architectural delights should do nicely.

Consider the Guild revivified.