British Army officer James Fitzgibbon (1780-1863) improved my childhood considerably. His old house located at the corner of Midland and Eglinton avenues was the source of many a ghost story. The intriguing and mysterious wooden building nestled in a tiny forest of overgrowth provided endless musing and outrageous imaginings—and that was before I learned that Fitzgibbon had been a hero in the War of 1812 and was the man responsible for actually listening to the appeals of a woman—Laura Secord—consequently helping to mobilize 400 Mohawk and Odawa allies in defeating the Americans. His ramshackle cabin was an appealing counterpoint to the rows of modern suburban brick structures.
The quaint old historic home is gone—replaced by a couple of cheap monster houses with no particular architectural attraction. The Fitzgibbon house remains only as a name on the City of Toronto’s list of lost historic sites. Soon, I fear, to be added to this sadly very long list will be the shrine to this nation’s favorite sport—Maple Leaf Gardens.
For about 10 years the Gardens has sat quietly waiting for reoccupation like a huge concrete castle whose occupants have left to do battle on some foreign territory. At one time the University of Toronto hosted a display of architectural concepts of possible uses for the building. The most inspiring was a giant community centre that maintained the skating surface and incorporated layers of multi-use space where former corporations once hosted the wealthiest fans. Since then the controlling interests have vacillated between how much needs to be done to transform the building into a grocery store or whether it should come down completely. I have nothing against eggplants, tinned soup or bread wrapped in plastic, I just question whether destroying another historically significant structure to provide said items is worth the trade-off. Of course, sentiment cannot be the guiding rule in every case of historical preservation or we would all be sleeping on wooden pallets and straw stuffed mattresses. However, for a city and nation so proud of its hockey heritage and lore, the loss of the Gardens seems a travesty.
Perhaps greater minds need to be consulted for possible solutions to the empty Gardens dilemma. Could not the university step in somehow? Could we not hold the biggest lectures ever in the stadium that once hosted the Beatles, Elvis and the famous home-grown wrestling hero Whipper Billy Watson? Could we not at the very least contribute some of our intellect to devise ways to utilize this notable space?
I am not suggesting for a minute that we redirect scarce resources towards saving a building that has no direct bearing on the life of our institution. Although my guess is that if you asked many of the local faculty and staff, many stories would emerge of memories and moments that would be considerably altered if the Gardens disappeared.
The grand old lady is still standing and her future is still alterable. I was inside her when she was alive with fans and heroes. I took my daughter to her first-ever hockey game there and the ticket collector asked her, “Is this your first game?” She nodded and the gentleman gave her the ticket intact and said, “Save this as a keepsake.” It isn’t just the paper ticket that is memorable but also the moment. I never had the pleasure of going inside the Fitzgibbon house but I wish I had. And as much as I loathe seeing those monster homes where the historic building once stood I am more loath to think of a rubble pile or a grocery aisle where the Maple Leaf Gardens once stood.
This article originally appeared in UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO BULLETIN • TUESDAY, JANUARY 27, 2009