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FEATURE: Parkwood Estate: A history

Part two: The home

By Chris Jones/The Oshawa Express

The Parkwood Estate, located on the corner of Simcoe Street and Adelaide Avenue, is a monument to Oshawa’s history, both for good and for bad.

It’s where a man who often seems revered as a saint spent the latter half of his life. It’s a monument to all that Oshawa has been through.

For those who don’t live in or around Oshawa, Parkwood is simply “Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters” from the X-Men movie franchise.

For those who do live in Oshawa, and especially for those who work in the GM plant on Stevenson Road, it’s a monument to Robert Samuel McLaughlin, a man largely responsible for the auto industry’s presence in the city.

Driving past Parkwood, you can catch a glimpse of the front yard. For a split second, you can see the house that feels like the centre of the city.

You can catch a brief view of the well-kept front yard and the pillars in front of the door that harken back to ancient Rome and Greece.

For a lot of people, this house is their dream. Almost everyone wants to live in a big mansion.

Just like Sam, Parkwood Estate is seen as saintly. It’s often referred to in the same reverence as St. Paul’s Cathedral, or the Masjid al-Haram in Saudi Arabia.

There’s something about the estate that causes the people of Oshawa to develop a longing look in their eyes.

However, while many Oshawa citizens will look at Parkwood Estate in reverence, they don’t necessarily know the history of the building itself.

According to Samantha George, the curator of Parkwood Estate, the estate itself was completed in 1917, and the earliest blueprints are from 1914.

George says false claims are one of the things that those at Parkwood are trying to combat.

“One of the things we combat about Parkwood is the local legends and the romanticization of the property by the public. On our social media forums we have an ‘Ask Sam’ column where the public can post questions about the estate and I answer them.”

George says topics that are broached range anywhere from the McLaughlin’s themselves to the construction materials that were used to build the estate.

Parkwood Estate was built on top of what was once known as “Prospect Park.”

“Parkwood was born of a collaboration between Sam McLaughlin, his wife Adelaide, and the best artists, architects and landscape designers of the time,” reads the Parkwood website.

It was built shortly before Sam founded and became president of GM Canada. The design was inspired by early 20th century Beaux-Arts design.

Beaux-Arts architectural style is taught at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and it draws upon the values of French neoclassism. Gothic and Renaissance influences can also be found in the style, and it uses modern materials, such as glass and iron.

It was a style that was prominent in France at the end of the 19th century.

“The mansion represents a rare residential design by architects [Frank] Darling and [John] Pearson, the team who are widely credited as an outstanding influence on Canadian institutional architecture,” reads the website.

Darling and Pearson were responsible for notable buildings such as the Toronto General Hospital and the Royal Ontario Museum.

Pearson himself designed the new Centre Block of Parliament in 1917.

The style of the house itself is Classic Revival. It also has some Georgian features.

Two additions were added to the house in the 1930s and 1940s. An award-winning architect out of Toronto named John M. Lyle designed them, and they were two interior spaces that were inspired by Art Deco style.

“While inspired by the historic villas, chateaux and stately homes of Europe, the McLaughlin’s fashioned their estate to include the newest trends and innovations,” reads the website. “The design of Parkwood’s architecture, interior decorations and garden landscapes are all imbued with a 20th century style and a distinctly North American sensibility, including some outstanding examples of art moderne.”

Part of the overall design was comfort, so while these may not have been common at the time, the McLaughlin’s did not hold anything back in their design. The house itself contained a central clock network, in-house telephone system, a central vacuum system, remote controlled consoles for an outdoor lighting system, air conditioning, climate-controls for the art gallery, a humidification system, sophisticated heating and water systems, a walk-in fridge, and an elevator.

On top of all of those features, “Parkwood was designed for entertaining, with unusual recreational features, amenities and novelties to be enjoyed by the McLaughlin’s and their many guests. These remarkable features continue to delight today, including a squash court, a grand conservatory, a rare Aeolian organ, a heated indoor swimming pool, a bowling alley and a games room,” the website reads.

One place that the McLaughlin’s would entertain their guests was the garden which has been featured in a number of feature length films, such as Billy Madison and 12 Monkeys.

While living at the estate, the McLaughlin’s interest in horticulture and landscaping could be seen through the 11 greenhouses and staff of 24 gardeners.

The McLaughlin’s sought out the best when it came to their garden. In the 1910s, they hired Harries and Hall, the famed husband and wife team of Howard and Lorrie Dunington-Grubb in the 1920s, who were the founding members of the Society of Landscape Architects and Sheridan Nurseries – which is still going strong today. And to top it off, they hired Lyle in the 1930s.

“The Parkwood gardens have references to the great gardens of England and Europe, but with a 20th century spirit,” reads the website. “Much of the landscape design draws inspiration from the English Arts & Crafts gardening movement. This style called for a high degree of formality near the house, dissolving into less formal presentation with distance from the house, including a broad expanse of immaculate lawn.”

The perimeter of the house uses dense, woodland borders and cedar hedges to help sub-divide the landscape into formal garden spaces, recreation areas, and farming space.

In the farming space, one would find fresh cut flowers, fruit and vegetables.

The hedges were used to prevent the viewing of the entire landscape all at once. They were “complimented by garden gates beckoning visitors to proceed through a sequence of garden views and experiences.”

In the 1920s, the Dunington-Grubb’s created outdoor “garden rooms” that were called the Italian Garden, Sundial Garden, Summer House and the Sunken Garden, amongst many other contributions to the tennis court and other areas.

Finally, between 1935 and 1936, Lyle created the Formal Garden, for which he was awarded the bronze medal from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.

According to the website, the gardens have been conserved so that they appear the way they did in the 1930s, when the McLaughlin’s still lived there.

The interior of the house is maintained so as to appear that the McLaughlin’s still live there today.

“Complete room settings showcase the designers’ works and illustrate the lifestyle of the wealthy family as well as the hospitality that they extended to guests,” reads the website. “Crystal and china, silver, linens, books, family photographs and memorabilia, needlework and trophies are all preserved and displayed in their original settings. The collection is complete down to the monogrammed linens, creating an impression that the family is still in residence.”

There are murals adorning the interior, some of which were from two Canadian artists, Frederick Challener and Frederick Haines.

Alongside the murals, there are sparkling chandeliers, European and Canadian fine art, photographs and other family mementos.

George believes that every room in the house is special. She says that’s because of “their architecture, what they say about the family and social trends of the day.”

She says, “[each room’s] location in the house, the décor and the small moveable artifacts located within; the role of the room is significant in commentary about the family.”
George also ponders the interior decorator of the house. She wonders what message they were trying to send in each room. She wants to know what story they were trying to tell.

She also wonders how well the McLaughlin’s embraced what the interior decorators did with the house, as well as how it’s changed in the 55 years since anyone has lived there.

Each room in the house tells a different story about the family, and that is important to George.

The website says that there are lavish architectural finishes in carved wood and plaster, as well as decorative plaster ceiling treatments, mantles and fireplaces. There is also marble, tile and wood flooring, as well as “charming architectural novelties such as hidden panels and stairways.”

According to the website, the decorations in the house show an old-world style that blends with new-world art moderne.

Pieces of furniture around the house are from the Louis XVI collection. There are also elaborate window treatments, oriental carpets and custom-loomed carpets, ornamental metal works, decorative clocks, planters, vases, and innumerable pieces of original artwork.

“Visitors today continue to marvel at the quality workmanship and artistic creativity that is demonstrated throughout each room’s decorations and furnishings,” reads the website. “The Parkwood Foundation and staff take great pride in preserving the inestimable collection for future enjoyment.”