Text by Denegri Bessai Studio, Architechts of Grasett Park
With little physical evidence remaining, Toronto's first General Hospital and the dramatic 1847 typhus epidemic (including dedication and sacrifice of the healthcare workers) had been largely forgotten by the public. The construction of the Grasett Park looked to correct this, by giving a physical presence to this remarkable story that is more relevant now than ever before.
When tasked with designing a public space that would commemorate this public health story, we took inspiration from some of the long-gone structures that had been erected to treat the sick back in 1847. The original hospital, built in 1820, was a modest two-storey brick building that by 1847 was surrounded by other structures built to deal with patients with highly communicable diseases, including a structure for cholera patients (Toronto had a cholera epidemic back in 1832) and an “Emigrant Building”. The arrival of typhus patients in the summer of 1847 resulted in the entire site being re-designated as the city's Emigrant Hospital and necessitated the construction of at least 14 additional emergency structures known as fever sheds, each 22 metres long by 7.5 metres wide.
Fever sheds were quite simple, utilitarian structures – many were wooden tent-like structures with canvas walls, not dissimilar to the contemporary structures we have seen surrounding hospitals around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Inside, simple cots were divided by cheesecloth hung to provide patients some protection against flies.
The design for Dr. George Robert Grasett Park echoes these ephemeral structures. Its most prominent feature a series of large glass structures imprinted with the intricate inter-lacings of the cheesecloth pattern that references back to the netted interiors.
It was especially important for us given the urban nature of the site and the city-wide effect of epidemics such as this one, that this commemorative place was spatial and not just an object like a cenotaph or obelisk; something that would encourage people to inhabit, wonder, and reflect and make it part of the urban experience. The scale of the glass structures allows pedestrians to have a spatial experience, inhabiting the spaces of these glass sheds with an eerie echo to their canvas predecessors. At their feet, James Cane's 1842 map of Toronto fills the site – telling the context and story of the 1840s Toronto that went through this epidemic and highlighting key sites of life, death sacrifice and duty.
It is our hope that this experiential memorial will help Torontonians connect to this episode of Toronto’s health care history, remembering the lives lost, but also the generosity and kindness of healthcare workers tending the sick. Memorials like these play an important role in reconnecting us to our past and helping us better understand situations like the present, and we are honoured to be part of helping tell this story.