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October 17th, 2018 · No Comments

Faculty Club building once home to Primrose Club

By Annemarie Brissenden and Ahmed-Zaki Hagar

Blue martinis, operatic voices, and fabulous food marked the University of Toronto Faculty Club’s grand reopening of its historic Wedgwood Ballroom on September 25. Formerly known as the club’s dining room, the space was renovated over the summer and has been renamed for the plaster mouldings that have been hand-painted in white and many shades of blue.

“It was time that we brought it to life,” said the club’s general manager, Leanne Pepper. “In the last 24 years, we maintained it to the best that we could,” she said. “On the balcony, the primrose flower, we never really saw it before. Since we have the most magnificent painters and artists that helped bring it alive, they highlighted that feature.”

That primrose is particularly special because it highlights an almost forgotten part of Toronto’s history.

For the Georgian Revival building that’s been home to the Faculty Club since it was founded in 1959 was once home to the Primrose Club, a club that served Toronto’s Jewish elite in the first half of the twentieth century.

Donna Bernardo-Ceriz, managing director of the Ontario Jewish Archives, explained that clubs like the Primrose were formed because Jewish people were not admitted to many of social and golf clubs in the city. This anti-Semitism extended to professional associations and medical institutions, and also led to the founding of Mount Sinai Hospital and the Toronto Jewish Medical Association.

“Most of this community would have come from Germany, Britain, and the United States prior to the great influx of Jews coming from Eastern Europe,” said Bernardo-Ceriz.

Founded in 1907, the Primrose Club was originally known as the Cosmopolitan Society, a social club founded by prominent Jewish businessmen.

The site’s history is even longer.

It dates to the 1790s, when William Willcocks bought the land where the building currently sits. He bequeathed it to his son-in-law, reformer William Warren Baldwin, who in turn named the road north of his estate at 1 Spadina Rd. after Willcocks.

Sir Adam Wilson, who worked with Baldwin, lived at 41 Willcocks St. until he sold the building to Elizabeth Prudence Campbell in 1888. She lived there until her death in 1916, and then 41 Willcocks St. was sold to the Primrose Club in 1919.

That’s when Benjamin Brown, one of the first Jewish architects to practise in Toronto, merged it with 37 and 39 Willcocks St., and transformed it into the building that stands today. With a lounge, ballroom, and dining room, the Primrose rivalled any of the city’s most prestigious clubs, and was significant to the Jewish community at the time.

“I imagine there was a great sense of pride in the building and the function that it served to the community,” said Bernardo-Ceriz.

Steve Macdonald, director of policy and strategic communications for the Centre of Israel and Jewish Affairs, said it’s important to remember Toronto’s anti-Semitic history. It hasn’t been that long since land covenants prevented Jewish people and other minorities from buying property in the city.

He pointed out that societal change came from the Jewish community working “in partnership with other minorities to combat discrimination of that time.

“It was the Jewish community and activists who took the lead and [challenged] this before the court,” said Macdonald. “And in the 1950s, the Supreme Court ruled that the land covenants were illegal and unconstitutional.”

Some form of anti-Semitism still exists today, he argued.

“There is a small minority that does have a negative view of Jews, and that is worrisome,” he said. “But we think [there has been] tremendous progress as a society.”

Pepper said that every once in a while the club will get a visit from someone who remembers the building’s previous incarnation.

“Some people visit and remember the history of the Primrose Club,” she said. “A lot of people are pleasantly surprised when they walk in and see how beautiful and how grand the ballroom is.”

And the Faculty Club keeps the memory of the Primrose Club alive in other ways too. There’s a Heritage Toronto plaque about the Primrose Club just to the right of the steps at 41 Willcocks St., and in 2009 the club renamed its second-floor cardroom the Primrose Room after receiving a gift from Estelle Creed Kaufman. Her father, Edmond Creed, was a member of the Primrose Club.

“She had fond memories of coming to the Primrose Club when she was little with her parents,” Pepper said. “And she wanted to make sure the Primrose stays alive.”

“It is important for us to look back to our history in Toronto,” said Macdonald. “[We need] to see…how people spoke up in a different era and said this is wrong. We need to have a more tolerant and inclusive approach to diversity.”

The University of Toronto Faculty Club is welcoming membership applications from community members who are not affiliated with the university. For further information, please visit facultyclub.utoronto.ca.

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