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University of Guelph Research On The Superintendents’ House

by Jewel Swahn,

By: Emmanuelle Vanleeuwen

Professor P. Goddard

HIST 3480: Discovering the Yorklands

January 19, 2021


The Guelph Correctional Centre has a long and proud history of utilizing new prison reform methods to better inmates’ lives post-release.1 Nestled along the main entryway towards the Administration Building, the Superintendents’ House is a vital jewel of the surviving Ontario Reformatory lands. Due to each Superintendents’ unique involvement in these reform methods, the Superintendents’ House is physically, functionally, and symbolically significant to the history of the Reformatory.


In 1908, Conservative Joseph Downey, Chairman of the Special Committee on Prison Labour, wrote the Downey Report arguing that unproductive labour degraded and demoralized the prisoner, in turn widening the divide between an inmate and their re-integration to productive society.4 Downey proposed ‘reformed prison labour.’ Secretary and Registrar General for the Province of Ontario, William John Hanna, shared this same vision of more humane prisons.5Nearly one thousand acres of farmland, now 785 York Road, was purchased by the province in 1909 to create such a reform prison.6 The Ontario Reformatory opened in April 1910.7

The Evening Mercury article: “The First Contingent of ‘Trustees’ Have Arrived at Reformatory Site.” 8

In the first decades of use, until other facilities were completed, the Reformatory housed juveniles, adults, and the mentally ill, exclusively housing minor-offence adults sentenced to two years less a day.9 The Ontario Reformatory’s main goals were rehabilitation, production and reducing recidivism.10 Inmates were provided with farming, milling, carpentry, masonry textilesand even an abattoir so they could develop good work ethics and skills to use upon release.11Although misdeeds did occur, as described by former inmate Roger Caron in his memoir Go-Boy!, the Ontario Reformatory was described by a 1940 Maclean’s article as a prison without walls; it was the first facility of its kind.12


1.3.1:Construction: The Superintendents’ House, or “Elmslie” was built in 1921 by the inmates of the Ontario Reformatory, presumably under the guidance of James Govan, an architect of the Department of Provincial Secretary, under William Hanna.14 Hanna, the Ontario Provincial Secretary, and visionary of the Ontario Reformatory, originally hired the eminent architect John Macintosh Lyle in 1911 to spearhead the design of a range of permanent buildings.15 Lyle had previously designed various iconic structures such as the Royal Alexandria Theatre.16 After a heated argument between the two over Lyle’s pay cheque, Hanna removed him from the project, hiring James Govan instead in 1915.17 Upon his release from the project, Lyle reportedly destroyed his designs.18

1.3.2: Features and Materials: The one-and-a-half storey Elmslie House is built in the Arts-and-Crafts style.20 The Arts-and-Crafts movement began with William Morris in the mid-19th century as a reaction against cheap mass-produced goods and over-refined Victorian furniture and design in favour of simplicity and quality materials.21 The Arts-and-Crafts reflectedtraditional English periods, such as, but not limited to, the Medieval period. These structures were quality-made, innovative, thoughtfully designed and generally hand-crafted. The Elmslie House has signature Arts-and-Crafts features: asymmetrical design, plain stucco walls with base stone detailing, sloping hipped roof, overhanging eaves and banks of windows. At first glance, the structure seems medieval, but the overall design is more modern. The roof line suggests a thatched roof, however expressed with more modern materials. The field stone is from the Reformatory.22 The original multi-pane bay windows have been refinished with vinyl frames.The asphalt shingle roof has also been refinished.

The House’s interior includes Art-Deco plaster, hardware, built-in closets and fireplaces.23 These comfort-driven stylistic elements were provided by the inmates themselveswho did all the interior and exterior construction.24 James Govan likely had a strong hand in its design after Lyle’s departure.25 Conversely, Lyle was highly regarded for his Beaux Arts style as seen in the Administration building and the cellblocks, a style that was immensely popular until 1945.26 The Beaux Arts style was mainly used on public or commercial buildings, while Elmslie House was appropriately Arts-and-Crafts, a more residential style. The Beaux Arts style is derived from Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Paris, a school John M. Lyle attended, and displayed in the Administration building’s characteristic formal series of columns and pedimented entrance; however, it is lacking any French architectural detailing, instead executed in a plain Classical Revival style. Elmslie House is nestled perfectly on a hillside, complementing the overall design and landscaping of the GCC, and designed for comfort, entertainment, and convenience, as befitting a Superintendent residence.27

The Superintendent’s House sports a unique set of features, including a corner sun porch, coal chute and a modern garage. To keep the building warm, coal was delivered through this chute to the basement, where it could be used as fuel for the furnace and the boiler.28

The House is holding up very well, especially when we consider it is nearly a century old. The former Guelph Reformatory quarry provided limestone for the buildings on the property, the Superintendent’s residence included. A limestone variant, called dolostone, is found in the quarry and is far more resilient and durable to harsh Canadian weather than its counterpart.29 The Ontario Reformatory was largely self-sufficient, so dolostone would be favoured over acquiring materials outside the Reformatory lands for building.30 Currently, the House is being maintained through mothballing, a detailed heritage building method used to structurally prevent damage from pests.31


1.4.1: Position: Functionally, the Superintendents’ House was lived in by the current Superintendent of the GCC. Scott Keane was the last Superintendent to live in the House, after which it was converted to a Parole Office.32 Superintendents after Keane preferred to take residence off the prison lands for a separation of personal life, as well as a mental recharge.33 In the GCC, the leadership positions included the Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent or Captain, Deputy Superintendent, and various officers and staff members. The Deputy Superintendent was a second-in-command to the head Superintendent, and there were often multiple Deputies. Once a head Superintendent died or left, a temporary Acting Superintendent would be appointed until another suitable Superintendent was hired.

1.4.2: Responsibilities: The Superintendent was the public face of the Reformatory.34They faced pressure from the inmates, public and the prison department to balance reform ethos and productive work.35 Superintendents were responsible for prison leadership, discipline, maintaining the peace, and an annual government report.36 The Reformatory also hosted recreation events, education classes, and addiction treatments for inmates.37 Additional responsibilities included hiring guards and staff and inmate evaluations.38

The relationship with the inmates varied based on the current Superintendent’spersonality, life experiences, social climate, beliefs of the day, and many other factors. On the surface, inmates seemed unpredictable, likely from having their freedom taken from them,however, like any human behavior, inmate behavior was complex.39 Some were hard-headeddeviants while others were weathered survivors wanting to start over. Despite the beautiful landscaping and architecture, inmates were reminded that the Reformatory was a prison not “a boy scout camp.”40 There was often a deep divide between guards and inmates.41 For the duration of the GCC, Superintendents continually struggled with inmates who either refused to work or were physically unable to work.42 Notable Superintendents include C.F. Neelands, Colonel Headley D. Basher, Charles Sanderson, and Diane Doherty. Each of these Superintendents implemented unique facets of the reform experience, reflecting the ‘ideas of their time.’



1.6.1: C.F.Neelands: C.F. Neelands, who was Superintendent from 1922 to 1930, recognized that at the production rate the GCC was going, the inmates would complete all the outdoor work available.44 This would effectively destroy the ‘productive work’ philosophy that the GCC was founded on.45 Neelands decided to add trades which the inmates could keep busy with as well as learn skills they could use in a career upon their release.46 Recognizing the importance of education, Neelands established basic education classes during the daytime.47Inmates who were illiterate or near-illiterate, 44 percent according to one record, were required to attend daytime classes.48 Night school classes were available for inmates who had completed basic education but wanted to press further. Over the course of his time at the GCC, Neelands was praised for his strength of character, staying true to the reform ethos by providing occupational skills, education, and re-integration opportunities for his inmates.49

1.6.2: Colonel Headley D. Basher: Colonel Headley D. Basher took the mantle in 1946.50 Basher came from a highly-disciplined military background, and consequently he believed that the inmates needed a strong hand to correct them.51 To execute his strict vision for reform, Basher only hired guards with a military background, effectively transforming the rehabilitation-focused ‘prison without walls’ into a strict military operation. Misbehavior would get inmates the Strap.52 The Strap was a piece of leather attached to a handle, which the rebellious inmates were cruelly whipped with, often naked.53 As it was entirely against the vision of the Reformatory, Basher’s harsh discipline was quickly abandoned after his 1952 retirement, in favour of far more humane treatment of inmates.54

1.6.3: Charles Sanderson: Charles Sanderson began his relatively uneventful term as Superintendent in 1956.56 Uniform high security prisons were being built, so every ‘difficult case’ inmate was sent away to the Maximum-Security Facility in Millbrook, Ontario or the Hillcrest School for Boys on Stone Road, leaving Sanderson with a cooperative majority.57Unlike Basher, Sanderson was firm in discipline but not cruel, despite also having a military history.58 He was part of the 3rd Canadian Division in Normandy on D-Day and was demobilized with the rank of Sergeant before coming to the Reformatory.59 He wanted to emphasize work ethic, not simply workplace skills.60 Sanderson developed a 100-point score system to evaluate his staff, addressing qualities like ability, initiative, and control of inmates, consistent withCanadian society’s increasing importance of quality prison staff.61 This objective appraisal score was discussed, and allowed each staff member opportunity to be acknowledged for their work ethic and to voice grievances, which ultimately unified staff. In 1957, Sanderson began filing disciplinary reports for inmates.62 Each week, the inmates would visit with him and discuss which changes would create a more effective reform experience. Special interest was taken for“difficult cases”, about 3 percent of inmates, but ultimately the disciplinary reports apprehended inmates from recidivism, or drifting back into the illegal practices which had incarcerated them in the first place.63 With these reports, Sanderson was able to keep a vigilant eye on the Reformatory.

1.6.4: Karl Grottenthaler: Karl Grottenthaler, while not a Superintendent, was an Assistant Superintendent from 1991 to 1993. He was first hired as an engineer in 1972 for the lands, to update the severely-outdated electrical system.65 Grottenthaler wrote two booklets about the Guelph Correctional Centre, “100 Years” and “House on the Hill”.

1.6.5: Diane Doherty: Diane Doherty was the GCC’s last Superintendent, hired in 2000 until its closure in favour of more streamlined prison facilities in 2002.67 Doherty states that the Guelph Correctional Centre maintained the philosophies held since its opening in 1910, namely that inmates gained education and skills in order to be independent and productive members of society.68 Doherty declares that “inmates were treated with dignity and as individuals,” with each inmate assessed and enrolled in programs according to their individual need. Additional opportunities were given to inmates displaying a passion or talent for trades such as auto-mechanics, industry, furniture making and art. Some inmates were excellent painters and Doherty’s involvement aided them in forging artist careers. Doherty comments that “[the] GCC was involved in several projects, [sic] one of which was the building of the baseball diamonds [on] York Road, which were donated to the City of Guelph.” Inmates maintained the GCC’s gardens and landscaping, which to this day is a favourite destination for wedding photographs.

Inmates with mental illness or addictions were treated by trained professionals, including psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, and social workers.69 Correctional officers who managed the education programs worked together with the staff body for the duration of an inmates’ incarceration. Doherty argues, “People with mental illnesses would get picked up for doing some type of minor crime and end up in jail because they didn’t have the wherewithal to handle the situation.”70 One of Doherty’s major achievements post-GCC was in the Mental Health Court Support Program of the Canadian Mental Health Association in Halton, Ontario.71


1.7.1: Moral Reform: The landscaping of the Guelph Correctional Centre, including the stone fences, gardens and ponds are as crucial as the buildings it surrounds.73 The beauty of the landscape surrounding the Superintendents’ House is a nod to the beauty of the landscaping and the emphasis given to reform found in nature, morality, and aesthetic.74 The City Beautiful movement was a social movement which believed that exposure to genteel nature and aesthetic architecture would produce a more moral and peaceful society.75 William John Hanna believed that immersing criminals in humane treatment, beautiful grounds, meaningful labour, and fine architecture would be effective for reform.76 Retired Superintendent, Diane Doherty recalls, “The setting amongst acres of land, trees and streams had a calming and positive affect on everyone.”77 Roger Caron argues the landscaping was deceptive in his memoir, stating, “All the exterior ugliness was masked with ivy and lush green lawns.”78 Caron’s views were unlikely reflections on the inmate population at large. The unique fusion of the prison reform and the City Beautiful moral reform movements positively influenced inmate behavior at the Ontario Reformatory.79

1.7.2: Environmental Changes: The stone walls and terraces combined with the gardens, ponds and bridge make the landscape around the Superintendents’ House reflect the late Artsand-Crafts style, emphasising how heritage, structure, and nature compliment each other.80 This bucolic or countryside setting was believed to temper the behavior of inmates.81 Guelph citizens visiting the Reformatory “cannot but be impressed with the beautiful landscape gardening.”82The peaceful landscape was a testament to inmate reform.83


1.8.1: Future Use: Since its closing in 2002, large portions of the former Guelph Correctional Centre remain available for purchase under the Ontario Realty Corporation.85 The Province has recognized that the site has Cultural Heritage value, and Heritage Guelph is investigating a Heritage Designation proposal once the site is sold.86 In 2016, the Yorklands Green Hub turned to mission-oriented strategies for securing long-term access to the seventy acres of land of the GCC, called “Parcel 2”.87 The grounds have been open for public use since 1924, and there are future plans to continue this use by creating space for the community. This involves workshops, lectures, and tours, as well as potential for the House to be transformed into a café or local prison museum.88

1.8.2: Significance of Superintendents’ House: The Superintendents’ House at the Guelph Correctional Centre is a key structure in the greenspace of the former Reformatory. It represents a bridge between prison institution and nature, the meeting place of prison officials and inmates, where inmates received a second chance.89 Staff and inmates alike were saddened to see the facility close.90 Its legacy is that of pain and failings, but also of rebirth and new beginnings for many inmates.91 It was in the Superintendents’ House that the inmates visited and were givenadvice. It was in this building that genuine testimonies were given by inmates of their desire to start fresh. The Superintendents’ House is a physical reminder of the reform, reflection and new beginnings valued by past Superintendents. As a conserved greenspace, it can continue what it started and allow our current society rebirth as well. With the current COVID-19 pandemic, mental health and nature therapy is more important than ever. The Guelph community is drawn to this increasingly rare outdoor experience, critical for mental and physical well-being.92Educating the public about the history of this greenspace will equip them with voices to protect this land.93

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