The Toronto Heliconian Club is the oldest association of its kind in Canada. Founded in 1909 to give women in the arts and letters an opportunity to meet socially and intellectually, the club holds to its original purpose while responding to the changes of contemporary life.
It was formed by professional women in music, writing, painting, and drama who were later joined by those in dance, sculpture, architecture and other professions in or related to the humanities. The members range in age and experience from women who have earned great distinction to those in the early stages of their careers. The Toronto Heliconian Club is unique not only in its Edwardian beginnings and the Victorian architecture of Heliconian Hall but as an enduring meeting place of women in the arts and letters. Membership is open to any professional woman in the arts who meets the qualifications set out in the club’s by-laws. E.D. 1991. M. W. 2004.
We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of The Ontario Trillium Foundation and the Government of Ontario.
Club’s First President
The club’s founding was the inspiration of Mary Hewitt Smart, a teacher of singing at the Toronto Conservatory of Music. She invited to a meeting a number of women she thought would like to exchange ideas or simply enjoy social occasions together. The club’s earliest minute book records; “The first meeting of the Heliconian club was held at the Tea-Pot Inn on Wednesday, January 20th, 1909 – fifty-nine members present.”
The Sectional Structure of Club and the name “Heliconian Club”
That day Mary Hewitt Smart was elected president. It was recorded that she represented “music” and that other officers represented “art” and “literary.” This established the club’s sectional structure to which dance, drama and humanities were later added. At the founding meeting, the members also decided on the name “Heliconian Club” which derives from Mount Helicon, the mythical abode of the Muses. At a later date, “Toronto” was affixed to the name.
Heliconian Hall, a charming historic building
The Toronto Heliconian Club meets in a charming historic building at 35 Hazelton Avenue in the Yorkville area of the city. It dates from 1875 when Yorkville was a rural village on the outskirts of Toronto. Originally a church and then the headquarters of a painters’ union, the building was bought by the club in 1923 for $8,000 and named Heliconian Hall. Its architecture is Carpenter’s Gothic with a simple board and batten exterior, and with the embellishment of a Victorian rose window and carved rafters in a high vaulted ceiling. Its good acoustical properties are a boon to this day to the club’s musicians. Heliconian Hall, is one of the few church buildings of this style in southern Ontario. It was designated a Toronto historic site in 1990 and a National Historic Site in 2008.
Heliconian Hall – Renovations over the years
When the members bought Heliconian Hall, it was in need of major renovation. They met the cost of this with flair by making personal donations, organizing a theatre night and a Mammoth Bazaar which was opened by the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario and followed by a dance. Beloved for its ambience and professionally useful to the club’s visual artists and musicians, Heliconian Hall again required the fund-raising initiative of members as it underwent another rejuvenation in 1991.
One of the greatest galas held at Heliconian Hall celebrated the completion of its first renovation. Elearnor Gurnett, at that time a member of the executive, described the event:
It was an evening affair and the handsome gowns of the women and the formal attire of the gentlemen present enhanced the scene. What a picture met the eye! The spacious vaulted room looked very large, the walls were papered in dull gold, the pointed windows on the north side had been fitted with removable shutters papered the same as the walls. This made a fine, large surface for hanging pictures when exhibitions are held. All the doors and woodwork were in soft brown.
But it was the south wall that held the members’ attention for in the centre was a magnificent tapestry brick fireplace, the gift of the President, Mrs. R. J. Dilworth. There was a softly glowing fire burning that provided a note of welcome and robbed the big room of bareness for a hearth is always the heart of a room, whether cottage or baronial hall. There was always a group near the fireplace. The church pews had been rubbed and waxed, the seats upholstered in warm blue mohair. They were scattered through the room, some along the walls, others as settees at the fireplace. The grand piano looked very imposing on the platform. Lovely pictures loaned by some artist members graced the walls.
A tour of inspection showed a compact office on tile north side just back of the small stage, behind it was the kitchen, and a good-sized dining-room was on the south side. In the basement were large cloak and dressing rooms, with washrooms opening off them, the larger room was for ladies, the smaller for men. All so fresh in new paint with pretty chintz hanging at the windows.
The mortgage ceremoniously burned in 1931
The mortgage on the building was ceremoniously burned in 1931, when, tightly rolled, it was presented on a silver tray to two members to whom the honorary president handed lighted tapers. “Quite spontaneously” Mrs. Gurnett recorded, “the members rose and sang the Doxology as it has seldom been heard.”
A history of Illustrious Guests of the Club
Dating from the 1920s, the club’s early record of its guests is reminiscent of the days when internationally acclaimed artists crossed the Atlantic by ship to tour North America. In provincial Toronto, many gladly accepted the hospitality of Heliconian Hall. In the grand roster of names, one sees those of Dame Nellie Melba, Lotte Lehmann, Gertrude Lawrence, Percy Grainger, Christopher Morley, Ruth Draper, Basil Rathbone, members of the Brussels Opera Company, Abbey Theatre and Ballet Russe. Then there were Yehudi Menuhin, Louisa Tetrazzini, Tyrone Guthrie, John Gielgud; and eminent Canadians Bliss Carmen, Raymond Massey, Dr. Healey Willan, Anna Russell, Sir Ernest MacMillan, Kathleen Parlow, Walter Huston, Edward Johnson, York Wilson, Yousuf Karsh and Mazo de Ia Roche, herself a Heliconian Club member. In more recent years, the members had the pleasure of entertaining Canadian writers Mavis Gallant, Timothy Findley, Constance Beresford Howe, Erika Rifler, John Fraser and Robert Fulford. The signatures of guests of Heliconian Hall, over the years, make an extraordinary record.
Annual Christmas dinner for members
Since the early days of Heliconian Hall, the members have also entertained each other splendidly at an annual Christmas dinner. The entertainment is provided with the collaboration of writers, actors, singers and painters.
The club offers many activities for its members, their guests and the public: art exhibitions, workshops, weekly sketch groups, literary lectures, luncheons celebrating the professional lives of members, Sunday afternoon concerts and dinners addressed by distinguished guests. Various outreach activities engage the broader Toronto community.