Foundations of Construction: Architect designed a village for mental health hospital

Pulled by horses on narrow-gauge tracks, a derrick transported materials to the hospital job site, ca. 1913-1916. Image Retrieved from

By  Susanna McLeod

Special to Ontario Construction News

Improvements in psychiatric care in the early 1900s required institutional design changes. Rather than harsh asylum environments, the hospital design reflected homier atmospheres. Architect James Govan worked with mental health professionals to develop plans for the ground-breaking facility of Hospital for the Insane at Whitby, Ontario.

The architect followed specialists’ advice carefully. “We endeavor to keep the hospital free from all suggestion of a place of detention,” the first superintendent describes in 1920. “The wards are so arranged that it is impossible for a nurse to attendant to get out of hearing of a patient’s voice.” Govan designed a community of hospital buildings near Lake Ontario, with room for 1,500 patients.

Resembling a village with 16 large cottages, the site also had dining halls, pathology building, large infirmaries and more for patient care. Administration offices, a power house, church, and staff residences were a short walk away. Greenhouses and cattle barns provided food and added valuable patient therapy.  Govan ensured cottage rooms were enhanced with large windows to permit health-giving sunlight.

Scottish-born Govan stepped into the architectural profession in about 1897 when he was only fifteen years old. Training for ten years under James G. Cowie in Motherwell, North Lancashire, Scotland, Govan “also attended classes in architecture and design at the famous Glasgow School of Art, graduating from that institution in 1905,” according to Robert G. Hill in Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada 1800-1950.

In 1907, Govan accepted an offer as assistant to John McIntosh Lyle, a thriving Toronto architect. Remaining with Lyle’s firm for five years, the young professional opened a practice in 1912. Govan “acted as advisor to the Ontario Government as a staff architect in the Health Services Division of the Department of the Provincial Secretary,” Hill noted. Designing the expansive Hospital for the Insane was one of his first assignments.

Launched on May 6, 1913, first construction stages were completed with prison labour. The architect positioned the buildings in a farming region on the large parcel for best sun exposure. The countryside had “great natural beauty, existing trees, orchards and roads, convenient railway and water facilities,” stated an article in Construction, October 1916.

A narrow gauge rail line extension was added from the Grand Truck Railway station at Whitby to the project. Construction workers brought heavy and bulky materials to the site in a derrick pulled by two horses. Efficiencies were installed close by, such as a concrete mixer and a lumber mill.

Cottages were divided into two groups of eight cottages, one group for men, the other for women. Each two-storey cottage featured a large day room on the main floor, with a smaller day room on each side. Walls were painted in ivory, soft green, and tan, with touches of colour and pattern in draperies. Bathrooms for staff and patients, closets, and single rooms filled other spaces.

The second floor contained sleeping quarters—single bedrooms, large and small dormitories, plus more bathrooms and a small kitchen. Unlike older facilities, no restraints were visible, and nurses were always close. Each cottage housed 57 to 62 patients.

Installing fire safety measures, hollow reinforced concrete floor beams were produced onsite. The beams were multi-purpose, “for instance, as roof construction, and also as stair steps,” Construction said. While some cottage foundations were cement, “all walls, exterior and interior, have been built with hollow clay tile blocks and bricks supplied from the Government clay plant at Mimico, or concrete hollow tile blocks supplied from the Ontario Reformatory, Guelph.” Shingle tiles and Spanish tiles provided roofing, and quarry tiles were used for flooring and window seats.

Requiring significant energy for light, heat, and kitchens, the power house was equipped with four boilers of 320-hp each. Superheaters were installed in the boilers as well. Fuelled by coal, the boilers had a working pressure of 150 lbs. “Double acting, single cylinder boiler feed pumps are provided in duplicate,” mentioned Construction, and “an overhead hand-operated ten-ton double girder crane was erected in the apparatus room to facilitate any necessary repair work.”

Steam turbines attached to 12-inch centrifugal pumps pushed hot water to radiators; eight cold storage room provided refrigeration using a brine system of crushed ice and salt. (Ice was harvested from the lake in winter.)

Electricity was supplied in a three-phase 2,200 volt system distributed by underground cables. Several transformer stations reduced voltage to 220 volts.

As severely wounded soldiers returned from battlefields, the Whitby facility was first used as a convalescence hospital. From 1917 to 1919, approximately 3,000 soldiers were treated at the temporarily-named Ontario Military Convalescent Hospital. In October 1919, the facility re-opened for psychiatric care. The hospital is now Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences.

As lead of several firms over his lifetime, James Govan was a recognized authority in residential hospital architecture. Govan died in 1963.

© 2022 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History.

Suggested Image: 

Pulled by horses on narrow-gauge tracks, a derrick transported materials to the hospital job site, ca. 1913-1916.

Retrieved from


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