By Susanna McLeod
Special to Ontario Construction News
A sharp eye for artistic style and an aptitude for science are essential for many categories of construction. Add bio-science skills—botany, ecology, plus environmentalism and psychology—and you might have an aptitude for landscape design. Lorrie Dunington and her husband Howard Grubb did. They left their mark throughout southern Ontario as Dunington-Grubb landscape architects.
Howard Grubb (b. 1881 Yorkshire, England) was adrift, not sure what career he wanted. He didn’t shine in academic studies. And sports? No school team would have him. Attending Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, Grubb returned to England with a degree in agriculture. Finding his foothold, Grubb was hired by British garden designer, Thomas Mawson.
Training with the expert for several years, Grubb attended a lecture on civic planning. He paid careful attention to the speaker. It was Lorrie Alfreda Dunington, a professional horticulturalist and garden designer (b. England 1877). Trained at Swanley Horticultural College, she specialized in urban planning and landscape architecture.
The shy Grubb was smitten. By 1911, the pair was married and boarding a ship for Canada. Initially working on business expansion for Mawson in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the newlyweds set out to establish their own brand in Ontario. Adopting each other’s surname, the Dunington-Grubbs “set up a business as landscape gardeners on Temperance Street in downtown Toronto,” said Whitehern Museum Archives (April 1, 1989).
Attending social events with affluent Ontarians, the Dunington-Grubbs acquired landscaping contracts for homes, plus parks and city projects, too. “They were skilled, professional and idealistic, and they enthusiastically released their formidable skills on the scrappiest of Canadian settlements.”
Creating picturesque gardens, the designing couple ran into a significant problem. They were unable to locate the healthy, flourishing plants they needed to fill project orders. There was a solution … open their own nursery.
Establishing their first location near Lawrence Park Estates in 1912 to serve the site’s landscaping needs, Grubb then moved the centre westward near the Humber River. A year later, “Grubb bought a hundred acres near the hamlet of Sheridan, further west, and renamed the nursery for the town” noted Whitehern Museum.
The busy landscape architects hired Sven Herman Stensson to manage the expanding garden factory. Swedish-born Stensson emigrated from Scotland for the job, earning “$20 a week and living accommodations on the property.”
The first garden catalogue was issued for the 1914-1915 planting season. “Growth was rapid and by 1926 the nursery had grown to 250 acres with an extensive selection of trees, shrubs, evergreens, roses and perennials,” described Sheridan Nurseries. (The garden centre remains managed by later generations of the Stensson family.)
Along with private projects like Oshawa’s Parkwood and Uplands in Toronto, the Dunington-Grubbs created enchanting public gardens such as Gage Park in Hamilton and The Entrance Park and Sunken Garden at McMaster University. Their approach was modern and fresh, building innovative gardens with fountains and interesting plant containers. And, said Whitehern, they even constructed “sitting spaces for the centre islands dividing the traffic on Toronto’s busy University Avenue.”
One of Canada’s first female practicing landscape architects, Lorrie Dunington-Grubb designed garden and park projects and urban landscape contracts on her own, and a range of projects in collaboration with her husband.
Continuing to teach, she “lectured at the University of Toronto’s Department of Social Service on the subject of housing and town planning and for the Ontario Department of Agriculture on the subject of city beautification,” wrote Ann Milovsoroff in The Canadian Encyclopedia, March 4, 2015. The enthusiastic garden architect was an inspiration to both women and men.
A published author, Dunington-Grubb wrote articles for Maclean’s Magazine, Canadian Homes and Gardens, and others. A founding member of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA) along with her husband in 1934, she was made president of the organization 10 years later.
The Dunington-Grubbs developed a lively, recognizable approach. “Their style, said fellow CSLA founder Humphrey Carver, was classic and aristocratic, with broad terraces and steps, topiary hedges, sculptures, vistas and an ‘Art Deco’ sensibility,” according to CSLA.
In 1928, Lorrie Dunington-Grubb was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She still drew landscaping plans but slowed her pace. In January 1945, she died at Hamilton’s Mountain Sanatorium.
After his wife’s passing, Dunington-Grubb continued to lecture and write. He created magnificent landscapes with help from Stensson, including the Rainbow Bridge, and Oakes Garden Theatre in Niagara. The landscape architect received numerous honours; one exceptional award was the first Allied Arts Medal given for landscape architecture from the Royal Canadian Architectural Institute.
Howard Dunington-Grubb’s “innovations in the field of urban improvement and environmental design are his most significant contribution to his profession,” stated University of Guelph in Dunington-Grubb and Stensson fonds. Considered the father of Canadian landscape architecture, Dunington-Grubb died on Feb. 26, 1965.
The colourful landscape architects’ memory remains alive through the Dunington-Grubb Award, given annually by Landscaping Ontario.
© 2021 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History.