The Huronia Institution: Physical Appearance

Being “put away” or “placed” in Orillia was all the more painful by the physical nature of the institution itself. It certainly was not homely or welcoming. Though the front façade of Huronia Regional Centre looks somewhat like a university, the side and back wings and various “cottages” show its true nature: a hard, cold, imposing and forbidding place, very frightening for a small child with intellectual handicap. Even the front entrance through which all parents and children passed at admission, is imposing and overwhelming to both child and parent.

Asylum for Idiots, Orillia. The clock tower was removed in early 1900s after a fire in the institution. Photo: Courtesy Archives of Ontario.

 Institution Entrance. Photo: Thelma Wheatley.

The entrance door through which all new children passed.
Photo: Thelma Wheatley.

Entrance Hallway: Once inside, child and parent alike entered a small vestibule where parents met with staff and said goodbye.  Before the child a long corridor stretched away.  Photo: Thelma Wheatley.

Admission Office where parents left their children. Photo: Don Heald.


The “Cottages”

The so-called “cottages” in which a child was placed were even more intimidating: stark sterile red-brick blocks with rows of often grilled grimy windows: institutional.  Inside, large wards and dormitories crammed with beds, dilapidated conditions, plaster falling off the ceilings, broken floor-boards seeping with urine and feces of the decades, washrooms without doors, toilets without privacy, and the stench of feces and blood everywhere. The cottages were segregated: boys in one cottage such as Cottage D, and the girls in other cottages such as Cottage O and M.
Some cottages, such as Cottage L were for old women. Cottage K was for “low grade” children.

Cottage "B" demolished in 1960. Photo courtesy Archives of Ontario.

Cottage "K".  Photo: Thelma Whealtey.

The infirmary, boarded up in 2008.  Photo: Don Heald.

Empty ward after closure in 2009. Photo: Thelma Whealtey.

Staircase. Photo: Thelma Whealtey.

Window. Photo: Thelma Whealtey.


The Grounds

The grounds outside were beautiful and belied the horror of the life on the inside.

Grounds. Photo: Don Heald.

Superintendent's House. Grounds. Photo: Don Heald.

View from entrance and terrace toward Lake Simcoe. Grounds. Photo: Don Heald.

The Tunnels or ‘Tram-ways’

Underneath the institution was a network of tunnels, called tram-ways, used to transport trolleys of food to the various cottages. They were also a means of conveying children around the institution in inclement weather.  While useful for staff, they were often frightening to children.  The tunnels were long and low-ceilinged, with small rooms and recesses leading off, where children were allegedly punished or taken to be sexually abused by some attendants, according to survivors.  

The Willard Report 1976 recommended that these recesses be filled in. The network of tunnels was so vast that sign-posts at intersections gave directions to various cottages and buildings in the institution so that staff did not get lost.

Tunnels. Grounds. Photo: Thelma Wheatley.

Tunnels. Grounds. Photo: Don Heald.

Sign Posts. Grounds. Photo: Don Heald.