The Rise and Fall of “The Prettiest Street in Ontario”

By Liam Smythe

This post is part of ACO NextGen’s initiative to publish the work of architectural heritage professionals and enthusiasts in our community.

Anyone who lived in Durham Region between the 1980s and early 2000s is likely to have fond memories of the Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village in Whitby. The attraction was the brainchild of gardener Len Cullen, owner of the now-defunct chain of Weall and Cullen garden centres. Cullen purchased the property in 1965, and after years of development and landscaping, the attraction opened to the public in the spring of 1980.  Once the region’s largest tourist draw, the eighty-seven acre site was home to beautifully-manicured botanical gardens and its showpiece miniature village – a collection of over 160 model buildings, many of which were accurate 1:12-scale reproductions of real structures located throughout southern Ontario. Model cars, ships, figurines, and a working railway helped complete the various dioramas throughout the park. But Cullen didn’t simply focus on model buildings, and as attendance grew, he began to explore relocating full size historic buildings on and near the property.

Visitors to Cullen Garden walking through the miniature village in 1983. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

In 1986, the Jabez Lynde House, constructed in Whitby between 1812 and 1815, was purchased and relocated to the main entrance of the Cullen Gardens property. It was restored and reopened as a tourist attraction in 1988, with animatronic figures representing members of the Lynde Family and their household. As the operator of Whitby’s largest tourist attraction, Cullen recognised the revenue potential of using historic homes as a tourist attraction, and with the ever-expanding suburban development of Durham Region in the late 1980s, a significant number of nineteenth-century houses were at risk of demolition.

In 1988, Cullen put forward an ambitious development proposal to the Town of Whitby. Described as “The Prettiest Street in Ontario”, the project would be located to the west of the main Cullen Gardens property and would see twenty-five nineteenth century houses relocated to a landscaped setting, evoking a Victorian residential community. The houses would be restored and used for a variety of tourist-oriented retail uses, with the upper floors used as bed-and-breakfast style accommodation. A forty-five-suite boutique hotel was also presented as part of the proposal. It was a financially ambitious project; the cost of relocating each house was estimated at $50,000-100,000 (which is about $94,000-189,000 in today’s currency).

The Lynde House, later moved to the main entrance of the Cullen Gardens and opened as a tourist attraction in 1988. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

Despite some opposition from retailers in downtown Whitby, who felt that the attraction would draw customers away, the project was approved by Town Council in March of 1989. Construction began in 1990, with an anticipated completion date of 1994. The first two houses to arrive on the property were the c.1892 Langmaid House from Whitby, and the c.1870 Anderson House from Fairport Road in Pickering. The O’Connor House, also from Whitby, was brought to the site in early 1991, and the Hastings House from northeast Scarborough arrived in 1992. All of these houses were either donated, or in the case of the Hastings House, purchased for a small sum of money. As time and resources permitted, the houses were mounted on newly constructed concrete foundations, and efforts were made to stabilize them until renovation began.

However, despite the ambitious start, the project ran out of steam early on. The “Prettiest Street” received considerable attention from the local Whitby Free Press as the four houses arrived on-site, but after a few years it faded into relative obscurity. The anticipated 1994 completion date came and went, with no further mention of the project. As it was funded entirely by Cullen Gardens itself, the project may not have been financially viable. In order to offset much of the cost of relocating each house, Cullen Gardens had been soliciting donations of derelict houses, so it is also possible that not enough suitable structures were available. None of the original four houses were ever used for their intended purpose, and spent most of the 1990s either vacant, or being used as storage. A glimmer of hope appeared in 2001, when the c.1851 Armstrong House was relocated to the street, but it too would remain vacant for the next few years. During the 1990s and 2000s, Cullen Gardens appears to have made substantial efforts to stabilize and maintain the five houses, replacing roofs and covering windows to prevent vandalism.

The demolition of the houses on “The Prettiest Street in Ontario”. Digitisation, Ontario Abandoned Places

The beginning of the end came in 2005, when the Cullen family decided to close Cullen Gardens. The majority of the property was purchased by the Town of Whitby and is now used as parkland under the name of Cullen Central Park. The Lynde House was once again relocated to the intersection of Brock Street and Burns Street in Whitby and has since become a museum. The houses of the “Prettiest Street” were not so lucky; having been essentially unmaintained since the closure of Cullen Gardens a decade earlier, vandalism and exposure to the elements took a substantial toll. The property on which they stood was purchased in 2016 by a private developer who proposed a subdivision for the site and offered the five houses for relocation or salvage. A 2016 Built Heritage Evaluation of the property indicated that the Armstrong and Anderson houses were in extremely poor condition, and unlikely to be candidates for relocation. The remaining three were identified as “fair” condition, but none were listed on the Town’s Heritage Register.

The bulldozers arrived in the last few months of 2017. When the site was cleared, all five houses had been unceremoniously demolished. It was a demolition almost thirty years in the making.