Hotel Waverl(e)y

This installment of “Ghost City” was published online by The Grid on June 18, 2013.

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College and Spadina, looking northwest, May 13, 1927. The Waverley is in the background (click on photo for larger version). Photo by Alfred Pearson. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 4888.

“If you really want the best, dine at the Waverley,” a person by the name of W.M. Canning advised a friend on the back of a postcard depicting a refined dining room at the Spadina Avenue establishment circa 1908. Hard to believe, but there was a time when the Waverl(e)y was considered a hotel worthy of formal dances, organizational lunches, and tourism offices.

Built by John J. Powell in 1900, the Hotel Waverley replaced a structure that once housed the local YMCA. For the next half-century, the hotel was operated by the Powell family, whose members were active in hospitality-industry associations—Egerton Powell served as president of the Ontario branch of the Greeters’ Association of America during the mid-1920s. That decade also saw the Waverley house the Toronto Convention and Tourist Association’s office and a Canadian Pacific ticket outlet.

Major changes came during the 1950s. The Powell family’s involvement appears to have ended following the 1954 death of Egerton’s widow, whose estate was battled over by 53 cousins. The hotel gained its first lounge licence the following year, then fell into liquidation in 1957. Newspaper ads in January 1959 proudly announced the opening of the “fabulous Silver Dollar Room,” whose debut act was “Canada’s Top Variety Group,” Tommy Danton and the Echoes. The venue soon settled into presenting local jazz musicians and bluesy singers like Olive Brown (whose selection of standards included venue-appropriate songs like “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer”).

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Toronto Star, January 2, 1959.

However, in the ensuing years, the Waverley site acquired more dubious associations. During the early morning hours of November 17, 1961, a guest named Arthur Lucas made two telephone calls from his room to 116 Kendal Avenue. Just after 3:30 a.m., Lucas left the Waverley and headed north to meet Therland Crater, a drug dealer on the run from the Detroit underworld for working as an undercover agent for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. While Lucas claimed he was meeting Crater to discuss opening a bawdy house in Toronto, his true mission was murder. Lucas killed Crater and his wife Carolyn Newman, then returned to the Waverley around 6 a.m. to say goodbye to his roommate. He was captured in Detroit the following day. Lucas was convicted and hung alongside Ronald Turpin during Canada’s last execution in December 1962.

Another infamous killer was reputed to have checked into the Waverley during the 1960s. After assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, James Earl Ray spent part of his time on the lam in Toronto. Legend has it the Waverley was one of his stops, even though he told the Ottawa Sun that he spent his time ping-ponging between a pair of rooming houses in the Dundas-Ossington area. This didn’t prevent two men allegedly representing the American government from asking Waverley management in the mid-1990s about the hotel’s connection with Ray.

Corner of Spadina Ave. and College St., looking north-west

Corner of Spadina Avenue and College Street, looking northwest, 1972. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 55, Item 34.

If Ray enjoyed a drink at the Silver Dollar Room, he might have watched the entertainment Bill Cameron described in a Star profile that fall about Spadina Avenue. “The Silver Dollar Room,” Cameron observed, “is a bouncy rowdy little place with a busty tone-deaf singer and bored trio band and the greatest stripper I have ever seen, thin and not very pretty but with a splendid lascivious skill at detecting the rhythms of the house, of putting what she has just where it should be at precisely the right moment to get everybody there up just underneath the point of a riot.”

In 1970, poet Milton Acorn moved in for a long stay. “The Waverley Hotel was full of character and characters,” he noted. “It was a place for all sorts of strange but true types. People who were certainly down but not out.” The flophouse-like atmosphere suited the foul-smelling, highly-opinionated Acorn, who was named “The People’s Poet” by his peers soon after moving in. Acorn paid the daily rate rather than the monthly rent in case he ever decided to pick up and leave, and constantly changed rooms out of fear he was being bugged by the RCMP. Though he moved out in 1977, Acorn kept a writing room at the hotel until he left Toronto in 1981. His stay is commemorated with a small plaque.

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Toronto Star, January 8, 1992.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the hotel was subject to periodic police raids and other woes. A bust in February 1978 netted 233 charges related to selling liquor to intoxicated persons. It was among the local bars hit by a two-week servers’ strike in September 1981, prompting the owners to personally serve trays of beer. A 1987 bust saw 16 people arrested for prostitution. Somewhere along the line, a new sign dropped the second “e” from the hotel’s name. Its rough atmosphere provided a great backdrop for Elmore Leonard, who set part of his novel Killshot at the Waverly. By the 1990s, management posted a sign reading “rooms should not be used for nefarious, wrongful or unlawful purposes.”

The Silver Dollar Room maintained a steady diet of blues and rock. For a time, it was home of the Elvis Monday music showcase. Around 1992, it changed its name to Jonny Vegas and briefly took down its signature sign. “I advised the new tenants against changing the sign,” property owner Paul Wynn told the Star. “I have a deal with them that, if the place fails, they’ll have to put up the Silver Dollar sign again.”

Time may be running out for the Waverly. The Wynn Group, which has owned the site since the mid-1980s, has released plans to replace the crumbling hotel with a 20-storey residential tower targeted to students that would include a gym and a rebuilt Silver Dollar Room. The project was criticized by Councillor Adam Vaughan, who called the plan “effectively a high-rise rooming house.”

Sources: East/West, Nancy Byrtus, Mark Fram, Michael McClelland, editors (Toronto: Coach House, 2000), Toronto: A Literary Guide by Greg Gatenby (Toronto: McArthur & Company, 1999), Milton Acorn: In Love and Anger by Richard Lemm (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1999), the June 12, 2013 edition of BlogTO, the December 12, 1923 edition of the Globe, the July 19, 1957, October 29, 1963, April 7, 1976, and April 7, 2008 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the June 28, 1955, January 2, 1959, October 12, 1968, February 2, 1978, September 2, 1981, December 4, 1987, January 8, 1992, and June 11, 2013 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

The Silver Dollar Room received a heritage designation in January 2015. While city council rejected a demolition proposal in January 2014, the Waverly eventually had its date with a wrecking ball. The bar closed in spring 2017 and was demolished the following year.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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A pamphlet (uploaded by the Toronto Public Library) enticing travellers to stay at the Waverley, circa 1920. One can safely place College and Spadina into modern Toronto’s “congested traffic district.”

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Toronto Star, December 12, 1923.

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Globe and Mail, April 29, 1964.

227 Front Street East

This story was originally published as an online “Ghost City” column by The Grid on May 7, 2013.

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Advertisement showing Consumers Gas Station A complex. Toronto’s 100 Years by Jesse Edgar Middleton (Toronto: City of Toronto, 1934).

For Consumers Gas, permission from the province in 1879 to produce gas for heating, appliance fuel, and industrial uses couldn’t have come at a better time. Its main business—providing gas extracted from coal for lamplighters to brighten the city’s street-lighting system—would soon be swept away by electricity. The resulting demand from businesses and homes for the fuel produced in its gasworks at Front and Parliament Streets, especially from areas recently annexed to Toronto, led to the company’s rapid expansion during the 1880s.

Consumers Gas purchased much of the land on the south side of Front between Berkeley and Trinity streets and quickly built a complex of processing facilities eventually known as Station A. Among them was a purifying house built in 1887 at the southwest corner of Front and Berkeley. Designed by the firm of Strickland & Symons, the building was styled to resemble a basilica. As architectural writer Patricia McHugh observed a century later, the building and its neighbouring facilities were “striking reminders of how architecturally accomplished utilitarian factories can be. Rows of great stone-capped piers, pinnacles, fancy brickwork, stepped gables—none of these were necessary to make gas, but they did announce corporate pride and confidence.”

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Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, File 124, File 3, Item 38.

The building processed gas until natural gas pipelines were connected to Toronto in the mid-1950s. Along with sites that eventually became 51 Division and Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Theatre, the purifying house was one of very few parts of Station A to remain physically intact. Food manufacturer Dalton’s purchased the site in 1967, expanding its operations from the neighbouring building, a former woollen mill built in 1882 which Old City Hall architect E.J. Lennox reputedly had a hand in. Dalton’s specialized in maraschino cherries, pleasing cocktail drinkers and dessert lovers across the city. The combined structures became known as the Dalton Building.

The site was purchased in early 1984 by the Canadian Opera Company for offices, workshops, and rehearsal space. It would be the COC’s first permanent home—the company had relied on rentals around the city. Plans also called for a 400-seat performance venue to supplement the COC’s ongoing effort to build a permanent home, a quest which lasted until the Four Seasons Centre opened in 2006. Extensive renovations were boosted by a $1 million donation from the Tanenbaum family, which resulted in the facility being named the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre. The complex opened in stages over three years.

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Toronto Star, February 27, 1986.

The performance space, later known as the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre, opened with The Beggar’s Opera on February 26, 1986. “The moral tone of Front Street E. went into precipitous decline last night,” Star critic William Littler cheekily opened his review, “when a perfectly respectable maraschino cherry factory yielded its address to a loud and unruly gaggle of thieves, cutthroats, strumpers, and procurers, otherwise known as the Canadian Opera Company.” Littler felt the space was “the ideal kind of ersatz opera house to accommodate history’s most famous send-up of that supposedly aristocratic form.” The moral tone of the area never recovered, to the delight of those who have toured the facilities or caught a performance there.

Additional material from A Tradition of Service: The Story of Consumers Gas (Toronto: Consumers Gas, 1993), Toronto Architecture: A City Guide by Patricia McHugh (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989), and the November 11, 1984 and February 27, 1986 editions of the Toronto Star.

471 Bloor West (Hungarian Castle/BMV)

This installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid was originally published online on September 18, 2012.

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The Hungarian Castle undergoing renovations to transform into BMV, May 4, 2006. Click on image for larger version.

When it opened in 2006, the Bloor Street branch of BMV represented more than just a giant bookstore. Its bright blue exterior and large street-level windows removed an eyesore known to nearby businesses and residents as the “black hole of the Annex.” After nearly two decades of rot, any new owner or tenant occupying the former Hungarian Castle restaurant would have been greeted with open arms.

Why 471 Bloor St. W. appeared abandoned for so long is subject to rumours and urban legends. Elusive landlord Annie Racz didn’t provide answers during her lifetime. When she died in 2004, she left an estate consisting of millions of dollars worth of real estate centered around Bloor Street and Brunswick Avenue, some of which remains empty under the stewardship of her heir. Despite high interest from potential buyers, Racz threw up barriers that months of negotiation couldn’t breach. Theories on why she hung onto these properties without maintaining them included attempts to prevent higher tax assessments, an inability to trust anyone, and sentimental reminders of her late husband.

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Toronto Star, January 14, 1915. W.J. Parks’ grocery at 473 Bloor West eventually became part of the Hungarian Castle/BMV building.

When Eye Weekly’s Edward Keenan profiled Racz in 2003, he found that, after six weeks of trying to track her down, he didn’t feel any wiser than at the beginning of his investigation. He heard rumours that had her living anywhere from above By the Way Cafe to Richmond Hill, that she resembled a bag lady, and that her legs had been amputated. Annex Residents Association chair Eric Domville was so frustrated by Racz’s refusal to do anything with 471 Bloor that he began to wonder if she was “a figment of somebody’s imagination. Does she live in a cave, or in a secret hideaway like Lex Luthor?”

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Toronto Star, December 3, 1973.

Racz hadn’t always been so shadowy or seemingly neglectful. Before she and her husband Leslie purchased the building, the site housed a variety of tenants. During the first half of the 20th century, it was occupied by several grocers, a drug company, and residents who enjoyed five-bedroom flats. After a succession of furniture stores operated there during the 1950s and 1960s, the Raczs spent two years transforming it into the medieval-styled Hungarian Castle. When the restaurant opened in 1972, it joined the large number of Hungarian eateries along the Bloor strip owned and patronized by fellow refugees who fled Hungary after the Soviet Union crushed the revolution in 1956. To make their eatery stand out, the Raczs hired Oscar Berceller, former proprietor of legendary King Street celebrity hangout Winston’s, as an advisor.

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Toronto Star, December 28, 1973.

During the years it operated, the Hungarian Castle was known for its kitschy decor and windows covered in wrought-iron crests and gates. A basement bakery drew praise from customers for its goodies and scorn from health officials for its filth. The upper floors housed a series of bars ranging from the Spanish-themed El Flamenco to student watering hole Annie’s Place.

Following her husband’s death during the 1980s, Racz closed the Hungarian Castle. Those interested in the space received calls from Racz in the middle of the night to meet her at doughnut shops. Book City owner Hans Donker’s enthusiasm to move his store a few blocks east dimmed after such encounters, along with Racz’s insistence that he retain the restaurant’s furnishings. When he toured the space with Racz circa 1990, he noticed that display cases were filled with rotting pastry.

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Toronto Star, June 11, 1978.

BMV owner Patrick Hempelmann was equally frustrated by his dealings with Racz. “We’d set up a meeting, come to a verbal agreement, and then she’d find some reason to pull out,” he told the Globe and Mail. When he purchased the building from her estate in September 2005, he found its interior resembled a horror-movie set. Liquor bottles still lined the bar and tables were set for dining. Pots were left on the stove and dishwashers were filled with plates. Grand pianos and raccoon corpses had rotted. The bakery was buried in four feet of water. It took three months, a crew of workers wearing ventilation masks, and 40 large dumpsters to clean the place out. Despite the decay, Hempelmann was relieved when the building was found to be structurally sound. A year after he bought it, book browsers filed in to spend hours looking for finds.

In some respects, the long decay of the Hungarian Castle mirrored the demise of the Hungarian community along Bloor West. Where it was once, as writer John Lorinc once termed it, “a veritable Budapest of eateries,” only the Country Style in the heart of the strip and the Coffee Mill in Yorkville survive. Perhaps the medieval warriors who graced the building’s exterior were fighting as best they could until they had to give in to the changing landscape.

Additional material from the February 27, 2003 edition of Eye Weekly, the August 28, 2004 and December 10, 2005 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the September 30, 1972 and June 11, 2006 editions of the Toronto Star. Since this article was originally published, the Coffee Mill closed in 2014.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Mary Walpole advertorial, Globe and Mail, November 25, 1972.

 

 

 

Don’t Drive Down the Middle of Middle Road!

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Toronto Star, October 9, 1937. Click on image for larger version.

When the Middle Road (today’s Queen Elizabeth Way) opened as a divided four-lane highway in the fall of 1937, it took some drivers awhile to adjust to this new style of road. The Toronto Star ran a photo essay on some of the problems drivers were causing, primarily staying within lanes. This is as much a problem driving along the GTA’s expressways today as it was over 80 years ago.

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Toronto Star, October 9, 1937. Click on image for larger version.

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Toronto Star, October 9, 1937. Click on image for larger version.

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Toronto Star, November 23, 1937.

Before its conversion to a proto-expressway, the Middle Road was a back road, which some nighttime drivers still believed it was.

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Globe and Mail, October 9, 1937.

The Globe and Mail believed the Middle Road signalled “a fresh start in Ontario’s beautification.”

Besides having difficulty staying in their lanes, early drivers on Middle Road thought the 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) speed limit was too slow. “Where the boulevard separates the lanes, one can safely travel 70 miles an hour [112 km/h],” a motorist told the Toronto Star. “Where there is no boulevard 60 miles an hour [96 km/h] would seem to be fast enough. But I see no point in having a blanket speed limit that limits a motorist to 50 miles an hour on a two-lane country road and forbids him to travel any faster on a super-highway obviously built for higher speeds.”

Police estimated around 200 drivers a day drove at 75 mph. These drivers stuck in the left lane without problems until they ran into vehicles occupying the middle of the road, which police felt were a greater menace.

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Globe and Mail, November 6, 1937.

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Globe and Mail, November 23, 1937.

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Port Credit News, November 30, 1937.

Among the modern touches: Canada’s first cloverleaf interchange, built at what is now the Hurontario Street exit off the QEW.

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Toronto Star, June 5, 1939.

The Middle Road was officially renamed the QEW in June 1939. At left, an OPP officer points to the sign which would appear in the centre of the boulevard at all intersections (in this case, in Oakville). The sign on the right was placed along the highway.

Additional sources: the October 12, 1937 edition of the Toronto Star.

No Necking Allowed in Long Branch, 1949

The following narrative speaks for itself, as an example of the “Toronto the Good” mentality (present in what was then a suburb) running up against the emergence of postwar teenage culture.

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Globe and Mail, March 10, 1949.

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Globe and Mail, March 22, 1949.

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Box Office, April 9, 1949.

1 Benvenuto Place

This story was originally published as an online “Ghost City” column by The Grid on May 28, 2013.

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Benvenuto, circa 1909. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 328A.

In a sense, Simeon Janes was already king of the hill. Regarded as one of Toronto’s sharpest real estate wheeler-dealers, he built a fortune during the 1880s by subdividing the land that became The Annex. When he decided to build a mansion in 1888, he settled on a property high up on Avenue Road with an expansive view of the growing city below.

Completed in 1891, Benvenuto lived up to English translation of its Italian name—“welcome”—as Janes entertained guests with feasts in its grand dining room and concerts in its conservatory. A contemporary account described the mansion as “a splendid piece of masonry, which puts to shame the flimsy ephemeral edifices, with their stuccoes and veneers, of modern house construction.”

Janes sold Benvenuto to Toronto Railway Company proprietor Sir William Mackenzie in 1897. Reputedly Mackenzie paid for part of the purchase in the pre-TTC streetcar operator’s stock, which was ironic given Janes backed an opposing bid when the city offered the transit contract to private concerns six years earlier. Mackenzie continued Benevenuto’s tradition of entertaining the rich while building a transportation empire which included the Canadian Northern Railway (the company responsible for developing Leaside).

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Sir William Mackenzie leaving Benvenuto, circa 1910. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1298.

Following Mackenzie’s death in 1923, the mansion fell into disuse. Parcels of the property were sold, resulting in the development of Edmund Avenue and Benvenuto Place. Developers who bought the remaining property in 1927 planned to demolish the mansion to make way for a deluxe apartment building. While the mansion was knocked down in 1932, several elements survived. The retaining wall along Avenue Road stayed put, while ornate gates Mackenzie shipped in from Italy moved west to their current location at 38-44 Burton Road.

Plans for an apartment complex remained in limbo until the early 1950s. Architect Peter Dickinson designed a flat-roofed, balcony-and-window-rich concrete structure which became one of Toronto’s first modernist buildings. Opened in stages between 1953 and 1955, 1 Benvenuto Place operated as a luxurious apartment hotel whose residents saw celebrities like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor pass through its lobby. The hotel service lasted through the late 1970s, after which it continued to offer some of the city’s priciest rental apartments.

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1 Benvenuto Place, 1955. Canadian Architectural Archives.

While there had been an onsite restaurant from the start, it didn’t make culinary waves until it transformed into Scaramouche in late 1980. Rising chefs Jamie Kennedy and Michael Stadtlander handled the kitchen during its first two years, then Keith Froggett settled in for a run now heading into its 30th year. During the mid-’80s, pastry chef Joanne Yolles accidentally came up with one of the restaurant’s signature dishes after pondering the most blue-collar dessert she could make for a high-end eatery. The result: coconut cream pie. Soon after, a separate pasta bar offering $6 dishes created nightly lineups.

Talk of converting 1 Benvenuto Place into a condominium began in the mid-1980s, upsetting many residents. This may have been among the factors which led to the building’s addition to the city’s inventory of heritage properties in 1989. The conversion process finally went ahead in 2004, at which time monthly apartment rents ranged from $2,000 for a one-bedroom unit to $5,500 for a three-bedroom. Existing tenants had the option of continuing as renters or buying their apartments. For a time it appeared Scaramouche would be replaced with a single condo unit, but an agreement signed in March 2010 allowed the restaurant to continue serving diners.

Sources: Toronto Old and New by G. Mercer Adam (Toronto: Mail Printing Company, 1891), The Railway King of Canada by R.B. Fleming (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1991), the July 2005 edition of Toronto Life, and the January 18, 1927, November 24, 1982, December 30, 1989, November 6, 2004, September 10, 2007, and March 12, 2010 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Drawing room of Benvenuto, early 1890s. Photo by Josiah Bruce. Toronto Public Library, 971-25-7.

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The Globe, January 4, 1897.

The sale to Sir William Mackenzie appears to have occurred in June 1897. The Star reported that it was rumoured he paid $100,000 for the property. Simeon Janes had paid $40,000 for the land, and $160,000 to build the home. Either Janes got a lot of Toronto Railway Company stock as further compensation, or Mackenzie picked up a bargain. Not until the end of October did the society columns indicate that the Mackenzies entertained guests at their new home.

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Women in costume at Benvenuto, between 1912 and 1914. City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1244, item 433.

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The Globe, June 18, 1914.

Despite lavish parties such as the one described here, things were turning sour financially for Mackenzie and his business partner Donald Mann. Factors ranging from reduced emigration from Europe to western Canada to market volatility to the outbreak of the First World War drove up the cost of completing their transcontinental Canadian Northern Railway. Though the last spike was driven in January 1915, trial runs wouldn’t begin until later that year. Within two years, the federal government acquired the railway, which would become one of the original components of Canadian National Railways. By 1921, he had divested his hydroelectric and streetcar interests, and left a relatively modest estate when he died in 1923. “His rapid rise to wealth and fame had the appearance of a meteor blazing a bright trail through the skies of the Canadian business world,” the Dictionary of Canadian Biography conlcluded, “but this meteor had burned itself out several years before Mackenzie’s body was committed to the earth near his home town of Kirkfield.”

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Toronto Star, January 18, 1927.

More on the early plans for an apartment “chateau” on the site.  The “Windsor” building mentioned here sounds like it evolved into the Windsor Arms Hotel (which opened later that year). The “Bloor Building” site now houses the Manulife Centre.

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Globe and Mail, January 29, 1954.

In a 1983 interview with the Globe and Mail, structural engineer and Scaramouche owner Morden Yolles described the process of building the apartment complex, which was one of his first major projects:

Meeting Peter (Dickinson) was very important. I wasn’t aware of architecture as such at school. In Toronto in the fifties, there was no contemporary architecture whatsoever. Peter was from England — he was the first to speak in terms of anything that could remotely be considered contemporary. He was a lively guy with a lot of drive. I went around the city with him looking for buildings of any interest. We were seeking new ways of expressing things. We began to break some new ground. There was nothing like Benvenuto around — it was being done in England at the time, and was close to the International Style. The building techniques were conventional, the structure was most unconventional.

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Globe and Mail, September 3, 1955.

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Mary Walpole advertorial, Globe and Mail, July 11, 1959.

From the 1974 edition of Toronto Guidebook:

The Benvenuto is located in one of the city’s better residential areas. It’s quiet, dignified and understated, just like its neighbourhood. Most guests are there on a long-term basis, but 25 rooms are available for short stays, most of them equipped with kitchenettes. Air conditioning, free parking, colour TV, and excellent dining room and bar.

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Globe and Mail, January 28, 1981.

Globe and Mail society columnist Zena Cherry’s take on the opening of Scaramouche.

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Globe and Mail, February 21, 1981.

In another review written two years later, Kates observed that some of “the affluent tenants of the blue-rinse set” were upset when the previous restaurant, which served up old school fare like roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, was converted into Scaramouche.

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Mary Walpole advertorial, Globe and Mail, June 6, 1981.

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Starweek, May 21, 1983.

Sources for additional material: Toronto Guidebook, edited by Alexander Ross (Toronto: Key Publishers, 1974); the March 19, 1983 and March 26, 1983 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the June 14, 1897 edition of the Toronto Star.

Snapshots from Celebration Square

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Needing an escape from the house before last weekend’s snowstorm, I wandered out to Mississauga’s city centre in the middle of a west-end errand run. For all the sunshine, it was a quiet afternoon, with few skaters enjoying the skyline surrounding Celebration Square.

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Maybe people were afraid to take a lunch time risk, or maybe they were stuck in surrounding office buildings, dreaming of tying on skates to start their weekend.

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The east side of the rink was lined with neon signs to brighten the January blahs.

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From CS&P Architects website:

The transformation of both the Mississauga City Hall and Library Squares into Celebration Square, a single, coherent public space, has helped to revitalize the City’s downtown core, and serves as a catalyst for economic development and tourism. The project scope includes a major outdoor sound stage and video screens, a smaller amphitheatre, as well as landscape gardens and lawn, water fountains, skating rinks, public plazas, a multi-purpose pavilion, food services, a market structure, and a War Memorial. The initiative was based on the principles developed in close collaboration with multiple citizen groups. The dramatic transformation has significantly increased the use of the Square for daily civil life.

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Opened in June 2011, Celebration Square works well as the heart of Mississauga. It was developed in consultation with New York City-based Project for Public Spaces. “Our impression is that they have bravely gone forward with radical ideas that I think every city should be trying and not every city does,” Philip Myrick, a consultant working with the Project told the Mississauga News in 2012. “I think more and more cities are realizing standard procedures aren’t what people are looking for these days and they need to pay attention to how to create the desirability (for residents).” On opening day, mayor Hazel McCallion hoped that the space would “develop a citywide spirit.”

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Pull up a chair, soak up the sun, sit back, relax, and await the next day’s blast of winter.

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Whenever I walk through Celebration Square, especially when festivities are happening, I feel like I’m in the heart of a city rather than a plaza slapped down in the middle of a suburb.

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The book sale section of the Mississauga Public Library’s central branch is not large, but tends to be filled with interesting finds, such as a shelf-and-a-half of Ontario Hydro reports stretching from the pre-First World War era to the opening of its first nuclear plants. All yours for a dollar each.

I grabbed four volumes from the early 1920s, partly in case I ever have to write about a key period in the development of hydro in the province, partly to decipher half the Twitter-esque editorials published in the Telegram during this era (public ownership of hydro, and support for Adam Beck’s dream of a radial railway system were pet causes of the paper at the time).

Also purchased: a book of notes from Dionne Brand, a Pelican tie-in to Britain’s Open University, and a paperback of English working class oral history.

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I took a quick walk around Square One, entering by this nod to the lunar new year.

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I didn’t see any “brownie ate my cookie” treats in the window of Reds, but nearly gave in to the temptation of their delicious two-bite butter tarts.

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Locally-inspired art in the men’s department of Simons. Here’s the description of this piece, Raincity Robot, by Brendan Lee Satish Tang:

Fusing futuristic and traditional ideas, Brendan L.S. Tang’s Raincity Robot (an extension of his Manga Ormulu series) illustrates the tensions and contradictions that characterize contemporary culture. The Chinese vase of the Raincity Robot is reminiscent of the Four Sisters smokestacks at the former Lakeview Generating Station, while the barnacle-like robotic prosthetics at the base reference the lakeside geography and technological industry of Mississauga.

Art and shopping malls go well together. As owners and communities devise new uses for mall space as chains fold, more art galleries would work well, either as satellites to existing institutions, pop-ups, or new creations. The Art Gallery of Windsor temporarily moved into Devonshire Mall during the mid-1990s after its former home became the city’s first casino site and. As the Canadian Encyclopedia puts it, “the gallery board saw the move to a shopping mall as an opportunity to bring art closer to the world that inspires it and to find out more about how art finds its place in to our culture.” I took advantage of the relocation, often sticking my head in after scouring the mall’s record stores.

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Outside Simons, it appeared the we-don’t-take-your-stinkin’-cash Eva’s Chimneys is being replaced with something called “Stuffies.” I quickly imagined a food stall catering to furries.

When Mel Freezes Over

As I no longer have a copy of this story as it originally appeared on The Grid’s website in early February 2013, this post is based on the draft I submitted for publication.

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Toronto Sun, January 15, 1999.

“It might have people across this country shaking their heads, even rolling their eyes,” Peter Mansbridge observed while introducing the January 13, 1999 edition of The National. To some Canadians, Mel Lastman’s plea for military assistance to help Toronto cope with a record-breaking month of snowfall confirmed their view of the country’s largest city as a magnet for spoiled, whiny wimps.

By the time Lastman requested help, Toronto had endured 84 cm of snowfall over the first two weeks of 1999, with 21 cm alone coming down on January 13. The deepening accumulation, combined with gusty winds and cold temperatures led to chaos. Clogged switches delayed GO service, drifting snow covered the third rail of exposed subway lines, and the Scarborough RT proved its uselessness in inclement weather. TTC chief general manager David Gunn recommended people stay home, as chances were “poor to nil” that closed subway sections would operate for several days. Snowplows barely made a dent on roads as the white stuff continued to fall.

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Toronto Star, January 14, 1999.

“I’m petrified of what could happen,” Lastman told the press. “You come to a point where you can’t push it back any more. Then no cars move. I want to have (the army) ready in case there’s 25 cm of snow.” Lastman had recent precedents: troops were called in for assistance during the Red River flood in Manitoba in 1997 and the ice storm that paralyzed eastern Ontario and Quebec in 1998.

The next morning, four Bison armoured personnel carriers arrived at the former Downsview military base from CFB Petawawa to await use as emergency ambulances. While reservists shoveled out bus shelters and fire hydrants, 420 regular troops were placed on standby. They spent most of their time relaxing around the old base by rehabbing an old gym basement bowling alley, playing cards, and practising snowmobile manoeuvres for a future Arctic posting. One officer who had assisted with the ice storm cleanup told the Star that “it’s kind of hard just sitting here when you want to help.” Lastman told the troops that “it’s better to be safe than sorry…I don’t believe you want to wait until people are possibly gonna die.”

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Cartoon by Patrick Corrigan, Toronto Star, January 15, 1999.

Torontonians coped with the situation in varying ways. Commuters stuck downtown booked hotel rooms and made Eaton Centre merchants smile. Cotton Ginny reported a run on nightgowns, while Shoppers Drug Mart was packed with people stocking up on bathroom essentials. Rentals at the Yonge-Wellesley Rogers Video more than doubled. Meals on Wheels provided extra food to clients in case they were forced to close. Municipal and transit employees racked up overtime, with some snow removal employees sleeping in temporary trailer camps. There were the expected idiots: one man was charged after being caught drunk snowmobiling along the Don Valley Parkway.

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Toronto Sun, January 14, 1999.

As the city dug itself out, several city councillors questioned Lastman’s actions and lamented that he didn’t consult them. Lastman didn’t call an emergency council meeting out of fear of the speeches his colleagues might make. “The press would have been there, and what they would have been saying I don’t know. Some of them would have been absolutely out of it.” The mayor believed he was the only person who cared about the welfare of the entire city instead of specific wards, He never regretted his actions. “We arranged it so that senior citizens could go around the corner to get milk,” he boasted to the Star a decade later.

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Toronto Sun, January 14, 1999.

By the time the month was over, Toronto endured a record-breaking 118 cm of snowfall. Councillor Jack Layton found the storm “a teaching lesson in municipal arrogance” due to the city’s complacency. Eye Weekly noted that the previous fall, council’s urban environment committee voted against budgeting an extra $28 million to clear windrows. Up to $70 million was spent on clean-up, more than double the annual $32 million snow clearing budget.

Eye columnist Donna Lypchuk had fun with the charges that Torontonians were wusses when it came to snow. “Torontonians get a little touchy the minute they see a snowflake,” she observed. “Like little robots, they go outside, see their cars covered with snow, make a phone call and then drop back into bed with complete resignation.” She felt the exhaustion of those battling the storm could have been avoided by just letting the snow melt on its own.

Lypchuk’s conclusion? “I think it’s time Torontonians familiarized themselves with important Canadian concepts, such as snow. During the winter, snow is going to fall from the sky. This is not a scary, unusual thing. It is normal. Respect the snow and be prepared.”

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Star, January 14, 1999.

Confession time: I’m drawing a blank as to what I did during the Snowmageddon of January 1999.

I definitely experienced it. I was living in Guelph, working at the campus paper. Given the regular dumpings Guelph received, the storm likely didn’t seem unusual. It was probably just another snowy day, albeit one with greater accumulation. My guess is that either I curled up with a pile of library books or headed over to the Ontarion office to work, surf the net, or play endless games of Civilization II. It was around this time that staff relations within the office settled into a permanent deep-freeze, sparked by deep disagreements about the cover of that week’s issue. The only story about the storm in the following week’s edition noted there were no plans to shut down the U of G campus, and that students were encouraged to take advantage of increased Guelph Transit service as parking lots turned into mountains of cleared snow.

As for Lastman’s call for the army—it was Mel. Given his bombastic style, it would have been hard not to expect anything else.

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Toronto Sun, January 16, 1999.

After hearing all the jokes made about the situation over the years, reading about the circumstances at the time makes it clear action was needed. The factor that seems to be forgotten is that Toronto was already buried under an unusually large amount of snow. The forecasts for the storm that prompted Lastman to call in the troops didn’t look promising, and city services were already strained. And he did have the examples of military involvement in other natural disaster over the previous two years. The laughs at Toronto’s expense seem partly a natural reaction against the centre of the universe, and partly out of little comprehension of how badly the city’s infrastructure, especially for commuters, was affected. I was really struck by CBC archival clip’s depiction of a Meals on Wheels run, where deliverers provided extra food to clients in case the service had to be suspended.

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Cartoon by Andy Donato, Toronto Sun, January 14, 1999.

I also checked out the Sun’s coverage. The front page on January 14, 1999 bluntly echoed TTC chief general manager David Gunn’s advice: “STAY HOME.” It also introduced the paper’s method of measuring the snowfall: the “Mel freezes over” infographic, which used Lastman’s height as a yardstick for how much snow fell that month.

On the editorial page, a list of snow-related mottos was devised to replace the new official motto the paper loathed, “Diversity our strength.”

Toronto—The city under North York
Toronto—Home of the squeegee kid, until you need one.
Toronto—Our mayor shovels it better than your mayor.
Toronto—Beware of drive-by plowings.
Toronto—Don’t even think about parking here.
Toronto—Where snow melters go to die.
Toronto—Where snowballs have a chance.
Toronto—Apocalypse Snow.
Toronto—Home of the two-hour cab wait.
Toronto—It’s not as bad as Buffalo, but we’re working on it.
Toronto—Where “The Better Way” is walking.
Toronto—We’d rather be in Florida.
Toronto—The flake by the lake.
Toronto—As pure as the driven slush.
Toronto—Home of Pearson Airport—you can check in anytime you like, but you can never leave.
Toronto—Plow me.

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Cartoon by Dusan Petricic, Toronto Star, January 17, 1999.

Meanwhile, back over in the Star, it was interesting to read how angry councillors were over the lack of consultation from Lastman. Among the miffed was Frances Nunziata. “I sent a letter to the Mayor January 6 with a number of recommendations,” she told the paper. “I didn’t get any response, or even an acknowledgement.” According to Michael Prue, who represented East York, councillors were “taking all the crap because Mel Lastman tells (the public) that everything’s wonderful and everything’s being fixed and I get phone call after phone call that it’s not that way.”

Sources: the January 21, 1999 edition of Eye Weekly, January 19, 1999 edition of the Ontarion, the January 14, 1999, January 15, 1999, January 16, 1999, January 17, 1999, and January 11, 2009 editions of the Toronto Star, and the January 14, 1999, January 15, 1999, and January 16, 1999 editions of the Toronto Sun.

Bonus Features: “Stop the Slaughter of Innocents”

This post offers bonus material for a piece I wrote for TVO – you may want to check that out first

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Toronto World, November 12, 1919.

Toronto medical officer of health Dr. Charles Hastings understood his actions in implementing a mandatory vaccination program might not be popular, especially among those who objected on grounds of personal liberty. “Why all this interference with personal liberty and individual rights?” he asked in his November 1919 monthly report. “Because British justice, properly interpreted, means that when the liberty and rights of the individual are not in the interests of the welfare of the masses, the rights of the individual must yield.”

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The Globe, November 13, 1919.

More from The Globe on the City Hall clinic: “It was positively sustaining, that odour of disinfectants, and as one of the City Hall staff remarked, one whiff of it was almost enough to safeguard a whole family against the threatened scourge.”

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Cartoon by George Shields, the Telegram, November 14, 1919.

Toronto should realize that Dr. Hastings is not a vaccinationist for the sake of vaccination. The question of compulsory vaccination will not arise if the citizens who are not anti-vaccinationists on principle give themselves, their families and their neighbours the benefit of the doubt and GET VACCINATED. – editorial, the Telegram, November 15, 1919

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The Globe, November 19, 1919. Dr. Hastings did not show up.

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The Telegram, November 20, 1919.

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Cartoon by George Shields, the Telegram, December 16, 1919.

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Toronto Star, January 22, 1920.

Ah, the irony. I admit it – I couldn’t stop laughing when I read this story. The Globe‘s headline was even more blunt: “Anti-vaccination Champion Ald. Ryding, Has Smallpox.” Ryding, who had represented the Junction on city council since 1912, survived and continued to serve as an alderman into the early 1930s.

The Story of Mr. Croft

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on May 31, 2008.

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One of the most eyecatching murals on display in Toronto is the colourful piece that acts as a gateway to Croft Street near College and Bathurst. The Monty Pythonesque design may provoke chuckles but the story it relates is a serious one, as the work honours the street’s namesake, the only recorded fatality associated with the Great Toronto Fire of 1904.

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On the evening of April 19, 1904, a nightwatchman noticed flames in an elevator shaft of the E&S Currie Building at 58-60 Wellington Street West. Unfortunately, most of its neighbouring buildings were made of highly flammable wood and designed in ways that fueled fires. The blaze quickly spread and cut a 12-hour path of destruction roughly bounded by Simcoe, Melinda, Yonge and the rail lines. Firefighters from as far as Buffalo assisted Toronto firefighters, with teams from London and Peterborough arriving too late to battle the flames. By 4:30 a.m., the fire was declared to be under control.

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Front Street looking east from Bay Street, April 1904. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1408, Item 2.

Insurance companies and city inspectors quickly assessed the condition of the damaged buildings and prepared a list of properties deemed too unsafe to remain standing. Property owners received notices asking them to bring down their walls immediately or allow the city to demolish the structures. No objections were received.

Over the next few weeks, safecrackers were hired to rescue important documents from the ruins, followed by demolition teams equipped with dynamite. Among the men hired for the demolition was Parliament Street resident John Croft, a recent immigrant from England who had occasionally assisted dynamiters in coal mines in his native land. He was assigned to the W.J. Gage Building at 54-58 Front Street West. His team was not given a storage battery to set off the dynamite and had to resort to lighting long fuses then running for cover (an image associated with modern cartoon gags—a possible inspiration for the mural design?). This worked for the first two explosions that were set on May 4th. The third try proved unlucky for Croft.

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The following morning, The Globe reported on the incident and Croft’s condition:

Croft, with two assistants, William Goudge and A. Ramsden, had set off 30 blasts yesterday morning and at 1 o’clock placed three charges under of portion of the W.J. Gage & Co. wall. Two were exploded safely, but the third fuse, set for a minute and a half, was slow. After waiting for some time, Croft went up the wall to investigate, and as he did the blast went off. The flesh on his right arm was torn to shreds, and he sustained a severe scalp wound and a broken rib. The sight of the left eye was destroyed.

Later that morning Croft died from the shock, leaving behind a wife and three children. He was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Four years later, the former Ulster Avenue was renamed in his honour. The mural was created a century later, followed by a plaque from Heritage Toronto.

Photos of Croft Street by Jamie Bradburn. Additional material from the May 5, 1904 edition of The Globe.

UPDATE

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Croft Street mural and Heritage Toronto plaque, January 12, 2020. 

The mural honouring John Croft on the street named after him was one of my favourites in the city. It was well illustrated, told its story well, and had a funny, bordering on Monty Python-esque sensibility to it. It deserved to be well taken care of.

Over the years, people have had other ideas.

It’s a problem which has also affected street art on the garages further north along Croft Street. Lovely artwork and creative grafitti are ruined by amateurs or those who don’t care about the work of others. One can argue its the cycle and nature of such things, but it feels like an insult to those who invested time in these projects.

Would it be worth commissioning artists to create a new spin on Croft’s story on this wall (as has happened with other murals in the city, such as the depiction of Leslieville at Queen and Jones), or would that fall into ruin quickly?

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The Heritage Toronto plaque has also been poorly treated. Beyond the defacing of the photo, whoever recently sprayed over the plaque may have thought it was part of the wall. Perhaps they left their sunglasses at the scene of the crime.

The sad part?

The plaque was cleaned up a few weeks ago.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

The Globe, May 5, 1904 (left) and May 6, 1904 (right).