Off the Grid (Ghost City): 346 Spadina Avenue

Part One: Ghost City

Originally published on The Grid on September 12, 2012.  This was my first piece under the “Ghost City” banner, which the publication had used periodically for similar pieces. “Ghost City” lasted as a weekly column through June 2013, though the title was occasionally brought out of mothballs by other writers. 

When the Gold Diamond restaurant opened this summer, it inherited a building teeming with ghosts: Paranormal spirits are reputed to have inspired the lion statues out front and once required the services of an exorcist. Symbolic ghosts have also left their mark through the legacies of a Jewish-community landmark and a series of Chinese eateries.

Dress-making strike, crowd at Labor Lyceum, 346 Spadina Avenue, February 25, 1931. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 23262.

Originally occupied by residences, the southwest corner of Spadina Avenue and St. Andrews Street was purchased by the Toronto Labor Lyceum during the 1920s. Founded in 1913, the organization promoted trade unionism among the city’s growing Jewish community, and offered a home for garment-industry organizations like the Internatonal Ladies Garment Workers Union. As longtime union activist and politician J.B. Salsberg observed, “no single institution and no single building on Spadina—the main street of Jewish Toronto—was more important in the refashioning of the Jewish immigrant into an actively involved Canadian Jew than was the Labor Lyceum.” Beyond union meetings, the building met the community’s cultural and social needs by providing a venue for concerts, a beer parlour, dances, lectures, and hanging out.

tely 40-05-14 goldman obit

Obituary for Emma Goldman, the Telegram, May 14, 1940.

Anarchist Emma Goldman spoke many times at the Labor Lyceum while intermittently residing in Toronto during the 1920s and 1930s. Her talks ranged from lecturing about drama to raising money for the defence fund of condemned American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. While Goldman respected the city’s appreciation for the arts, her criticisms of the influence of the Anglican and Catholic churches did not make her a fan of the “Toronto the Good” mentality. When she died in May 1940, her friends told the Star that the funeral service would “not be a religious one but will be rather just a gathering of friends.” While her body lay in state at the Labor Lyceum, she was remembered “as a woman who had put ideals above suffering.”

cjn 71-12-24 lyceum to become chinese restaurant

Source: Canadian Jewish News, December 24, 1971.

When scaffolding went up after the building was sold in 1971, locals figured the wrecking ball would follow to the increasingly shabby-looking site. Instead, new owner Yen Pin Chen, a Taiwanese restaurateur, spent $1 million over the next four years refurbishing the building into a restaurant complex he hoped would become the focus of the new Chinatown emerging along Spadina. Décor included walls filled with handcrafted detailing and a ceramic reproduction of Beijing’s Nine-Dragon Wall that had been in Chen’s family for two decades. Outside, observed the Globe and Mail, “two bronze-coloured lions crouch and stare imperiously from the front door into the window of the Jewish hard-goods jobber across the avenue. The façade glows with the colour of sunrise over Shanghai, that imperial shade of yellow once reserved for emperors.”

gm 1975-08-02 yen pin palace Source: Globe and Mail, August 2, 1975. Click on image for larger version.

Despite being the largest Chinese restaurant in the city, Yen Pin Place was an expensive bust. The luxurious décor was offset by bland food that the Globe and Mail’s Joanne Kates figured “would be perfect for a convention of 1,000 dentists from Des Moines.” After it closed in 1978, Yen Pin Place was succeeded by a string of eateries that Kates described as “each more outrageously pretentious and gastronomically mediocre than the last, and all of them doomed to failure.” The flops included Genghis Khan (a Mongolian BBQ), Paul’s Palace Deep Sea Shantung (once the city’s premier Szechuan restaurant, it had served better food elsewhere), and the President.

ts 86-01-24 hsin kunag review

Source: Toronto Star, January 24, 1986. Click on image for larger version.

In 1985, the building was purchased by the Hong Kong-based Hsin Kuang restaurant chain, whose name still graces its facade. The Star enjoyed the warm towels that bookended every meal and the dim-sum offerings, but found the flavours of the rest of the menu lacked character. Hsin Kuang gave way to Bright Pearl in 1997, which carried on serving dim sum until a landlord dispute led to its closing in 2010.

That Bright Pearl lasted for 13 years supports the superstitions and accounts of ghost sightings associated with 346 Spadina. The presence of the paranormal has been blamed on everything from an onsite mortuary to the billboards forming a “V” pointing at the entrance that channelled evil spirits. Ghosts are said to haunt the washrooms, even after an exorcist was sent in. Feng-shui masters have been consulted in design elements such as the placement of the “foo dog” lions to provide a healthier aura.

Additional material from Spadina Avenue by Rosemary Donegan (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1985); the December 24, 1971 edition of the Canadian Jewish News; the August 2, 1975, November 15, 1976, and April 4, 1981 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the May 14, 1940, May 15, 1940, February 19, 1983, January 24, 1986, and August 31, 1995 editions of the Toronto Star.

Part Two: Vintage Toronto Ads – A Place for Food, Spirits, and Movements

Originally published on Torontoist on October 23, 2007.

Yen Pin Place

Source: Toronto Life, December 1975.

Mid-1970s diners expected a certain level of ostentation when eating at finer Chinese cuisine establishments. Decor was touted as much, if not more, than what went into one’s mouth. The atmosphere diners were promised at today’s featured restaurant hints at a feast for the senses.

Except that the foo dogs were not mere decoration…

The history of 346 Spadina Avenue reflects the neighbourhood’s ethnic shifts. During the mid-20th century it was home to the Labour Lyceum, a centre for Jewish labour movement activity. After her death in May 1940, anarchist/activist Emma Goldman was placed in state in the building until the go-ahead was given by the United States government to bury her in Chicago. The lyceum later moved east to Cecil Street.

The site has long been regarded as haunted, which may explain the presence of the foo dogs guarding the building. One set of restaurant owners called in an exorcist, who noted that the billboards across street pointed like an arrow, directing bad spirits into the building. Apparitions favoured the washrooms, catching patrons at the weakest moment of their meal.

UPDATE

As of 2017, the main restaurant space sits vacant. In 2013, Heritage Toronto installed a plaque commemorating the Labor Lyceum.

Off the Grid (Ghost City): 2 Queen West

From 2012 to 2014 I contributed to The Grida weekly magazine/alt-paper which was known as eye for most of its existence. The publication folded in July 2014, with its web presence vanishing soon after.  As some articles had already vaporized when I finally got around to collecting them for my records, some reprints will be based on original drafts. This installment of my “Ghost City”column was originally published on December 11, 2012. As plans to revamp the building have been released, it seemed appropriate to exhume this piece.

f1244_it0495 knox store small

Yonge Street looking north from Queen Street, early 20th century. 2 Queen West is the Knox store on the left. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 495.

During the last quarter of the 19th century, the intersection of Queen and Yonge was a battleground for clothiers and dry-goods merchants. While Eaton’s and Simpson’s wound up on the top of the heap, other merchants left their own marks, such as the building at the northwest corner named after men’s fashion provider Philip Jamieson.

ts 1900-10-20 jamieson ad

Toronto Star, October 20, 1900.

Jamieson was en route from his native Scotland to Australia in 1873 when he visited his brother-in-law, Bartholomew Spain, in Toronto. Instead of continuing onto the land down under, Jamieson partnered with Spain in a clothing store on the current site of Old City Hall. By 1877, the partnership had dissolved, and Jamieson moved east to the corner of Yonge and Queen. Disaster struck just after midnight on March 4, 1895, when fire destroyed the recently built Simpson’s store across the street to the south. The blaze jumped north across Queen Street, destroying Jamieson’s store and its neighbours, except for Eaton’s, which was saved by its sprinkler system and swift-thinking employees who lived nearby. Despite $150,000 in property losses, Jamieson temporarily moved a few doors north on Yonge and vowed in his ads that “a magnificent building” would rise from the ashes. Designed by architects Samuel Curry and Francis S. Baker, the Jamieson Building, whose original address was 180 Yonge St., included a rounded corner and plenty of plate-glass windows at street level to showcase Jamieson’s goods.

world 09-02-06 jamieson ad

Toronto World, February 6, 1909.

On April 30, 1897, the S.H. Knox Company opened its first Canadian five-and-dime store one door north. Owner Seymour Knox previously partnered with his cousin Frank Woolworth in the variety-store business south of the border, and continued to share suppliers when he set out on his own. Knox agreed to not build anywhere near the early Woolworth stores, making Toronto an attractive locale. (Knox’s heirs left their mark on the Buffalo area—Seymour II was involved with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, while Seymour III and his brother Northrup established the Sabres hockey franchise.) In January 1909, Jamieson retired and Knox expanded into the space. Jamieson planned to travel around the world, but died the following month. The Knox nameplate remained until the chain merged with Woolworth’s in 1912.

f0124_fl0002_id0151 woolworths yonge queen

The discounter’s long presence at one of Toronto’s top retail corners was aided by a stipulation landowner Naomi Bilton included when she sold the property to McMaster University (established by her father) for a dollar in 1917. Bilton had an undisclosed beef against the Eaton family and placed a condition that the property could never be sold to the Eaton’s or their related businesses. (Decades later, neither McMaster nor Woolworth’s showed any interest in selling the space to Cadillac Fairview during construction of the adjacent Eaton Centre.)

tely 69-11-26 woolworths queen and yonge reno

The Telegram, November 26, 1969.

A succession of short-term retailers filled the space after Woolworth’s departed in 1980. When new owners purchased the site in 1985, they hired architect Lloyd Alter to design the restoration of the aging building. Alter referenced archival photos to glimpse what was buried under a layer of metal added by Woolworth’s. “I wanted to peel back the cladding like unwrapping a present,” Alter recalled in a recent email. Engineer Peter Sheffield devised an iron column up the middle of the barely-holding-together structure, to which three layers of plywood were bonded on each floor. While portions of the old brick were exposed, new blue-green aluminum cladding was added.

The project experienced lengthy bureaucratic delays due to the owner’s decision to add a floor at the top for a fitness club (eventually the site of the Goodlife Fitness that vacated the building last year), which made it difficult to meet environmental load requirements. The frustration surrounding the project led Alter to change careers from architect to developer. As for how he could have handled it differently, Alter says that he “would have restored the prism glass and the whole ground plane to the way it was and figured out how to expose the iron-cast columns.” He would have treated the south section as “a real restoration,” while the north half might have been replaced with a new tower.

The Tower Records store that occupied the lower floors from 1995 to 2001 also experienced its share of frustrations. During its first Boxing Day, store managers asked Metro Toronto Police if they should open, given provincial regulations about closure that other retailers increasingly violated. “They laughed,” general manager Bob Zimmerman told Canadian Press, “and said, ‘We really can’t advise you, but you should probably take a look at your competition and do what they do.’” Tower angered Canadian publishers when they discovered the store broke federal guidelines by carrying American-distributed copies of Canadian books. Already edgy over rumours of American book chains eyeing the Canadian market, lawyers were dispatched and letters were written to the feds. Tower officials blamed a rushed store launch for the move, saying that they couldn’t find local wholesalers in time. The offending titles were pulled off the shelves and replaced with perfectly legal titles.

When Tower departed, its space was quickly snapped up by the Forzani Group, who used it as a flagship location for its Coast Mountain Sports chain. The store was later switched to Forzani’s Atmosphere banner.

Additional material from History of Toronto and County of York, Ontario Volume 1 (Toronto: C. Blackett Robinson, 1885); Remembering Woolworth’s by Karen Plunkett-Howell (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001); the March 4, 1895 and July 10, 1895 editions of the Globe; the February 1996 edition of Quill and Quire; and the March 4, 1895, February 9, 1909, February 10, 1977, January 3, 1986, September 26, 1987, and December 27, 1995 editions of the Toronto Star.