Vintage Toronto Ads: Danforth Rising

Originally published on Torontoist on November 27, 2007.

2007_11_27torworld

Toronto World, March 11, 1921.

As the 20th Century dawned, Danforth Avenue was a muddy road that served as the northern boundary for the eastern portions of the city of Toronto. Between 1909, when the city made its first major annexation on the north side of Danforth, and the appearance of today’s ads in 1921, the area we now know as “The Danforth” rapidly changed from a semi-isolated mix of farmland, villages and church reserves to a series of residential neighbourhoods well connected to the rest of Toronto.

Two key factors that spurred growth were the implementation of streetcar service along a newly paved Danforth in 1913 and the opening of the Prince Edward Viaduct five years later. Market gardens that had filled the area were quickly replaced with homes, while businessmen such as Joe Barnes set up shop along Danforth (though we have no record of how many young men and their fathers were happy to shop for suits together). Names of landowners, such as the Playter family, lived on in streets and neighbourhoods.

Today’s advertisers were among the businesses and real estate companies featured in a special advertising section spotlighting the neighbourhood in the long-defunct Toronto World. With slight modifications, the following introduction could easily apply to condo or subdivision projects 85 years on:

Toronto’s growth in the last twelve years could not be more strikingly illustrated than by the phenomenal development of the Danforth district. Twelve years ago one or two stores only stood isolated along the Danforth highway; today the same highway is a bustling business street fully two miles in length, with the reputation of being one of the best shopping districts in the city, a claim well substantiated by a large and continuous patronage from outside points. Danforth is a residential district and promises to maintain that distinction. Sub-divisions offering the most attractive home-sites in the city are now being put on the market and these will prove highly remunerative investments, either for homes or for speculative purposes, for Danforth is the vanguard of Toronto’s progress. Last week $40,000 in home-sites was the turnover of one land agency on Danforth Avenue. People are seeking to establish homes where land values are now reasonable and where they have the advantages of such a convenient shopping district as Danforth Avenue.

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.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Be Modern—Cook Electrically!

Originally published on Torontoist on May 7, 2007.

Vintage Ad #229 - Cook Electrically!

Source: Official Souvenir Program, City of Toronto Diamond Jubilee of Confederation Celebration, 1927.

Today’s homemaking hint: tossing out the old gas or wood stove or abandoning the fireplace for a sparkling new electric range will improve household cleanliness, make your food taste better and produce a happier chef! That’s not just dinner our average housewife is holding, it’s the taste of progress!

The closing line about buying Canadian goods to “bring better times” was good advice but poorly timed, given the financial rollercoaster of the next decade. At least one could drown their sorrows in another piece of electrically-cooked pie.

The Toronto Hydro-Electric System was created in 1911 and gradually took over a number of private operators that had provided the city with power. The book this ad appeared in provides a short history, which mostly provides a list of dignitaries associated with company, several with “Esq.” attached to their name (no doubt to prove just how important they were).

From the same source, a few facts about Toronto in 1927:

  • City area was 40 square miles (the boundaries were the pre-amalgamation City of Toronto, minus Forest Hill and Swansea, which were not merged into the city until 1967)
  • 3,521 industries
  • 216 “branches of American industries”
  • 560 miles of streets
  • 227 miles of street railway (streetcars)
  • 49,000 street lights, which are touted as the “best street lighting system in America and at the lowest cost.” Have the egos of our city fathers ever known any bounds?
  • 68 parks that contained 1,978 acres of park area and 40 equipped playgrounds
  • 20% of Ontario’s population lived in Toronto
  • 64% of residents owned their homes
  • 11 public hospitals
  • 17 libraries
  • 117 public schools, 40 separate

Vintage Toronto Ads: Sound Policies and Quality Products from Leaside

Originally published on Torontoist on April 30, 2007.

Vintage Ad #228 - Durant Motors Are Firmly Established

Source: Official Souvenir Program, City of Toronto Diamond Jubilee of Confederation Celebration, 1927.

Leaside—car manufacturing mecca? It was during our 60th anniversary as a Dominion, when Durant Motors of Canada called it home.

William Crapo “Billy” Durant was the main force behind the formation of General Motors in 1908, when he brought together manufacturers such as Oldsmobile and Buick. After being forced out of GM twice, he founded Durant Motors in 1921. The company established itself as a full-line automaker, with economy (Star), mid-range (Durant, Flint) and luxury (Princeton, Locomobile) lines.

A Canadian branch was quickly established, using a former munitions factory at Laird Drive and Commercial Road. Operations in Leaside proved to be healthier than the American parent, thanks to the export of its vehicles to Great Britain, touted in this ad.

The Star line was introduced in 1922 to compete with Ford’s venerable Model T. Neither make outlasted this ad very long—Model T production wound down in 1927 after a 20-year run, while the Star was phased out the next year.

After Durant’s American headquarters defaulted on a loan, the Leaside plant reorganized itself as Dominion Motors. The decision to focus on a new luxury line, Frontenac, proved disastrous. With the Great Depression reaching its depths, the company called it a day by the end of 1933. The property was split between its neighbour to the north, Canada Wire and Cable, and Fridgidaire. The latter left in the late 1950s, with Canada Wire and Cable claiming the rest of the site. Operations continued until 1996, with the land cleared away a few years later to make way for the Leaside SmartCentre big box complex.

As for Durant? Wiped out by the Depression, he ran a bowling alley in Flint, Michigan in the early 1940s, with plans for a national chain before suffering a stroke.