Lord Simcoe’s Folly

Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on August 20, 2011.

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The Telegram, May 14, 1957.

When the Lord Simcoe Hotel permanently closed its doors in October 1979, a carpenter on the crew hired to dismantle the building reflected on why it had failed after operating for just 22 years: “No one thought ahead for the future when it was built.” While its original owners prided themselves on going from sod-turning to ribbon-cutting within 17 months, they might have thought more carefully about how the business would survive in the long term. Mistakes like overpricing its luxurious eateries and not including amenities expected of modern hotels like central air, combined with increasing competition and land worth more than the building atop it, shortened the life of a hotel that promised to provide its first guests modern accommodations with old-world charm.

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Globe and Mail, September 23, 1955.

 

The inspiration to build a hotel at 150 King Street West came to future Lord Simcoe Vice-President W. Harry Weale during Mayor Nathan Phillips’ inaugural address in January 1955, when the city’s new chief executive noted that Toronto lacked the hotel space required to become competitive on the global convention circuit. A consortium of investors led by National Management was assembled and by that December Ontario Premier Leslie Frost turned the sod. The new hotel was named in honour of John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada. Simcoe was never elevated to a peerage but management decided to bestow one upon him so that the hotel’s name would match those of their other lordly properties (the Lord Elgin in Ottawa and the Lord Beaverbrook in Fredericton). Simcoe was also honoured in the decision to use the colours of the Queen’s York Rangers, the military unit he commanded, as the decorating scheme for the Sentry Box lounge.

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One chef in the kitchen, one surveying the menu. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1653, Series 975, File 2439, Item 34565-1 (left), City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1653, Series 975, File 2439, Item 34565-2 (right).

 

The key entertainment space in the hotel was the Pump Room, which was inspired by both the 19th-century eatery in Bath, England, and the restaurant that the Lord Simcoe’s ownership group ran at the Ambassador Hotel in Chicago. An introductory ad boasted that “meals are prepared to meet the demanding taste of the gourmet: exotic meats, game and fish are served on flaming swords or by wagon.” Waiters were dressed in ostrich feather–topped turbans to “add to the old-world atmosphere” (other dining venues in the hotel forced staff to dress in naval costumes or other 18th century style clothing). As head porter Roy McIntosh later remembered, “All the posh weddings and bar mitzvahs were held there and I remember some weddings came down just to have their pictures taken, then leave. It was that kind of place, the best.”

20110820craneadGlobe and Mail, May 15, 1957.

When opening day arrived on May 15, 1957, half of the $10 million hotel’s 20 floors were ready for use. The press weren’t able to preview any of the Lord Simcoe’s 900 rooms, but as Telegram columnist Alex Barris noted, “It’s questionable whether any visitor is likely to get past the street floor, unless he’s just plain sleepy.” Had the media been able to check them out, they would have found rooms decorated in “three basic and interchangeable colours—gold, blue and sandalwood.” Among the in-room amenities were television sets and desks supplied by Eaton’s that included built-in radio controls. Management was upbeat about having booked every room in the hotel for the upcoming Grey Cup game in November.

But it wasn’t long before the hotel ran into financial trouble. The opening of the Westbury Hotel (now the Courtyard Marriott on Yonge Street) and a 400 room addition to the Royal York cut into business. As Star columnist Ron Haggart discovered in the spring of 1960, the Lord Simcoe had become Toronto’s most delinquent taxpayer. As of April 25 of that year, the hotel owed $424,000, which was 10 per cent of all overdue taxes the city awaited. What surprised Haggart was that unlike Toronto’s second-worst tax offender, commercial developer Principal Investments, a bailiff had not been sent after the hotel. The reason why soon became public: Mayor Phillips interceded on behalf of the Lord Simcoe’s investors to convince the city treasurer to defer the hotel’s tax bill until new financial arrangements were made. “They informed me they were arranging for new financing and merely asked the city not to embarrass them during a trying period. I did what I would do for any taxpayer,” Phillips told the Star. “I explained the situation to the city treasurer and, without loss to the city and any embarrassment to anyone, they made a satisfactory arrangement for the payment of arrears with interest.” On May 26, 1960, the city received a cheque for the entire amount owed.

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Toronto Star, January 28, 1963.

 

Once the tax troubles were cleared up, other business problems came to the fore. As losses mounted, there were many rumours about the building’s future. Conrad Hilton was said to be interested in the hotel, the site was to be converted into a hospital, and so on. Several founding members of the management team passed away. Dining and lounge facilities designed to cater to “Toronto’s palate in ultra-deluxe fashion” proved too expensive for local tastes. By the time Globe and Mail owner R. Howard Webster’s Imperial Trust gained primary control of the Lord Simcoe in 1963, three floors were available as office rentals. The swanky Pump Room became the less swanky Flaming Grill, which flamed out within two years.

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Parking lot, University Avenue, east side, at Adelaide Street West, with Lord Simcoe Hotel in the background, early 1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5668.

 

By the end of the 1970s, the lack of both central air and a proper convention-sized meeting space made it difficult for the Lord Simcoe to compete with other downtown hotels. Webster and the other shareholders were ready to stop the never-ending losses and sold the property to National Trust in June 1979. The new owners immediately announced their intention to close the hotel, which saw its final guests (a group of Swedish tourists) check out on October 28, 1979. After their departure, the hotel’s assets were prepared for a liquidation sale that occurred in February 1980. Former head porter Roy McIntosh found himself back at the hotel working for demolition firm Teperman and Sons and felt sadness as the hotel disappeared one piece at a time. “I look at it now,” McIntosh told the Star, “and some guy’s ripping out something and I want to say, ‘Hey, don’t do that!’ But I’ve got to stop feeling personal about it.” Wrecker Marvin Teperman kept some mementos from the site—a red leather couch and chairs from the hotel’s lobby wound up in his office. Less sentimental was Star columnist Joey Slinger, who declared in his Leap Day column that the building was a grey architectural eyesore that couldn’t disappear fast enough. Slinger declared that “The Lord Simcoe was disposable… It was no more meant to endure than a used Styrofoam coffee cup.”

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The Lord Simcoe Hotel awaits demolition, circa 1980. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3, Item 74.

 

There was suspicion after the sale that National Trust stood in for another party, suspicion that was fuelled when the soil conditions were tested. It turned out a developer was assembling a valuable land parcel surrounding the Lord Simcoe for a new office tower that was ultimately filled by Sun Life. Teperman hoarding went up in 1980 and the northeast corner of King and University remained a construction site until the east tower of what is now the Sun Life Centre opened in 1984.
Additional material from the May 15, 1957, and October 29, 1979, editions of the Globe and Mail; the May 18, 1960, May 30, 1960, February 24, 1962, July 11, 1963, June 29, 1979, February 28, 1980, and February 29, 1980, editions of the Toronto Star; and the May 15, 1957, edition of the Telegram.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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King Street West, looking west. Construction of the Lord Simcoe Hotel, is visible at northwest corner of York St & King St. W., Toronto, Ont. Photo by Ted Chirnside, 1956. Toronto Public Library, 2001-2-366.

A shot of the Lord Simcoe under construction. Note the old Globe and Mail building on the right.

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Globe and Mail, May 14, 1957.

To mark the hotel’s opening, the Globe and Mail published six pages of advertorials on May 15, 1957 highlighting the construction process, the companies involved in construction, decoration, and financing, and the artists who produced the decor. Hotel officials declared that the Lord Simcoe was “as Canadian as maple syrup.”

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Globe and Mail, May 15, 1957.

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Globe and Mail, May 15, 1957

Among the statistics noted in the Globe and Mail‘s preview:

  • Housekeeping tallied 4,664 pillows, 10,200 single bed sheets, 1,500 double bed sheets, 7,200 pillow slips, 2,650 blankets, 10,000 bath towels, and 3,000 bath mats
  • 5,000 tablecloths with the hotel crest were produced for the dining areas, which were also supplied with over 20,000 pieces of flatware and over 60,000 pieces of china
  • Artist Maxwell Moffett designed over 300 snowflakes for the a series of seven decorative panels
  • 850 bibles were handed over by the Gideon Society “in a simple but dedicated ceremony”

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“Mr. Ambassador for Metro’s Welcome a Visitor Week, Eddie James Grogan, doorman at the Lord Simcoe Hotel, is congratulated by James Auld, Ontario minister of tourism and information, who pinned a silver medal on his chest for the style he uses in making visitors feel right at home.” Photo by Jeff Goode, originally appeared in the June 16, 1970 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive, tspa_0127985f.

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Toronto Star, June 16, 1970.

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Photo by Boris Spremo. Toronto Star, February 28, 1980.

What stands out in several of the post-mortems of the Lord Simcoe was its shoddy construction. “The trouble with the Lord Simcoe wasn’t that you could hear the people in the next room. It was that you could hear people five rooms away,” recalled Gordon Pimm, whose father-in-law was one of the hotel’s main financial backers. When demolition began in 1980, vibrations from the wrecking equipment caused chunks of stone to fall from the building. Special overhangs were erected to prevent stone from falling onto King Street.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Happy Life Insurance Day!

Originally published on Torontoist on April 17, 2012.

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The Globe, January 22, 1930.

Did you remember to celebrate Life Insurance Day earlier this year? Were the benefits you derived from the prudent savings of others at the top of your mind the last time you checked your safety deposit box or investment status update? Have you thanked your lucky stars and your broker that somebody else’s thriftiness has made almost everything that’s good and just in your life possible—especially those outings on the golf course? You didn’t? Shame on you!

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The Globe, April 17, 1930.

Manufacturers Life was among the businesses that opened offices in the Canada Permanent Building at 320 Bay Street throughout late 1929 and early 1930. Architectural journalist Patricia McHugh had mixed feelings about the building in her book Toronto Architecture: A City Guide (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989):

The architect said that he wanted to avoid ‘restless outlines,’ and by combining massive bulk with delicate ornament, that is exactly what he did. The two design impulses cancel one another and the Canada Permanent Building ends up with neither power nor grace—a stout matron in too-thin ingenue’s finery. Only the deeply vaulted entrance and its bold coffered ceiling speak with any vigour, pronouncing the solidity and weightiness that “The Permanent,” by its very name, undoubtedly hoped to evoke.

The interior lobby and banking halls are another matter—rich extravaganzas of satiny marble and burnished metal in the best Art Deco manner. Don’t miss the extraordinary bronze elevator doors whereon are portrayed kneeling antique figures, one holding out a model of the company’s medievally quaint former headquarters and another a replica of this skyscraper—self-congratulatory offers to the gods of commerce.

The building is currently one of the older towers in the financial district, with CIBC Mellon as its main tenant.

Planning Toronto’s Heritage

Originally published on Torontoist on June 9, 2011.

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An early example of structural re-use: portions of the building that served as Toronto’s city hall from 1845 to 1899 (pictured above in 1895) were incorporated into South St. Lawrence Market when it was opened in 1901. Left image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 98.

In a perfect world, heritage preservation policy would be clear and concise. No finding out well into a redevelopment project that you can’t place a parking spot in the upper right corner of a protected property, no wondering what your exact role as a member of a community heritage panel might be, no struggle to maintain something that clearly should be maintained because some developer found a technical loophole on the books.

But this is not a perfect world. Until paradise comes there will be many discussions, like the one held at City Hall on Monday, to address the issues with heritage preservation in Toronto.

Inspired by the Heritage Voices report issued by Heritage Toronto in February, Planning and Growth Management Committee chair Peter Milczyn (Ward 5, Etobicoke-Lakeshore) helmed a roundtable discussion that brought together heritage activists, architects, bureaucrats, and developers. The session felt like a starting point for a much longer and more complicated process of finding fixes to an array of bureaucratic obstacles, and addressing the perception that the public isn’t fully hearing the echoes of the city’s past that reverberate around us.

Worries about the effectiveness of local history education may stem from the public seeming to demonstrate their interest in historic sites only when they are in jeopardy—or already lost. (Think for a second: did you ever wonder about the history or state of the Empress Hotel building before the wall collapsed?) The tendency is to put the preservation machinery into motion when it’s almost too late for the affected site.

Once it’s known a heritage site is in trouble, our emotional knee-jerk responses kick in. Case in point: even the engaged audience at the roundtable was sedate until Mary Louise Ashbourne, chair of the Etobicoke York Community Heritage Preservation Panel, described the fight to preserve a gardener’s cottage on the former Fetherstonhaugh Estates in Mimico. When she finished noting the neighbourhood’s concerns about the site and condo developments that will change Mimico’s character, the audience applauded.

Discussions around public education included a few shots at the current City administration—when it was suggested that rookie councillors should attend introductory sessions on heritage issues, several speakers pointedly commented that longtime elected officials could do with a remedial course. Former city chief planner Paul Bedford noted that when he chaired a mayoral debate last year, Rob Ford was surprised to find out how little City funding was allocated to heritage matters. While Bedford saw a “golden opportunity” to raise the mayor’s awareness, calls from other panellists to increase heritage staff were dampened by Milczyn, who expected to see employee levels remain static or drop in the face of next year’s much-discussed budget shortfall. Given the penny-pinching at City Hall, we suspect it’s the dedicated volunteers who will be keeping heritage agencies afloat for some time to come.

Amongst those dedicated volunteers and other supporters of local history assembled on Monday there was a feeling in the room that preservation efforts suffer from too much of a stigma, thanks to the vague and heavy-handed legislation that encourages developers to find every loophole and to drag disputes to Ontario Municipal Board tribunals. Some suggested that tax incentives (which are offered in some American cities) would be a good way to encourage developers to work with old buildings (though we hope such incentives would not result in more orphaned façades facing sidewalks). Also on the list of suggestions: better coordination between City departments, property heritage audits, and asking community groups to devise lists of vital neighbourhood sites worthy of heritage designation.

As Michael McClelland of E.R.A. Architects emphasized—and this is a good summary of the day’s insights overall—the systems we set up around heritage preservation should be making developers go “Wow!”—considering the creative possibilities for revamping heritage sites—not “wow…” as in another obstacle to a quick-build office or condo.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Terminal Time

Originally published on Torontoist on June 8, 2010.

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Financial Post 500, June 1982.

The pitch Olympia & York used to entice businesses and residents into the still-under-construction Queen’s Quay Terminal seemed to work. As the spring of 1983 approached, nearly all of the retail space was leased and the seventy-two luxury condos were selling quickly despite being among the most expensive boxes in the sky in the country (up to $520,000 per unit).

When the Terminal Warehouse Building was constructed in 1926, it was the first large poured-concrete structure in Canada. The site was used for regular and cold storage of merchandise under a variety of owners who allowed the structure to decay over the next half-century. By the time architect Eberhard Zeidler was commissioned to revamp the building for Harbourfront, rot had set into both the concrete and the roof. “If the warehouse hadn’t been so grossly over-constructed in the first place,” Zeidler told the Star, “if it hadn’t been so damn muscular, it would have sagged to its knees years ago.”

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Globe and Mail, June 18, 1983.

Comments about the building were generally positive in the newspapers. The Globe and Mail’s “By Design” column found fault only with the size of the condos relative to their cost. Critic Adele Freedman was most impressed with the way the southeast corner of the façade was cut open to expose the interior and provide a great view of the harbour. She praised how the site was reused instead of being knocked down to make way for the atriums in vogue at the time (Atrium on Bay was the comparison point). “It demonstrates that the true heritage of public architecture in Canada resides in its indigenous agricultural and industrial buildings,” she noted, “which can survive adaptation and change. Of how many new public buildings in Toronto will that be true 53 years from now?”

The first major preview for the public on March 21, 1983 had a few hiccups. The plan called for the tower’s clock to start ticking as soon as spring officially arrived in England. Guests watched as 4:39 p.m. rolled around…and nothing happened. Mother Nature decided to bestow the event with the worst snowstorm the city had seen that year, which resulted in the layers of ice that froze the clock’s hands. An hour passed before workers cleaned off the clock enough for it to operate. The clock did not cause any problems when opening ceremonies were held in June.

The ad listing day one’s festivities left one Globe and Mail reader fuming. Given his complaint, we wonder if Harvey H. Bowman of Islington wasn’t using his real name when he let loose his bile:

Why do so many advertising promotion pictures featuring the violin show the instrument in the hands of a person who has obviously never played a note in his life, certainly not a note that deserves to be heard? The Queen’s Quay Terminal advertising supplement…showed a picture of a violin lying across a score, with the bow underneath the instrument. Symphony and concert violinists pay large amounts of money for their bows, and would never treat them that way. It’s just not done.

Additional material from the June 25, 1983 and July 8, 1983 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the March 22, 1983 and June 22, 1983 editions of the Toronto Star.

Painting St. Lawrence Market Red

Originally published on Torontoist on June 7, 2010.

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A month after a short list of five colour-coded designs for the redevelopment of the north side of St. Lawrence Market was submitted to a seven-member jury, the winner was announced this morning by Mayor David Miller and Councillor Pam McConnell (Ward 28, Toronto Centre─Rosedale). The victor is the “red” covered street concept created by Adamson Associates Architects and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. The plan calls for a five-storey structure evocative of a nineteenth-century arcade that is designed to allow for natural light and ventilation and will lead pedestrians to St. Lawrence Hall. Opening is targeted for 2014.

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While construction of the new north market is underway, vendors will relocate to a temporary structure to be built in the open-air parking lot behind the south market at 125 The Esplanade. The interim location may bring a smile to drivers used to fellow motorists blocking Market Street while jostling for a sacred parking spot across from the south market (even though the parkade has tons of space) and to pedestrians having to deal with the blockading drivers. We suspect that construction may also free up a body for the Toronto Police Service, as market shoppers won’t require guidance across Front Street between intersections for a while.

Images courtesy the City of Toronto.

UPDATE

The new north market did not open in 2014. As of late 2017, the design continues to be tinkered with and debated by municipal officials, especially in the wake of archaeological finds related to earlier incarnations of the market. The temporary structure draws plenty of Saturday morning shoppers. While a traffic cop wasn’t needed at first, the volume of pedestrians crossing The Esplanade has required the use of one.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Short Cuts 3

Listerine Kills Germs and Body Odour

Originally published on Torontoist on July 21, 2009.

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Maclean’s, July 15, 1923.

If Listerine can freshen your breath and kill bacteria in the mouth, why can’t it do the same to the rest of your body? It’s safe!

Deodorants and antiperspirants were still in their early stages of evolution when Listerine made today’s pitch—the first commercial underarm deodorant, Mum, had arrived on the market in 1888, with the first antiperspirant, Everdry, following fifteen years later. After you read descriptions of the composition and application of early antiperspirants, Listerine’s claims begin to make sense. Early products were wet, clammy, aqueous alcoholic solutions of aluminum chloride that were poured onto a cotton ball before being dabbed on the body, a technique that Listerine’s model appears well acquainted with. Drying was a slow, sticky process that, once you got past the skin irritations and damaged clothing, reduced one’s stink.

Is That Landmark Sealed with Polysulfide?

Originally published on Torontoist on August 4, 2009.

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Canadian Architect, January 1985.

These three local towers were…

While searching for information regarding Morton Thiokol and polysulfides that didn’t involve deep scientific analysis of the chemical composition of the sealant used in these Toronto landmarks, we ran into an interesting tidbit from the current manufacturer: the sealant should have a “twenty-year service life under normal conditions.”

Makes you want to watch your head while passing by any of these structures, doesn’t it?

Why You Shouldn’t Steal a White Glove Girl

Originally published on Torontoist on September 1, 2009.

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Time, February 10, 1967.

Translation: the “temporary” relationship clause in a White Glove Girl’s contract refers to the amount of time she has remaining on this mortal plane. Until then, we’re happy to shuffle temps around from employer to employer, keeping our White Glove Girls under lock and key until the next call comes in. Sometimes we’ll let them out of the dunge…asset pool for a few minutes to take care of their “happy homemaker” duties. Anyone thinking of stealing one of our assets should be aware that we’ve spent years working on glove-tracing technology—we’ll know when you’ve stolen our assets!

A Toast to Good Hydro Services

Originally published on Torontoist on December 8, 2009.

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(Left) The Globe, November 1, 1929, (right) Toronto Star, November 19, 1936.

We’re not sure which of the images conjured up by today’s ads is more disturbing. Is it the trio of factory workers depicted in a manner usually reserved for nursery rhyme characters or World War I casualties? Or is it the deified toaster (whose cost, if translated into modern money, would start at around $228) trained to act with the utmost style and refinement for a classy late-dinner gathering?

Both ads are fine examples of the large quantity of newspaper advertising the Toronto Hydro Electric System bought during the 1920s and 1930s. Besides trained toasters, the utility’s retail arm offered customers technological marvels for the home such as electric ranges.

Vintage Toronto Ads: An Imperial Construction

Originally published on Torontoist on March 11, 2008.

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Globe and Mail, March 11, 1957.

Today’s ad features your stereotypical 1950s architectural professional: trenchcoat, tie, hat (preferably a fedora), and a fistful of building plans. The building this dapper construction supervisor is depicted next to would quickly become one of St. Clair Avenue’s architectural landmarks.

Pigott Construction was based in Hamilton, where company president Joseph Pigott contributed heavily to the community as a president or board member of institutions such as McMaster University and the Art Gallery of Hamilton. His company built one of Hamilton’s first skyscrapers, which still bears his name. Among the buildings Pigott worked on in Toronto are the Royal Ontario Museum and the Toronto-Dominion Centre.

Alex Farquhar would have been putting the finishing touches on the Imperial Oil Building when today’s ad appeared, as the first employees moved in a month later. The building was designed by Mathers and Haldenby, a firm that also contributed to the Canada Permanent Building at 320 Bay Street, the Mowat and Ferguson Blocks around Queen’s Park and the Robarts Library. The design selected by Imperial Oil was intended for Toronto’s new city hall but was rejected in a 1955 plebiscite where the public was asked to approve $18 million for the project.

Artistically, Imperial Oil commissioned York Wilson to create a mural for the lobby. Three years in the making, “Story of Oil” depicts the journey of black gold from prehistory to the mid-20th century.

The building served as the company’s head office until 2005, when operations were moved to Calgary. It is currently vacant, a state of affairs recently lamented by Christopher Hume in the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

The building was converted into the Imperial Plaza, which includes condos and retail. Many of the building’s heritage features were retained, including “Story of Oil,” which can be seen in the current LCBO and Longo’s stores. “While it was once reserved for oil bigwigs and thoroughly vetted visitors,” Dave Leblanc observed in the Globe and Mail in 2016, “Mr. Wilson’s masterwork now turns the humdrum act of shopping into the highbrow appreciation of Canadian art. A Heritage Toronto plaque was unveiled in 2016.