Vintage Toronto Ads: Town & Country

Originally published on Torontoist on May 20, 2015.

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Key to Toronto, September 1957.

Once upon a time, the all-you-can-eat buffet was marketed as an exotic experience with a touch of European class. Descended from the Swedish smorgasbord, the mid-20th-century buffet was marketed as a way to sample fancy dishes drawn from a United Nations of cuisines. The experience was often marketed as “French,” even if the majority of the items bore little resemblance to French cuisine.

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Globe and Mail, February 11, 1949.

Such was the case for one of Toronto’s longest-running gorge-fests, the Town & Country. Opened in 1949 at Gould and Mutual streets in the Westminster Hotel, it billed itself early on as “Canada’s most unusual eating place.” Mary Walpole, Globe and Mail advertorial writer, captured the early vibe of the joint:

This is the fabulous buffet that everyone talks about and you could do a lot of travelling before you would find anything equal to it. Even Chef Pierre, who is unusually modest, looks at that extravagant set up with a proud gleam. The cold buffet is all set forth on crushed ice, fresh salmon masked in mayonnaise, lobster, shrimp and chicken salads, wonderful appetizers so tempting you don’t know where to stop; chicken, tongue and the crispest of fresh greens. Then there is the hot buffet with the emphasis on roast beef and roast chicken. And you can go back again and again, just like a party. Luncheon $1.10, dinner $1.95. Definitely a must.

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Globe and Mail, September 17, 1951.

In preparation for a new lounge room in late 1967, the restaurant added live music to its feast. Blaik Kirby, the Globe and Mail‘s entertainment critic, was less than impressed with the preview offering, a trio led by guitarist Chris Sullivan. While the musicians were skilled, Kirby complained that their amps were too loud, and that numbers like “Unchained Melody” sounded “as if they’d been arranged with an ear to the record player.”

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Key to Toronto, May 1960.

Town & Country expanded to the suburbs in the mid-1970s, starting with a location in Scarborough; eventually, it operated buffets as far west as Mississauga. Back downtown, the flagship was refurbished with nostalgic decor such as antique posters and old photos of Toronto. It wasn’t long before the restaurant itself became a nostalgic memory—it closed in 1981 to make way for the demolition of the Westminster Hotel complex. The property is now occupied by Ryerson University.

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Key to Toronto, July 1976.

The chain lingered on elsewhere for years, though its “French” aspects were gradually phased out. A later downtown location at 190 Queens Quay East was built around old railway cars. A tourist-centric Star review from 2008 noted that “while Toronto is indeed a blend of dozens of global cultures, the food on offer at Town & Country Buffet is an accurate sampling of none of them.” That location closed the following year when the city didn’t renew its lease in order to make way for Waterfront Toronto’s revitalization of the area.

Additional material from the April 27, 1953, October 3, 1967, and March 5, 1979 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the August 28, 2008 edition of the Toronto Star.

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From Dingman’s Hall to Jilly’s

Originally published on Torontoist on May 13, 2014.

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Broadview Hotel, circa 1945. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 518. 

When it opened nearly 125 years ago, the landmark building at the northwest corner of Queen and Broadview was a community gathering spot. Fraternal brotherhoods, athletic clubs, and other local organizations met there. Political candidates stumped for east-end votes. Music lovers enjoyed the occasional concert. We suspect that dances were held, though few would have involved poles or the intentional removal of clothing.

It’s possible that some or all of these activities could return to the Broadview Hotel now that the current home of Jilly’s strip club has been sold to Streetcar Developments. If, as the new owner has indicated, condos aren’t part of the building’s future, it might make sense to cater to a wide range of interests.

The site was built for $25,000 in 1891 by soap manufacturer Archibald Dingman. The Romanesque Revival building, originally dubbed Dingman’s Hall, was the tallest on the east side of the Don River. In its early years, it featured a the Canadian Bank of Commerce branch on the ground floor, professional offices on middle floors, and grand halls on the upper levels. From the start, politicians used it for community meetings or campaign stops—in July 1891, for example, Mayor Edward Clarke convened a meeting to discuss neighbourhood concerns regarding pollution problems in Ashbridge’s Marsh (part of which became the modern Port Lands).

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Looking north up Broadview Avenue from Queen Street East, June 26, 1918. Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 58, Item 750.

For the next 15 years, Dingman’s Hall was a major social gathering spot for the city’s growing east end. Dingman was an absentee landlord during the last few years of his ownership, as he’d decided to pursue his fortunes in the District of Alberta in the Northwest Territories. He ran a natural gas firm which lit Calgary’s streets, and saw his name bestowed on Alberta’s first commercial oil well in 1914.

Dingman sold the property in 1906 to T.J. Elward, proprietor of a hotel near the St. Lawrence Market. Elward’s petitions to transfer his liquor licence and transform Dingman’s Hall into a hotel were opposed by local teetotallers and the Globe, which felt that the three taverns already in the area should be sufficient. In 1907, though, the plan was resubmitted to the City’s licensing department and approved—and the building was soon renamed the Broadview Hotel.

While groups like local athletic clubs continued to meet there, in some ways the building’s downward slide had already begun. Reports of ownership squabbles made it into the papers, as did charges during the mid-1920s that it sold beer that was stronger than advertised. The name evolved over the years: Broadview Hotel, Lincoln Hotel, Broadview House, New Broadview House, etc. By the time the building was purchased by Harold Kamin for under $2 million in 1986, the main floor housed a strip club.

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During the 1930s, the site was known as the Lincoln Hotel. Its neighbour was the Teck Theatre. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 641.

Jilly’s earned notoriety for its loud and public promise of “Girls! Girls! Girls!”, but it wasn’t always the dancers who drew attention. Local animal activists were horrified in December 1991 by the “Jane Jones Exotic Circus.” Ms. Jones’s striptease routines were accompanied by a boa constrictor, a python, and a 450-pound defanged Siberian tiger named Qedesh. “She brings out the animal and the tiger just lies there on the stage,” activist Liz White told the Star. “She takes off most of her clothes and kind of lies all over the tiger while a male commentator talks about how this is an endangered species. It’s unreal.” Jilly’s staff noted Qedesh was “just a pussycat.” The complaints reached city council, spurring debate on outlawing the display and ownership of wild animals.

As faded west-end hotels like the Drake and Gladstone revived in the mid-2000s, speculation about the future of the Broadview increased. Drake owner Jeff Stober fended off rumours he was interested in the property. Kamin admitted to speaking with condo developers and architects, but, as he told the National Post in 2006, “I’m at the stage in my life where I don’t want any other problems.” Articles focused on its gritty nature and the fact that it, as well as being a strip club, was home to a number of low-income tenants.

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Broadview House, July 11, 1977. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 7, Item 134.

A brief closure in November 2013 for renovations renewed interest in the Broadview’s future. Councillor Paula Fletcher moved a motion at Toronto and East York Community Council to assess the possibility of a heritage designation. (The site was listed in 1975.) Yet the National Post’s Peter Kuitenbrouwer felt secure that Jilly’s would serve patrons for years to come: “As long as I live, Toronto will never again grant a licence to a strip club. Grandfathered strip clubs cling jealously to their status.”

The building’s importance may have been summed up best by architect Angus Skene a decade ago: “What is important is that the building still stands.” And as he said more generally of buildings with colourful pasts: “They’re more interesting when they’re debauched, proving that, despite where you start in life, you never know what your future holds.”

Additional material from the July 6, 1891, and May 10, 1907 editions of the Globe; the December 19, 1991 edition of the Globe and Mail; the June 16, 2006 and November 27, 2013 editions of the National Post; and the January 4, 2004 edition of the Toronto Star.

The Elegant New Sutton Place Hotel

Originally published on Torontoist on February 10, 2012.

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Globe and Mail, June 16, 1967.

From vacationing tourists to Hollywood elites, the Sutton Place Hotel at Bay and Wellesley has catered to downtown visitors since Canada’s centennial year. This week, new owner Lanterra Developments announced plans to close the 45-year-old hotel and retrofit it as a condo with nine additional storeys. After renovation, the building may still devote rooms to overnight-guest use. This harkens back to the Sutton Place’s beginning as a mix of hospitality and residential space.

The Sutton Place began operating over the course of the summer of 1967, with the official opening ceremony held on August 22. An advertorial claimed that the tower was built atop “an old creek bed where duels were once fought.” (They were referring to a tributary of Taddle Creek, lowered 20 feet for construction of the building’s foundation.) Ten floors featured rooms furnished by Eaton’s, which were reserved for hotel guests. Twenty-two floors were for apartments, whose residents had an entrance separate from the one used for the transient trade. Globe and Mail society writer Zena Cherry devoted two days of her column to profiling the apartment dwellers, including various professionals, professors, rock band managers, car dealers, CBC reporters, and provincial government bureaucrats. Some of the male residents overlooked a small detail: telling their wives about their new rentals.

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Globe and Mail, August 23, 1967.

The top floor housed Stop 33, which was touted as the highest bar in Toronto. Globe and Mail reviewer Blaik Kirby couldn’t resist being sarcastic:

Stop 33 features elegant, opulent décor—rich blue walls, deep black leather easy chairs, and a fabulous view of the city if and when the smog clears…Stop 33’s civilized drinkers will listen politely to unobtrusive, unamplified music by the Hagood Hardy trio, which leans only slightly toward that daring innovation, jazz.

While the Sutton Place boasted two swimming pools, a Vic Tanny health club, and several dining spots, one of its finest touches was a large Plexiglas mural depicting provincial and municipal emblems, flags, flowers, soldiers, and Mounties. Philadelphia-based artist Shirley Tattersfield claimed that “The only thing that could harm it is a cleaning lady with a tin of common cleaning agent. That might scratch the surface, but even then, a buffer would fix it.” Looking upon her work during its installation, which required 512 pieces to be shipped to Toronto, Tattersfield told the Globe and Mail that “it’ll last longer than anything else in the whole hotel.”

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Toronto Star, November 10, 1967.

It lasted longer than parts of room 615. Around 3:45 a.m. on the morning of November 10, 1967, a time bomb planted between the mattress and box spring of a bed in that room detonated, nearly killing its intended victim and blowing the number “6” off the door. The explosion wasn’t the first attempt on stock promoter Michael Myer Rush’s life that year; in March 1967, he was hospitalized after being beaten with a baseball bat during an assault at his North York home. Rush, described by the Star as “a barrel-chested little guy who mangled syntax in the best Damon Runyon tradition,” was facing charges for his involvement in $100 million stock fraud conspiracy. He was suspected of having ties to the Mafia, so it was believed that the bomb was planted after Rush had failed to pay money he owed to underworld figures. The bomb blast, which left Rush with a shattered chest and pierced throat, sprayed glass onto Bay and Wellesley. Doctors at Toronto General Hospital initially gave Rush a 10 per cent chance of survival, but he slowly recovered from his injuries. He was sent to the Don Jail upon his release from the hospital in late December, posted bail within a week, then fled to Panama. His globetrotting soap opera moved on to England before he was extradited back to Canada and handed a 10-year jail sentence in 1969.

The most explosive thing future residents are likely to encounter at Sutton Place will be the asking prices for the planned luxury units. Perhaps Tattersfield’s mural will continue to greet them in the lobby, fulfilling the artist’s prediction that it would last longer than any of the other original elements.

Additional material from the July 15, 1967, July 20, 1967, and August 23, 1967 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the November 10, 1967 edition of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Two details from the November 10, 1967 edition of the Telegram.

The name ultimately chosen for the condo conversion was The Britt, which is still under construction as of 2018.

The Black Bull of Yore

Originally published on Torontoist on April 23, 2011. Additional images have been included.

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Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto (first series) (Toronto: J. Ross Robertson, 1894).

Patio denizens and motorcycle enthusiasts may be relieved to hear news reports that fire damage at the venerable Black Bull was largely confined to the upper apartments and that the bar will reopen today. Had the three-alarm fire spread, Toronto would have lost what is debatably its oldest watering hole: drinks and hospitality were first served at the Black Bull in, depending on the source, 1833 (a year before York became Toronto) or 1838 (a year after William Lyon Mackenzie’s rebellion).

Based on a portrait of the bar in Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto, even in its early days the Black Bull attracted a parking lot full of hogs…of the animal variety.

York was a hospitable place in the old days, for the places of entertainment in every section of town were very much more numerous, when compared to the population, than they are now. Up to a recent period, when it was succeeded by a brick building, bearing the same name, however there stood at the north-east corner of Queen and Soho streets the antique-looking inn, shown in the illustration, with a swinging sign and wooden water trough and pump in front. This was the Black Bull Hotel, a favourite stopping place for farmers on their way to town from the west and north-west.

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The Globe, July 14, 1858.

The property was originally purchased by Peter Russell, for whom nearby Peter Street was named, in 1798 and was initially used for farming. Other illustrious families whose names remain on downtown streets (Baldwin, Willcocks) were owners of the property at Soho and Queen West over the first half of the 19th century. According to Robertson, the first landlord of the Black Bull Hotel was a Mr. Mosson. Between 1886 and 1889, the building was bricked and expanded.

Being a bar, it’s inevitable the Black Bull would eventually land in the police blotter. In a court case reported in the December 7, 1895 edition of the Globe, proprietor Richard Allcock and bartender Charles Bates were sued by carriage builder William Potter for $200. The plaintiff went to the Black Bull for a drink with a friend that September, but “while there a number of others congregated and had a drink at his expense.” When Bates demanded payment, Potter refused and a fight ensued. As Bates threw Potter out of the bar, the bartender struck Potter with such force that he lay unconscious for a week and was bedridden for a further five. The defendants denied the charges.

According to a 1903 classified ad, the Black Bull offered anyone looking for a place to stay a “large comfortable room, en suite or otherwise, for rent, with or without board.” That the ad didn’t use “quiet” as an adjective may have been due to incidents such as one that occurred on March 10, 1904. Four rowdy young men caused a ruckus in their room that night, during which they ignored the bartender’s attempt to quiet them down. When proprietor William Seager went up to the room, the men pounced and broke his leg. Two months later, when the incident went to court, Seager hobbled his way to the stand on crutches. His attackers received sentences ranging from 60 days to six months.

Corner of Soho St. and Queen St., looking north-east

Clifton House, 1972. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 48, Item 26.

For much of the 20th century, the premises operated as the Clifton House, a name it shared with an east end home for boys where beer was the only drink available in its beverage room. Articles published after the name reverted back to the Black Bull in 1977 indicated that it was “pretty rough” during its Clifton days. All we were able to ascertain about the Clifton was that it was among the 68 venues licensed to sell beer in Toronto in 1934. By the early 1980s, when the bar was owned by retired football players Bobby Taylor and Jimmy Hughes, the Star reported that “the only reminder of its past are the colourful residents who patronize the pub, along with Ontario College of Art students and a full range of athletic types.”

Additional material from Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto by John Ross Robertson (first series) (Toronto: J. Ross Robertson, 1894); the December 7, 1895 edition of theGlobe; and the December 23, 1903, May 26, 1904, November 1, 1934, and November 18, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: A Castle on the Harbour

Originally published on Torontoist on January 18, 2011.

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Financial Post Magazine, November 8, 1980.

While the Hilton Harbour Castle marketed its fine views and lakefront location to businessmen and average travellers, we imagine there may have been the odd guest who wanted to book a room just because Keith Richards was busted there a few years earlier.

Metropolitan Toronto was in the midst of a hotel boom when the fifty-million-dollar Hilton Harbour Castle officially opened on April 11, 1975. It was one of nine major hotels (which included the Bond Place, the Chelsea Inn, the Hotel Toronto, and the Prince) that opened within a two-year period. A glut of new rooms, combined with a tanking economy, led to a drastic drop in hotel occupancy rates. The Harbour Castle was among the hardest hit—despite enticements like the view from the rooms, four entertainment venues, and a kitchen headed by highly regarded former Westbury Hotel head chef Tony Roldan, occupancy sank as low as 28.5% during its first year in operation. Older hotels that hadn’t renovated in years were severely hit, perhaps most dramatically at the King Edward, where nearly a quarter of the rooms were closed off by the start of 1976.

It would take a detailed flow chart, and a Keith Richards–sized supply of intoxicants, to explain the corporate manoeuvrings that resulted in the Hilton/Westin brand swap between the Harbour Castle and Hotel Toronto in 1987.

Additional material from the March 20, 1976 edition of the Toronto Star.

An Empress Hotel Mystery

Originally published on Torontoist on January 6, 2011.

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The Empress Hotel in a later incarnation, the Edison Hotel, 1950. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 574, File 18, Item 49378.

It’s a sure bet that, just like the Naked City, there are eight million stories to be told about 335 Yonge Street and those who passed through the doors throughout its long history as a hotel and retail space, before the building’s recent misfortunes. This is one of them.

In 1888, Richard Dissette leased much of the newly built property at the southeast corner of Yonge and Gould and opened the Empress Hotel, which initially used 339 Yonge as its address. A profile in the book Toronto Illustrated 1893 provides a glimpse of what the hotel had to offer:

The building is a handsome four-story brick structure, 44 x 140 feet in dimensions, containing upwards of forty newly and handsomely furnished sleeping rooms. The hotel is equipped with all modern improvements and conveniences, including gas and electric light, steam heat, etc. The dining room is commodious and well lighted and has a seating capacity for fifty guests. A large and handsome bar room is attached, where only the choicest wines, liquors, ales, porters, cigars, etc., are sold, and the best liquors are also put up for family use. The rates are from $1.00 to $1.50 per day, and while the rates are reasonable, no expense or pains have been spared to make this a first-class hotel in every respect, while every means or appliance tending to the comfort and convenience of guests has been adopted. Electric cars pass the door every three minutes direct to and from the Union passenger station and connecting with all parts of the city. Mr. R. Dissette, the genial and popular proprietor, is a gentleman in the prime of life, and is a Canadian by birth and an old resident of this city.

On the evening of October 17, 1896, a room was booked by a man who signed the register under the name George Hall. The next morning, Hall discovered he was paralyzed on the right side of his body, which left him unable to leave his room. A physician was called in, but when he inquired as to details regarding the patient’s family, Hall refused to answer any personal questions. Hall was soon transported to Toronto General Hospital, where he continued to rebuff anyone who pried into his background or questioned his activities prior to his sudden incapacitation. By October 20, the mysterious patient piqued the curiosity of city newspapers, who guessed that Hall may have been a lawyer from Sundridge. As for what might have caused Hall’s paralysis, the World cited a Dr. Rennie, who felt it may have been an apoplectic fit.

Over the next two days, Hall’s past slowly emerged. He was a thirty-four-year-old lawyer who had last practiced in the north, but in Parry Sound, not Sundridge. And his name wasn’t Hall but Wall—Guret S. Wall—whose legal career included stints with two Toronto firms (including one whose partners once included Sir John A. Macdonald) and a junior partnership in the practice of Parks and Wall. His mother had passed away in Smiths Falls two years earlier and left him with some property. What happened to Wall after her death was left vague in the newspaper accounts; a front page story in the Star indicated that his life was “rather eventful” and that he “first adopted the name George Hall to prevent his friends from knowing of his whereabouts.”

But any old friends had little time to visit Wall. The night his identity was published, he passed away due to what the Telegram termed as an “acute congestion of both kidneys.” No further follow-ups on Wall appeared in the papers, which leaves many unanswered questions. Why was his life so “eventful” that he decided to take on a new identity? What would have caused him to remain so tight-lipped about his past? Debauchery? Debts? Fraud? Murder? Social deviancy? Was his sudden paralysis a bad stroke of luck, the result of hard living, or caused by nefarious means?

Frustratingly, delightfully, we have just enough of an outline that a historical mystery writer could let their imagination run wild.

Additional information from the book Toronto Illustrated 1893 (Toronto: Consolidated Printing, 1893) and editions of the Globe, Telegram, Toronto Star, and Toronto World published between October 20, 1896 and October 22, 1896.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Where Else Would You Eat?

Originally published on Torontoist on September 22, 2009.

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Bravo, November/December 1982.

Yes, your friends were happy that the iambic pentameter flowing out of your mouth finally sounded naturalistic and not an exercise in word fumbling. For that, you deserved a night on the town!

Your friends also had deep pockets, as a meal at Chiaro’s (pronounced key-arro) wasn’t in the typical actor’s price range, especially if they treated you to the exclusive wine room. Two people who were denied the latter were Globe and Mail restaurant critic Joanne Kates and her dining companion:

We mere mortals, and two females to boot, are not invited into the wine room. We are not even offered a wine list. We are offered a table by the door and, having reserved earlier, we begin to wonder: Would the waiter chide a male customer for asking to see the label on a bottle of house wine before it was poured?

Chiaro’s was part of the multi-million-dollar renovation of the King Edward Hotel in the early 1980s. Kates compared the décor to both ends of the hospitality spectrum owned by new operators Trusthouse Forte: the Plaza Athénée in Paris and your average roadside Travelodge. “The lobby is splendid and subtle,” she noted, “an Edwardian triumph of massive marble columns and Oriental rugs lit from above by a glass roof. But in the women’s room the soap is that horrible green stuff (what, no Pears?) and Muzak plays.“

Kates felt the pasta dishes were worth the money while most of the mains were boring. Her summary of the Chiaro’s experience expressed disappointment:

Neither the $20,000 peacock mirrors nor the grey walls and ceiling are glorious. The food is good, but it is attention to detail that makes a restaurant great: Salada tea and banal desserts give Chiaro’s a mass-produced air; waiters who seat and serve diners according to their Dun and Bradstreet rating do not belong. A restaurant that charges $105 for dinner had better treat everyone like a queen.

Additional material from The Joanne Kates Toronto Restaurant Guide (Toronto: Methuen, 1984).