The Black Bull of Yore

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


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.


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.


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.

s0574_fl0018_id49378 edison hotel small

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.


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).

Vintage Toronto Ads: Someday Your Prince Hotel Will Come

Originally published on Torontoist on April 29, 2008.


Toronto Life, February 1975.

Today’s ad offers an ideal 1970s entertainment lineup for upper middle class patrons on business, vacation, or a wild night in the suburbs. The Royal Box offered dinner theatre twice a night. The “merely posh” Le Continental filled the decade’s appetite for romantic meals loaded with soft jazz and slabs of meat (chateaubriand for two, ma belle amie?). Katsura supplied a then-exotic Japanese dining experience. The Brandy Tree offered fancy drinks and a piano bar. The Coffee Garden catered to those for whom none of the above appealed to (or were affordable for) and to those with an appreciation for macrame walls.

Opened on July 10, 1974, this luxury hotel was the first foray by Prince Hotels International into North America and its second outside of its Japanese base (the first was in Guam). In an article published shortly after the hotel opened, the Toronto Star noted that:

A recurring theme of conversation with the hotel executives was a determination from the outset not simply to transplant a Japanese hotel to Canada but to fit it in with the environment (even the dead trees on the property have been left standing) and with Canadians (domestic materials, almost exclusively, Canadian architects, local people comprising almost all the operating staff).

Another way the owners ingratiated themselves to nearby residents was through minor hockey sponsorship a year before the hotel opened. The team won their division and Prince executive Kikuo Yamazaki treated them to a party at his home.

The Prince experienced growing pains, tearing through three operations managers and four PR firms by the time Christmas of ’75 rolled around. By March 1976, the hotel was one of three the Star marked as the emptiest luxury spots in Toronto, along with the Harbour Castle and the Plaza II (now the Marriott in the Hudson’s Bay Centre). The paper felt that apart from a few specialty suites and Katsura, the hotel didn’t provide enough Japanese decor and atmosphere. With its average occupancy hovering under 32%, Prince did not move forward with further North American expansion plans. The site was eventually rebranded as a Westin hotel.

Additional material from the August 24, 1974, December 9, 1975 and March 23, 1976 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: A Sporting Proposition in Muskoka

Originally published on Torontoist on February 26, 2008.

Vintage Ad #500: Skiing to Acapulco Via Huntsville

 Toronto Life, February 1971.

Your reaction to snow depends on the circumstances. The frequency of dumps the city has received so far this year has caused grumbling about blocked streets, dirty mounds higher than the average citizen and many a wish for spring to speed up its arrival. Conversely, as long as the roads outside the city are passable, lovebirds, families and outdoor enthusiasts looking for an escape from the city have headed up to Muskoka resorts like Hidden Valley to enjoy activities made possible by the white stuff.

Perhaps the gala après-ski events offered up sweater-clad singers for the swinging crowd and exciting new cocktail creations from the bar. It is unknown if the children’s events included choreographed snowball fights, piñata smashing (to tie in with the Acapulco promotion) and lessons on how to attract ski bunnies.

Today’s featured resort’s chain affiliations have varied over the years, with Holiday Inn one of the longest-lasting. Note the use of the chain’s classic “Great Sign” logo, a North American roadside icon through the early 1980s.


gm 1968-12-12 hidden valley opening rates

A sampling of skiing options advertised in the classified section of the December 12, 1968 edition of the Globe and Mail. We’re kind of curious about what the “total après-ski entertainment” at Hidden Valley entailed.

Globe and Mail, February 21, 1969.

gm 1969-12-18 hidden valley photo essay
Globe and Mail, December 18, 1969. Click on image for larger version.

My family stayed at Hidden Valley one summer during the mid-1990s, while my sister attended a jazz camp at Lake Manitouwabing. By that point the hotel was a Best Western, and the restaurant was a Golden Griddle whose menu proudly boasted all the supermarket brands it served (let’s just say I was never thrilled the few times I ever ate at GGs). Little would I have suspected at the time that one of the instructors at the camp would someday be my father-in-law, and that my future partner-in-crime may have been hanging around the campsite.

Vintage Toronto Ads: The Hotel Toronto Deserves

Originally published on Torontoist on August 9, 2007.


Source: Time, April 24, 1972.

All the city deserves is another high-end hotel?

Continuing Torontoist’s periodic look at downtown’s early 1970s hotel boom, it’s time to turn north to Yorkville. During the latter half of the previous decade, developments such as the Hyatt Regency and Hazelton Lanes, along with a growing number of high-end boutiques, began to erase the neighbourhood’s image as the home of coffeehouses and bohemians. One might not have been able to catch as many musical acts in the neighbourhood as before, but visiting businessmen were probably more dazzled by the spectacular meeting rooms and other thoughtful extras.

Hyatt eventually turned its attention across Avenue with the Park Hyatt, with the Regency becoming the Four Seasons.

UPDATE: Over time, the Four Seasons became known as a celebrity hub, especially when TIFF rolled around, which I learned the hard way one year when I was nearly run over by a mob of fans chasing a glimpse of some movie star. After the hotel closed in 2012, part of the site was demolished, while the rest was converted to condos. A new Four Seasons hotel opened at Bay and Yorkville.