Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on August 20, 2011.
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.
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.
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.”
Globe 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
Globe and Mail, May 15, 1957.
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”
“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.
Toronto Star, June 16, 1970.
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.