How The Sheraton Centre In Toronto Was Built

Note: This article is the second piece in a two-part series. The first can be found here.

In the 1960s, Toronto had a big question to address: “What would replace the commercial section across The New City Hall?” What followed was action to remove the Queen Street shops between Bay and York Streets and replace them with a complementary project worthy of the new civic centre.

The Expropriation Question

As Toronto entered the 1960s, progress on the Queen Street question seemed slow. In October 1960, there were reports that demolition would begin in the autumn of 1961 or spring of 1962 on the “seedy” south side. The Planning Board was preparing an invitation to attract private developers to redo the site. However, in May 1962, this draft invitation was presented to city council for approval. City Council now had the estimate down to $6,250,000 to buy the properties, but the The Globe and Mail anticipated difficult negotiations with property owners, particularly with the Municipal Hotel and Casino Theatre, who where the largest land owners on the block. The city approved a motion to start expropriating properties, but it was unclear whether this was a path to be taken.

Queen Street West, 1963.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

“The Commercial Slum Across City Hall”, 1964.
Source: Toronto Star Archives.

For the Municipal Hotel, owner Arthur Mintz was not going along with city plans to redevelop his property. He had his own project: a three million dollar, 14-storey office tower to replace the hotel. Mintz’ hotel was key in building an office tower at Queen and Bay, but the owner was not going to sell at even a reasonable price to a developer, instead opting to go at it alone. A by-law was passed indicating that whatever new development went through on Queen, the ends of the strip would have towers while the middle would be lower so not to “spoil the view” of the new city hall. The holdup? Owners of these central lots were unwilling to sell. The Daily Star’s editorial section and others advocated for expropriation.

“The Commercial Slum Across City Hall”, 1964.
Source: Toronto Star Archives.

Redevelopment

On August 12, 1964, Toronto City Council voted 17-4 to expropriate most of the block bounded by Queen, Richmond, Bay, and York Streets. Mayor Phillip Givens, a pro-development politician, was a large proponent of the expropriation option and the redevelopment of Queen Street as a whole. It was the first time in Toronto history in which the city opted to expropriate land to sell to private interests rather than execute a public project. Development Commissioner Walter Manthorpe warned that renewal was still another 10 years away with steps needing to be taken to take seek Ontario Municipal Board approval for the expropriation, take possession of the properties, demolish them, sell to developers, and come up with a redevelopment plan for the province’s approval. Proposals started to come in which would the potential form the site and Queen Street in general would take, including an interesting plan which would see a tunnel under Queen and the surface turned into a pedestrian mall between Yonge and University.

Controller Herbert Orliffe’s Plan for Queen Street, 1964.
Source: Toronto Star Archives

1964 South side of Queen Street West.
Union Hotel at 71-73 Queen St. W., the Broadway Theatre at 75, Harry’s Men’s Shop at 79, the Frankel Building at 81, the Toronto Labour Book Store at 81A.
Lawrence Credit Jewellers at 83, the Lantern Cafe at 85, and the Festival Cinema at 87-95. The Festival was known as the Casino and the Civic Square Theatre.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

Queen Street Redevelopment Plan, 1964.
Source: Toronto Star Archives

Much like the civic centre on the north side of Queen, the city decided to hold a design competition for the block leftover by the soon-to-be expropriated and demolished shops. The eastern end of the block would not be part of the project. In November 1964, Mintz sold the Municipal Hotel to a private developer, Reuben Dennis. The other properties included the Victory Building on Richmond St., the Temple and Dominion Bank Buildings on Bay St., and the Hamilton Trust property on Queen Street, the latter of which suffered a fire in 1963 and which Dennis also bought.

Givens’ View Across Queen Street, 1965.
Source: Toronto Star Archives

69-73 Queen Street West, 1965. A vacant building and the east side of the Union House. The Victory Building on Richmond Street West is visible behind the empty Queen Street West demolition site.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

On September 13, 1965, the new City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square was revealed to Torontonians. The winning space-aged design by Finnish architect Viljo Revell consisted of two curved towers of differing heights, a central ‘oyster’ housing the council chamber, and a large open space with a wading pool, arches, public art, and a podium.

105-115 Queen Street West, showing Barney’s Furniture Resales, S. Simonsky Ltd. (vacant), Showbar Good Food, Toronto Trading Mart, Henry & Co. Jewellers, and vacant commercial space, 1965.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

South side of Queen Street, 1965.
1. 40-foot-high bank building at Bay and Queen Sts;
2. An office building of 29 to 31 storeys at Bay and Richmond.
3. Next to the bank another office of 21 to 23 floors.
4. An arcade no more than 10 storeys tall containing night-clubs restaurants and shops.
5. 35-storey convention hotel.
Source: Toronto Public Library

Across the street, there were some empty storefronts and vacant lots. For the shops that remained, there were ‘expropriation sale’ signs. By the next year, most of the block was razed to the ground and replaced by a level surface of sod and sidewalk.

Queen Street Demolition, 1965.
Source: Globe and Mail Archives

Queen Street West site, 1968.
Source: Toronto Public Library.

Aerial image of Queen Street West, 1969.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

In 1968, a mini-saga began in who would receive the rights to redevelop the property, which council was to rent out to the winning developer for 99 years. In April 1968, City Council approved a proposal which would see Third Generation Realty Limited build a $50-million hotel-convention centre on the three-and-a-half acre property. However, the Finance Commissioner determined Third Generation did not have the financial proof to back its proposal. In July, Council voted again, this time approving a $34-million scheme by Inn on the Park-Four Seasons, the other bidder in the April vote. During the event, an alderman was even accused of accepting a bribe, which he denied. In 1969, construction began on the 43-storey, 1,400-room hotel, which would become the Four Seasons-Sheraton Hotel. John B. Parkin Associates, who worked on City Hall, designed the complex.

Four Seasons Hotel Construction, 1969.
Source: Globe and Mail Archives.

Excavation for Sheraton Centre, Queen west of Bay looking south, 1972.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

Site of the Sheraton Four Seasons, 1970s.
Source: Toronto Public Library.

Welcome to the Sheraton-Four Seasons Hotel

In 1972, the Sheraton-Four Seasons Hotel opened (the ‘Four Seasons’ would be dropped in 1976 as the hotel pulled out of the venture), the culmination of a 15-year saga to renew the Queen Street West strip across Toronto’s new municipal hub. Carrying the memorable street address ‘123 Queen West’, it was the second largest hotel in Toronto at the time of opening behind only the iconic Royal York Hotel (it was surpassed by the Chelsea Delta which opened only a few years later).

Four Season Sheraton Hotel Opening, 1972.
Source: Toronto Star Archives

Conforming with the by-law from a decade earlier, the main hotel tower is situated off to the side of the city hall and square towards York Street, offering an unobstructed vista. The eastern side of the block saw the erection of a two-storey TD bank branch and the Queen-Bay Centre, consisting of the 25-storey Thomson Building and the Munich Re Centre, opening in 1972 and 1973 respectively. The latter building opened on the site of the demolished Temple Building, whose fragments are found at the Guild Inn Park.

In 2022, at fifty years old, the Sheraton Centre is a unique modernist, Brutalist construction. Its central area forms an atrium of waterfall gardens designed by J. Austin Floyd, the famed landscape architect who also left his footprint at the famed yet now lost Inn on the Park hotel at Leslie Street and Eglinton Avenue.

View of south side of Queen Street West from Bay Street, 1983.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.

On the Queen Street mega-hotel, architect Michael McLelland wrote how “metropolitan structures like the Sheraton Centre are an integral part of the downtown morphology”. Its views of the complex across the street, which was the catalyst of its construction, are unparalleled in Toronto.

View from the Thomson Building, 1981.
Source: Toronto Public Library

The Sheraton Centre and Toronto City Hall are fine examples of Toronto as a city made and re-made. They mark the ‘creative destruction’ of the post-war years. The south side of Queen Street between Bay and York was an interesting mix of establishments, many with varying stories and origins. The condemning of the strip as a ‘commercial slum’ and its subsequent replacement offers a complicated takeaway. On the one hand, the physical erasure has understandably hidden those histories from collective consciousness; on the other, the emergence of the Sheraton Centre has offered Toronto a marvel in itself. For better or worse, Toronto was growing up after World War II — in area, age, building heights, and architectural styles. The construction of the Sheraton Centre was in itself a microcosm of this period of transformation — and the representative of the expendability of centrally-located, culturally- and socially-colourful sectors like this one.

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The ‘Commercial Slum’ That Once Stood Across Toronto City Hall

Note: This article is the first piece in a two-part series. The second article can be found here.

When Toronto’s New City Hall and Square opened in 1965, there was a problem. While Ontario’s Capital was looking to move into a new era, the commercial strip across the new civic centre did not fit into those plans for modernization.

“Redevelopment Area” or “Commercial Slum”?

In 1958, Toronto was in the midst of an international design competition to construct a new city hall and square. The winning entry had not yet been chosen, but the jury — a panel of architects and town planners — had a particular recommendation. For the new landmark to be better situated, Toronto needed to redevelop the downtown area all around the site to better complement it, including the street directly opposing the civic centre. They proposed:

“City action to replace the unworthy buildings on Queen St., between Bay and York Sts., with a continuous facade, not over 90 feet high, with an open arcade under the building for the whole length.”

The Globe and Mail, May 15, 1958

The Globe and Mail agreed with the report of the jurors, citing “it would be a disgrace to leave a stick of it standing as a backdrop to the expensive – and, we hope, beautiful – Civic Square.”

Site of Toronto City Hall, 1957.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

In September, Toronto Planning Board was instructed by the Board of Control to make proposals on the Queen St. frontage. The board recommended the city buy the site and then sell or lease it to a developer. The Globe and Mail also called the south side “a hodge-podge of small, old buildings in various states of repair” and the shops “remain as reminders of that former area, bearing little relation to present surroundings.” The land was divided into separately owned lots and it was estimated $7,000,000 would be needed to buy them.

On October 27, 1958, the city passed a bylaw formally calling the strip a ‘redevelopment area’ and “giving the city expropriation powers over all but one of the properties.” The Toronto Daily Star was blunter in its characterization and advocacy of the fate of Queen Street West:

“Nearly everyone agrees that our handsome new city hall – when and if it is built – should not have to tolerate a commercial slum in front of it. And Queen St. between York and Bay is a tawdry hodge-podge”

Toronto Daily Star, October 31, 1958
Aerial Image of Queen Street West, York to Bay Streets, 1959.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

The Daily Star and its editorial page in particular were very aggressive in their advocacy. It quite frequently enployed the phrase ‘commercial slum’ in the 1960s when reporting about the state of the site, including a December 1962 ‘Special Report’ boldly entitled “Our New City Hall Will Face a SLUM”:

“The rising towers of the new city hall look across Queen St. W. to a shabby vista of beer parlors, pawnshops, second-hand stores, a closed-down burlesque house.”

Toronto Daily Star, December 29, 1962

Still, the conservative outlet was interestingly weary of using public power to transfer property from private hands to private hands, i.e. the government moving shops from smaller, independent owners to larger, independent developers.

Whether the Queen Street row was euphemized as a ‘redevelopment area’ or disparaged as a ‘commercial slum’, urban renewal and slum clearance were certainly in the psyches and goals of governments of all levels in Canada and the United States of America for several decades in the 20th century. For Toronto, several lower-class neighbourhoods with ‘uneconomic uses’ were identified as requiring clearance and renewal. Regent Park became the first social housing project in Canada in 1947. The southern half of The Ward itself was voted to be expropriated in 1946 for the new city hall and square project, an area centred around Elizabeth Street once known as the first Chinatown in Toronto; the dense “slum” as a whole had calls to be rebuilt going back to the 1910s.

Toronto’s Vanishing China Town, 1957.
Source: Globe and Mail Archives

At work was the need to also rejuvenate Toronto’s historic downtown retail districts. Historian Daniel Ross wrote the city created its “pro-development Plan for Downtown Toronto” in 1963 with Yonge Street as a central part. After World War II, the rise of the automobile and urban sprawl impacted the central core, “emptying out” of its historical commercial districts as the suburbs developed their own retail and residential nexuses. A large part of the downtown plan was the Timothy Eaton Company’s Project Viking. First conceived in 1958, it was an endeavour which would reimagine the commercial empire’s ageing downtown holdings of mainly early 20th century warehouses as a post-war shopping centre. The project would become The Eaton Centre.

Eaton Centre Redevelopment Site, 1967.
Source: Toronto Public Library

The Queen Street West Strip in History

In the early 20th century, the near three hundred-metre stretch of Queen between Bay and York Streets was characterized by hotels, restaurants, second-hand goods shops, barbers, butchers, jewelers, pawnbrokers, billiard shops, grocers, and fruit shops. Located on the southern edge of The Ward, a working-class immigrant enclave in the heart of Toronto, it also had East European Jewish and East Asian owned and ran-enterprises, such as restaurants, shops, and clubs.

Might’s Greater Toronto City Directory, 1903
Source: Toronto Public Library
Goad’s Fire Insurance Map, 1913.
Source: Goad’s Toronto
Queen Street West, south side, looking east from York Street, 1926.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

First, the 1920 Toronto City Directory offers an interesting snapshot of the prominence and variety of Chinese businesses and organizations on the street. In this small zone, there were six Chinese restaurants (sadly all un-named as per the style of the directories in this period) and two tea-related businesses. Two organizations were on the street: The Chinese National League and The Chinese Reform Association. There was also a gentleman’s furnishings shop and possibly a photography shop. Yet Chong Lung Co. is referenced at 117 Queen, although it is unclear what type of dealings it entailed.

Might’s Greater Toronto City Directory, 1920.
Source: Toronto Public Library

105 Queen Street West was a curious address in 1926. The city directory for the year divides the building into 105 — Tighe Lee, billiards — and 105 1/2 — Chinese National League. A picture from the year shows a sign above the door possibly reading “Pool Room”. The sign above that is written in Chinese with an illegible English caption underneath, roughly translating to “Kuomintang Office” or “Republic of Taiwan Political Party”. The smaller third sign on the third floor roughly translated to “World Mirror”, an arts society set up by the Kuomintang.

113 Queen Street West was an intriguing case in that at different points it hosted a Chinese restaurant, the Jewish Daily Eagle, and the Union Ticket Office. In the 1910s, the address was listed in the city directories as hosting a Louis Gurofsky, Joseph Gurofsky, and Samuel Gurofsky at differing times. They were also characterized as ‘insurance agents’. By the 1920s, it was listed as The Union Ticket Office — a steamship ticket business.

The Union Ticket Office, 1920.
Source: Ontario Jewish Archives

Steamship ticket agents were common professions for Jewish-Torontonians and there were several competing businesses in The Ward. The enterprises played a role in the immigration process for Jews abroad. Historian Jack Lipinsky wrote “steamship agents, as their name indicates, originally concentrated on issuing boat and train ticks, mostly to immigrants.” Agents were landsmanschaften and “remittance agents” who worked with the Jewish Immigration Aid Services to bring Jews to Toronto. Lipinski notes that some agents were “dishonest” and defrauded prospective immigrants, including a David Gurofsky. It is unclear if this is the same or related Gurofsky(s) who operated at 113 Queen Street, but the damage done to the industry by him was enormous. The director of Canada’s Immigration Branch, Frederick Charles Blair, was “permanently suspicious” of the Jewish community because of Gurofsky’s dealings, a development which would later impact fleeing European Jews in the 1930s and 1940s.

Gurofsky’s Shipping Office, 1920.
Source: Toronto Star Archives

The Gurofsky office seemed to play roles in the First World War. In 1916, the steamship office was responsible for enlisting “Hebrews”. The Globe reported it expected “at least fifty men” in Toronto to sign up for the great war and that over 1,100 had already joined across Canada. In 1917, Louis Gurofsky, at the delegation of the Russian consul, was tasked with “rounding up” prominent Russian Torontonians to return to their home country at the request of the new Russian Provisional Government who were “honeycombing” for “former friends — revolutionists and socialists” who had left Russia. Finally, The Daily Star reported in July 1917, a Mischa Bedler of 113 Queen Street West, a 24-year-old Jewish inventor handed over “a very valuable discovery in wireless telegraphy” to the Canadian government and was promoted to a lieutenant and instructor in the Royal Flying Corps.

Canadian Foreign Exchange Corporation, 1920.
Source: Globe and Mail Archives

Some of the businesses were mainstays on Queen Street for much of the 20th century. Simon Simonsky (occasionally spelt ‘Simonski’), a pawnbroker, was in business since at least the 1890s, settling at 121 Queen and then 107 Queen, where he would stay for at least sixty years. Historian Ellen Scheinberg wrote the family may have been peddlers originally: wandering street salesmen pushing carts of goods. A common professional trajectory of peddlers was to raise enough capital to open a shop, which Simonsky seemed to accomplish. According to a 1954 obituary for Mrs Annie Simonsky, the Simonskys were a “family long active in Jewish communal circles in Toronto”. By 1964, with forced closure looming, the shop moved to 115 York Street.

S. Simonsky and Henry & Co, 1964.
Source: Toronto Public Library

Harry Stein, a Russian watchmaker, landed on the Queen Street strip in 1932 at a shop at 63 Queen named Henry & Co (in the city directories, it was originally listed as ‘Harry Stein, jeweler’; the business also started as a watch repair shop on Yonge Street in 1909). In 1945, the jewelry business moved to 113 Queen — the former site of Gurofsky’s steamship ticket office. It later added other products and electronics to its offerings, most notably cameras, making it the first Henry’s, as we know it today. Henry’s later resurfaced at other locations, including 119 Church Street near Queen Street East in the 1970s. Henry’s announced in 2022 it would be leaving this location and a condominium is proposed to take its place.

Henry & Co’s 70th Year, 1979.
Source: Toronto Star Archives

Palaces of Sin

Two cinemas also were huge presences on the Queen Street row. The Broadway Theatre at 75 Queen Street West was on the strip since 1919, opening as the Globe Theatre. Historian Doug Taylor wrote the theatre started playing “‘Girlie Shows’ as well as vaudeville and B-movies”. In the 1930s, it was briefly the Roxy and changed to its final name in 1937. In 1935, the manager of Broadway was found murdered in his office; the killing was never solved.

Broadway Theatre, 75 Queen Street West, documenting the vertical over-hanging neon sign and the neon marquee, and the White’s Hotel, east of it, 1933. The theatre marquee advertises the movie “Too Hot For Paris.” The view is looking south-east, showing the south side of Queen Street West.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

71-79 Queen Street West, showing Union House, Broadway Theatre, and Harry’s Men’s Shop, 1965.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

The Casino Theatre at 87 Queen Street West was an “infamous” burlesque house built in 1936, according to Taylor. He pointedly described the movie house: “Throughout the theatre history of Toronto, other than perhaps the Victory Theatre on Spadina, there is no entertainment venue that has elicited as much praise, raunchy stories, condemnation and newspaper coverage as the infamous Casino Theatre.”

The theatre had reputable architects, Kaplan and Sprachman, who were famed for many of Toronto’s beautiful art deco theatres. The owners of The Casino partnered with the owner of the neighbouring Broadway to open the venture. But a foul reputation followed the Casino itself, which “was famous for its raunchy comedians and risqué burlesque” and “decent citizens” called a “sin palace”. In 1961, the Casino was renamed ‘the Festival Theatre’ as a failed attempt to clean up its image. In the final year of its existence, the theatre was playing a Russian Film Festival, perhaps as a means to that end.

Casino Theatre, 87 Queen Street West, documenting the vertical over-hanging neon sign and the neon marquee, 1930s. The theatre marquee advertises the Casino Follies featuring “Beautiful Girls.” The view is looking south-west, showing the south side of Queen Street West.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

89 Queen Street West, showing Festival Theatre, 1965.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

Two hotels — the bar beer parlours referenced by the Star – were (in)famous on the south side of Queen. The Municipal Hotel stood at 67 Queen Street West since at least the late 1890s. The Municipal seemed to have a rowdy reputation throughout its history with fights, arrests, and fires plaguing its life. In 1946, Toronto Police prepared a report on hotels to send to the Ontario Liquor Board and had this to say about the hotel:

“Municipal Hotel, 67 Queen St. W.:

‘The chief complaint against this hotel is thefts from drunks who are permitted to become inebriated on the premises. It is also a rendezvous for prostitutes, and a number of girls have been removed from the premises by the police. This hotel is poorly managed and there is much room for improvement.'”

The Globe and Mail, February 4, 1946
Hotel Municipal at 67 Queen Street West with the City Grill adjacent, 1945.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

Several doors down, at 71 Queen Street West, there were several versions of a hotel at this location since the early 1900s: the Aberdeen Hotel, Lennon’s Hotel, the White’s Hotel, and finally the Union Hotel/House. The Union had a similar seedy reputation to the Municipal. The 1946 report wrote:

“Union Hotel, 71 Queen St. W.:

‘This place appears nothing more than a pickup place for prostitutes, and it is amazing to find how many girls in the downtown area will give their address as the Union Hotel. Plainclothesmen have removed many girls from the premises, and only recently they arrested two teen-agers who had stayed at this hotel three nights with different men each night. A number of girls arrested in this hotel were found to have venereal disease. Improvement by the management in regard to the conduct of this hotel is long overdue.'”

The Globe and Mail, February 4, 1946
The Union Hotel, 1945. The sign of the women’s entrance has been removed.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Interestingly, The Union and Municipal played notable roles in the history of Toronto’s gay community after World War II. Of the 1950s and 1960s, historian Christine Sismondo wrote the bar rooms of both hotels became places where the gay and lesbian communities were patrons, so much that the area around Queen and Bay was known to the groups for “cruising” as “The Corners” or “Queer Street”. The Municipal in particular was “known for its cheap beer by the glass and transient clientele” in this period and “received far more surveillance” than other establishments along higher class lines. It was known to be a “rough” bar, patronized by hustlers and ex-convicts.

Toronto City Directory, 1957.
Toronto Public Library

Given this overall history and characterization, it is easily conceivable why the Queen Street frontage held such little value for Toronto decision-makers. Fire, assault, murder, sex, and more all found homes on the street. The shops and professions themselves were of inconsequential business value, the two theatres were ‘sinful’, and the hotels were cheap establishments with questionable management and clientele. Even including the impressively designed Broadway Theatre, the built form of the street was not of any notable architectural significance. Taken together, the row was simply expendable for a city looking for “progress”.

Two Amazing Rooftop Views of Toronto’s The Ward


In the early 1900s, St. John’s Ward or familiarly just ‘The Ward’ was a dense, immigrant enclave in the central core of the City of Toronto. The neighbourhood was roughly bound by Queen Street, College Street, Yonge Street, and University Avenue, and housed some of the city’s first Black, Jewish, Chinese, Irish, and Italian colonies. Two early 20th-century rooftop photos provide interesting overhead views of the physical makeup of the district.

The first rooftop view was taken in 1920 by iconic Toronto photographer William James from the top of the Alexandra Palace Apartments, formerly located at 184 University Avenue opposite the terminus of Gerrard Street West on the edge of The Ward.

The southeasterly scene below and far beyond the Alexandra Palace Apartments is fascinating. In the foreground is a great visualization of University Avenue’s history as two separate streets. Among the recognizable landmarks are Old City Hall and the T. Eaton Co. factory complex in the background (more on this further down), the Hester How School at centre-left, the Presto-O-Lite factory and the Toronto House of Industry at centre, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, First Baptist Church, and Maclean Publishing Co factories at centre-right. Interspersed is a dense grid of low-rise housing and other structures which ultimately came to define The Ward.

Looking southeast from University Avenue, 1920. Source: City of Toronto Archives. Annotations by Bob Georgiou.

There was another photograph also taken by James from the Alexandra Apartments, this one dated to “circa 1920”. Although generally quite similar, noticeable differences exist between this and the 1920 photo, most visibly that the latter is a much broader view of the same general area of The Ward.

Looking southeast from University Avenue, c 1920. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

While the date of the zoomed-in image is approximate, it almost certainly precedes 1920. The main differences between this and the 1920 photo is the lack of the Prest-O-Lite Factory (built 1917) and the northernmost Eaton’s factories (also built 1917). The most important detail, however, is the Eaton’s Annex building, which appears under construction. The store opened in 1913, which likely dates the image to 1912 or 1913.

The Alexandra Palace Apartments (also simply called the ‘Alexandra Apartments’, ‘The Alexandra Palace’, or ‘The Palace’) was a 7-storey, luxury apartment building constructed in 1904 during Toronto’s first apartment building boom, meaning it was one of the first of its kind in the city. The architect was the prolific George W. Gouinlock, who also designed the Temple Building. Famous residents included tycoon E.P. Taylor and Ontario Hydro founder Sir Adam Beck (the old Ontario Hydro Headquarters was directly north of the apartment). It is said that residents moved into the Palace to retire.

Alexandra Palace Apartments, No. 184-188 University Avenue (erected 1909), 1919. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

In the 1920s, the Palace went from apartment house to apartment hotel with a dining room already in its offerings. In the 1940s, the building was slated to become a nurses’ residence for Sick Children’s Hospital. By the 1950s, the building ceased to be a residence and was heavily remodelled to be a modern office building, losing much of its original exterior features. In 1968, the Alexandra Apartments building was demolished.

Postcard of The Alexandra, Queen’s Park Avenue, Toronto, Canada’s Finest Apartment House, 1910. Source: Toronto Public Library.
Alexandra Apartments, University Avenue, west side, between Elm & Orde Streets, 1954. Source: Toronto Public Library.

The second rooftop photograph comes from the top of an Eaton’s factory tower once located adjacent to the Church of the Holy Trinity. Like the Alexandra Apartments picture, it was taken by William James. It is dated “circa 1910.”

The view is looking northwesterly over The Ward and has several common landmarks with the 1920 Alexandra Apartments image, such as Toronto House of Industry, the Hester How School, and the Grace Church. In the foreground along Bay Street (at the time called Terauley Street) and Dundas Street (Agnes Street) are the Terauley Street Synagogue, the Lyric Yiddish Theatre, and Police Station #2 (which appears to have officers in its yard). As with The Palace image, there are also the tightly packed streets of tiny residences, many undoubtedly housing men and women who were employed by Eaton’s. Finally, the distinctive rooflines of Queen’s Park and Toronto General Hospital loom far in the distance (with the Alexandra Apartments somewhere nearby).

Looking north from top of Eaton’s factory, c 1910. Source: City of Toronto Archives. Annotations by Bob Georgiou.

The Eaton’s factory itself where James captured the image was a 12-storey structure located adjacent to the Church of The Holy Trinity. It was built around 1910 in a period when the Eaton’s footprint in the area expanded from a single store at 190 Yonge Street in 1883 to encompass at least half the block between Yonge, Bay, Queen and Dundas Streets by 1920. The factory was demolished in the 1970s when other Eaton’s factories and warehouses were razed in part to make way for the Eaton Centre (The Eaton’s Annex store referenced earlier was destroyed by fire in 1977).

T. Eaton Company factory from Louisa Street, 1910. Source: City of Toronto Archives.
The Eaton’s store, the Eaton’s Annex, mail order facilities and factories in Toronto, at Yonge and Queen Streets, in 1920. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Eaton’s image is dated “circa 1910”, which is likely accurate as it is very comparable to the “circa 1920, but likely 1912-3” Alexandra Apartments photo. The Prest-O-Lite factory does not appear in the image, thus 1910-1917 is a fair timeframe.

T. Eaton factory from Louisa Street, c 1920. Note the addition of the north tower (1920). Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Today, if the two William James rooftop photos were recreated, they would be taken from Mount Sanai Hospital and the Bell Trinity Square office building, respectively. Ironically, the Alexandra Apartments and the Eaton’s factory were both constructed and demolished in similar periods: the 1900s to 1910s and 1960s to 1970s. The dwellings, houses of worship, and businesses of The Ward also largely disappeared by the 1950s as lands were expropriated for various projects. The district continued to change since then until the present-day, making these century-old views a far cry to today’s world.

A modern view of the area formerly known as The Ward, 2021. The sites of The Alexandra Apartments and Eaton’s factory are circled. Source: Google Maps.

“The Suppression of Intemperance”: 19th Century Coffee Houses in Toronto

Coffee houses are ubiquitous places in Toronto. Tim Horton’s, McCafes, Starbucks, Aroma Espresso Bars, and independent coffee shops seemingly mark every block in its diverse neighbourhoods. While Toronto is in an exciting era of artisanal coffee shops, the locales of the 19th century paint a much different picture in the drink’s social consumption.

Toronto’s First “Coffee Houses”

The first establishment in Toronto to call itself a coffee house was the “Toronto Coffee House”. It was opened in 1801 by William Cooper on the east side of Jarvis Street between King Street and Yonge Street near today’s St. Lawrence Market. Despite the name, historian Chris Bateman writes Cooper’s two-storey establishment was more a tavern than a café, which served liquor, ale, and some food. The name was meant to inspire respectability, drawing on the influence of similarly-named establishments in Great Britain. It also hosted an inn and general store. The coffee house was sold five years after it opened.

In the 1830s, “The (New) British Coffee House” opened in the Chewitt Building at the southeast corner of King Street and York Street. Completed in 1835, the structure was considered Toronto’s first office block. Its ground floor had the Coffee House, which was rented by a Mr. Keating and followed the British tradition in offering a meeting place for influential people. Again, this “Coffee House” likely resembled an establishment serving ale in the British way more than the modern conceptualization of an espresso bar type establishment. 

Chewitt Building, 1835. Source: Toronto Public Library.

In the 1837 directory, the British Coffee House was listed as a “Principal Hotel” as owned by John Cotter. John Grantham’s “Old British Coffee-House” on Front Street was also listed in the category. According to John Ross Robertson, The British Coffee House was closed in 1837 following its role in the meeting of individuals of the rebellion of that year and then seized by the government and used as barracks. By 1843, the Coffee House was listed as a boarding house. By 1850, it had the added moniker of “Club House”, which Robertson stated later developed into today’s “Toronto Club”. The building was torn down for the luxurious Rossin House Hotel in 1862; an office block stands in both their places today.

The City of Toronto and the Home District commercial directory and register with almanack and calendar for 1837. Source: Toronto Public Library.

“Substitutes to Drinking Saloons”

By the mid-19th century, coffee was a known and consumed commodity, albeit there was more to be learned. There seemed to have been some inconsistencies on how the drink was prepared, and apparently a farmer in Scarboro was trying to grow its own specimen of coffee which was conducive to the Canadian climate.

“Pekin Tea Market”, The Globe, November 8, 1858. Source: Globe and Mail Archives.
“Reasons Why Coffee Is So Seldom Well Made”, The Globe, March 20, 1851. Source: Globe and Mail Archives.

But finding coffee in a social setting seemed to have been a rare occurrence. In 1860, a reader of The Globe — an Alexander Somerville — lamented the lack of places for a stranger to find a cup of coffee for a fair price. He found “but one place where a passing stranger can obtain small refreshments, such as one or two cups of coffee at a fair price, at any hour in the day.” This was in Montreal for six-pence. Somerville called on the ‘Sons of Temperance’ to make this happen.

In the late 1870s, the temperance movement used the caffeinated beverage to steer people – mostly men – away from the evils of alcohol. It employed eateries to do so. One of the first coffee houses to open with this purpose in January 1878 was the Albert Street Coffee Room. It was based on the ‘coffee taverns’ and ‘coffee palaces’ established in London and other large global cities.

Albert Coffee Rooms in the City Directory 1879. Source: Toronto Public Library

The Albert Coffee Room at 11-13 Albert Street opened in January 1878, and was funded by social reformer and future Toronto mayor W.H. Howland. It was described as “plainly though nicely fitted up” and containing “the bar, or public room, the billiard room, and the reading room”. All were welcome in the public room where coffee, tea, cocoa, or milk were served “with sandwiches, buns, etc, at certain low yet remunerative prices”. Irish stew was a noted dish too. The other two rooms operated with a small fee and subscription. Profane language and intoxicating liquors were forbidden, although smoking was allowed. Its existence was short-lived, however; by 1881, the Albert Coffee Room closed for unknown reasons.

“Our Coffee Room” at 115-117 York Street at Boulton Street (now Pearl Street) opened in 1879. Its owner was S G Noblett. The establishment was described by a visitor as having a billiard table on the ground floor, all the daily city newspapers downstairs, and a large reading room with a valuable collection of books upstairs. All services are free for visitors, except for the billiard table which is available for “the usual price”. The visitor also boasted the “convenience of being able at any moment to supply one with a cup of hot tea or coffee alone for three cents, or with a buttered roll for five cents”.

Toronto directory for 1879. This was the first year coffee houses were listed in directories. Source: Toronto Public Library.
Toronto directory for 1881. A number of other coffee houses sprang up in Toronto after the success of Our Coffee Room, although possibly not affiliated with the temperance movement. Source: Toronto Public Library.

In the following years, a number of changes came to Our Coffee Room. In 1883, it took on the name of its proprietor and seemingly upgraded from a coffee room to a coffee house. Before it closed in 1886, it was listed as a eating house, abandoning the caffeinated drink altogether in its name.

Toronto directory for 1883. Source: Toronto Public Library.

The impact of these two coffee houses were reported by 1879. In a Globe article highlighting the “Sights of Toronto”, Temperance Coffee-Houses were presented as flourishing establishments with the goals of providing “places of entertainment and substitutes for drinking saloons, where the evil associations of the saloons are absent, and where….coffee and other mild drinks, with lunches ma be obtained with moderate prices”. Both “Albert Street Coffee Room” and “Our Coffee Rooms” were named.

Around this time, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union also operated a coffee house beginning in 1877 on Queen Street West near the Occident Hall at Bathurst Street. The Globe noted that the venture depleted the treasury, and by 1880 it was sold. Later in the decade, the Temperance Union had talks of resurrecting the idea, but it is unclear if it came to fruition.

The Toronto Coffee House Association

The impetus behind the Toronto Coffee House Association may have started in December 1878 meeting of the “Coffee House Committee”. It was held at Shaftesbury Hall on Queen Street at James Street, which was the headquarters of the Young Men’s Christian Association from 1873 to 1887. The committee resolved to make open two coffee houses: one in St. John’s Ward arranged by Howland and others, and another near St. Lawrence Market to accommodate farmers and others in the neighbourhood.

In 1881, the temperance movement formally organized a scheme of coffee houses. In May, there was a “well-attended meeting of parties interested in the prevention and suppression of intemperance” at Shaftesbury Hall. The Committee on Coffee-Houses recommended the formation of a joint stock company and 5,000 shares be issued at once at one dollar per share. The object of the company was “to provide public houses of refreshment and entertainment without intoxicating drink.” The committee highlighted that there were 196 licensed taverns and unknown number of unlicensed places that provided the only places of rest and refreshment. It also targeted working populations, particular men employed in the railways, port, and streetcars, and a separate entrance and room for women. The following passage from The Globe summarizes this philanthropic yet investable endeavour:

“We cannot close our report without stating that, while we wish to launch this Company entirely upoin its merits as a business enterprise, our aim is to benefit the city and promote the cause of temperance, and that we desire he help of all who have at heart the true welfare of our citizens in this good work.”

“Suppression of Intemperance – Meeting in Shaftesbury Hall Yesterday Afternoon – Report on Coffee Houses,” The Globe, May 17, 1881

The organization was inspired by coffee houses in Liverpool run by the British Workman Public House Company, which in the year prior were said to have “a decrease of 1500 in cases of drunkenness.” The goals were to have a collection of strategically located coffee houses targeted towards working men. The capital of the Company was 40 thousand pounds divided in one pound shares. It was reportedly paying out at 14 per cent.

In the fall of 1881, the Toronto Coffee House Association took further steps to organize. It opened a booth at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition where it sold tea, coffee, and other temperance drinks and plain refreshments. It also met to elect a permanent board and decide the location of the coffee houses. They would be located “at the Market-square, another at the corner of Bay and Front streets, and the third in the vicinity of Brock-street.” A meeting of the Society for the Prevent and Suppression of Intolerance urged the participation of society members, particularly in canvassing new members and getting subscriptions. It was also reported that the Coffee House Association had done a number of research into coffee houses in Britain and United States, and interestingly, many people who had taken stock in the organization has never engaged in the temperance cause before.

On November 15, 1881, the first annual meeting of the Toronto Coffee House Association was held at the Confederation Life Association Building. Lieutenant Governor Gzowski served as Chairman for the meeting and was also elected President of the Board of Directors (the Association was operating on a Provisional Board prior to the meeting). It was reported the success of the Liverpool coffee house scheme and that the event at the Exhibition grounds showed that the group could sell a cup of coffee and sandwich for five cents and make a profit.

“Meetings to be Held”, The Globe, November 4, 1881. Source: Globe and Mail Archives.

St. Lawrence and Shaftesbury Coffee Houses

In February 1882, the Toronto Coffee House Association’s inaugurated its first coffee house, the St. Lawrence Coffee House. It was located in the former Small’s Hotel on Jarvis Street at East Market Square. By year’s end, the St. Lawrence Coffee House moved from Jarvis Street to 118 King Street East next to St. James Cathedral, which was a better location.

The first two locations of the St. Lawrence Coffee House in Goad’s Insurance Plan of the City of Toronto, 1889. Source: Goad’s Atlas of the City of Toronto.

The next location to open was across the street from Shaftesbury Hall itself at 23 Queen Street West at James Street. Following the initial plans for coffee house locations, it was at the southern edge of St. John’s Ward, also known as just The Ward – a dense, immigrant enclave, looked upon unfavorably during its time by Toronto’s mainstream establishment for its slum conditions and immoral happenings. Like the St. Lawrence Coffee House at 118 King Street, its capacity was 200 patrons. Interestingly, in March 1889, a man fell through Shaftesbury Coffee House’s coal shoot and successfully sued the Toronto Coffee House Association.

Shaftesbury Hall. Source: Canadian Illustrated News, November 23, 1872.
The locations of the Shaftesbury Coffee House, Shaftesbury Hall, and Albert Coffee Room (closed 1881) in Goad’s Insurance Plan of the City of Toronto, 1889. Source: Goad’s Atlas of the City of Toronto.

In the first annual meeting of the Toronto Coffee House Association, both coffee houses were reported philanthropical and financial successes in their first year. At the second annual meeting of the organization, it was reported that receipts from the year were almost three times as large as the previous year — a total net profit of $1,131.22.

Temperance journals regularly highlighted the successes of the Toronto Coffee House Association. Source: The Coffee Public-House News and Temperance Hotel Journal, October 1, 1886.

In August 1895, The Globe toured through the King Street coffee house, which by 1893 moved from 118 King Street East to a building fronted at 78-80 King Street East and the adjoined 15 Court Street behind it. No reason was given for the move, although the increase in floor space is a possibility. The kitchen, broiling room, and bakery were located on the top floor. On the ground level is the lunch counter and a large, bright and airy general dining hall, where one could get a full-course meal of “two kinds of soup, fish, or one of two meats, with potatoes and vegetables, dessert pudding or pie, coffee, tea or milk” for 20 cents (and an “extra selection” for ten cents more. The next floor was the ladies and gentlemen’s dining room and a large waiting-room. A large lavatory for women flanked the waiting-room with the lower level housing the men’s lavatory. The Globe described the entire establishment as clean and well-ventilated.

Citizens of Toronto can with every confidence their friends to either Shaftesbury Coffee House, 23 Queen Street West; or to the St. Lawrence Coffee House, 78-80 King stret east, and have no fear of having to apologize for any dish served. They are equal to any of this class to be found on the continent. Visitors to the fair should make a note of where these two places are to be found.”

“The Toronto Coffee House Association” The Globe, August 31, 1895.
King St west from Church St, 1927. 78-80 King Street East was just out of the frame on the right side in the Wellington Buildings. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

This description of the St. Lawrence Coffee House is notable for the absence of any reference of the temperance. The purpose seems to promote the establishment as a tourist places for the visitors of The Canadian National Exhibition. Even though it refers to the Coffee House Association’s “Famous Coffee”, the menu likens it to a regular eating establishment.

“Coffee House Specials” The Evening Star, May 29, 1897. The Court Street location of the St. Lawrence Coffee House was the third site. Source: Toronto Star Archives.

There are other factoids that support the coffee house as in the same category as restaurants. In 1883, the city directories added “See Eating Houses” under the listings for Coffee Houses; in 1890s, coffee houses were not listed at all and enterprises were listed under “restaurants”. In 1886, The Globe ran an article which stated the main objective of coffee houses was not to provide cheap meals; rather, it was supposed to be an alternative to taverns without the temptation. It boldly asserted:

“They are eating houses, nothing more, nothing less. This is good so as as it goes, but this, we repeat, was not the great and chief idea dwelt upn, when these establishments were projected…

…If these establishments were simply private ventures, we should of course allow no criticisms of their merits or demerits in our columns.”

“Our Coffee Houses” The Globe, April 16, 1886.

By 1899, the Toronto Coffee House Association dissolved and sold the coffee houses. Although the circumstances of the dissolution and sale are scarce, the St. Lawrence Coffee House did not operate again. All three sites of the St. Lawrence location now house modern buildings. Shaftesbury Hall was demolished shortly after for shops which eventually became part of the Eaton’s store complex and later shopping mall. Interestingly, Shaftesbury Coffee House moved to 13-15 Richmond Street West in 1900, under Hayward & Co. Proprietors. It closed once more by 1908 for good.

The Canadian Temperance League

In 1890, several new coffee houses entered the scene alongside The Coffee House Association under the Canadian Temperance League banner, which organized two years before. One opened at Edward and Terauley (Bay) Streets, and was described as having a shop and four rooms. It was open 6am to 10pm Monday to Saturday and sold coffee for two cents and sandwiches for five cents.

In only a year, a new location was needed, possibly as the old one was inadequate in size. The Temperance League Coffee House Company opened another coffee house at Elm and Terauley Streets in 1891, which was aimed at ‘workingmen’. Like Shafesbury Hall, both coffee houses were The Ward – this time in the centre of the district. The scheme was similar to the Toronto Coffee House Association with stocks sold at five dollars a piece. The Temperance League Coffee House Association and Canadian Temperance League were connected in that members of the former had to be members of the latter organization. The Canadian Temperance League held events at the Elm Street coffee house, like a February 1893 concert and a June 1894 meeting supporting Mr. O.A. Howland’s candidature in South Toronto.

“Workingmen’s Coffee House” The Globe, November 28, 1891. Source: Globe and Mail Archives.

The coffee houses looked to have been short-lived ventures, however. The Canadian Temperance League Coffee House at 76 Edward Street closed by 1894. The Toronto Coffee Association Coffee House at 55 Elm Street closed by 1895. The building went on to house Dr. John G.C. Adams, the father of modern public dentistry from 1897-1899.

55 Elm Street, 2021. Source: Google Maps.

The end of temperance coffee houses

The final years of the 1890s saw some additional calls for an alternative to liquor taverns, which were backed by Bishop Sullivan, rector of St. James Cathedral. The bishop passed away in early 1899, however, and nothing ever came of the new scheme. There were even reports to open new coffee houses in first decade of the 1900s.

Although the temperance movement continued into the 20th century and of course influencing the push for prohibition in Toronto, the heyday of coffee houses of the 1880s and 1890s had passed. It is unclear whether the coffee houses of the Toronto Coffee House Assocition and Canadian Temperance League actually succeeded in their philanthropic goal of providing the alternative to saloons. Like the “Coffee Houses” of the first half of 19th century in Toronto, they were borrowed, respected ideas taken from elsewhere, with the added bourgeois goal of turning a profit for its stock-holders. All with a cup of coffee that was never entirely the focus.

For a map of Toronto’s 19th Century Coffee Houses, click here.