Wednesday, January 14, 2015

off the grid: ghost city - hotel waverl(e)y

From 2012 to 2014 I contributed to The Grid, a weekly magazine/alt-paper which was known as eye for most of its existence. The publication folded in July 2014, leaving its website to slowly decay. Rather than let my contributions wind up in the Internet's equivalent of the afterlife, I will begin posting my pieces in no particular order. As some articles had already vaporized when I began collecting them, some reprints may be based on original drafts. In other cases, I'll toss in bonus material, especially if I learned more about the subject following the original publication.

The following piece, part of my "Ghost City" column, was published on June 18, 2013. I'm using it as the lead-off for this series, as the Silver Dollar Room received a heritage designation this week


College and Spadina, looking northwest, May 13, 1927. The Waverley is in the background (click on photo for larger version). Photo by Alfred Pearson. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 4888.

“If you really want the best, dine at the Waverley,” a person by the name of W.M. Canning advised a friend on the back of a postcard depicting a refined dining room at the Spadina Avenue establishment circa 1908. Hard to believe, but there was a time when the Waverl(e)y was considered a hotel worthy of formal dances, organizational lunches, and tourism offices.

Built by John J. Powell in 1900, the Hotel Waverley replaced a structure that once housed the local YMCA. For the next half-century, the hotel was operated by the Powell family, whose members were active in hospitality-industry associations—Egerton Powell served as president of the Ontario branch of the Greeters’ Association of America during the mid-1920s. That decade also saw the Waverley house the Toronto Convention and Tourist Association’s office and a Canadian Pacific ticket outlet.

Major changes came during the 1950s. The Powell family’s involvement appears to have ended following the 1954 death of Egerton’s widow, whose estate was battled over by 53 cousins. The hotel gained its first lounge licence the following year, then fell into liquidation in 1957. Newspaper ads in January 1959 proudly announced the opening of the “fabulous Silver Dollar Room,” whose debut act was “Canada’s Top Variety Group,” Tommy Danton and the Echoes. The venue soon settled into presenting local jazz musicians and bluesy singers like Olive Brown (whose selection of standards included venue-appropriate songs like “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer”).

Toronto Star, January 2, 1959.
However, in the ensuing years, the Waverley site acquired more dubious associations. During the early morning hours of November 17, 1961, a guest named Arthur Lucas made two telephone calls from his room to 116 Kendal Avenue. Just after 3:30 a.m., Lucas left the Waverley and headed north to meet Therland Crater, a drug dealer on the run from the Detroit underworld for working as an undercover agent for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. While Lucas claimed he was meeting Crater to discuss opening a bawdy house in Toronto, his true mission was murder. Lucas killed Crater and his wife Carolyn Newman, then returned to the Waverley around 6 a.m. to say goodbye to his roommate. He was captured in Detroit the following day. Lucas was convicted and hung alongside Ronald Turpin during Canada’s last execution in December 1962.

Another infamous killer was reputed to have checked into the Waverley during the 1960s. After assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, James Earl Ray spent part of his time on the lam in Toronto. Legend has it the Waverley was one of his stops, even though he told the Ottawa Sun that he spent his time ping-ponging between a pair of rooming houses in the Dundas-Ossington area. This didn’t prevent two men allegedly representing the American government from asking Waverley management in the mid-1990s about the hotel’s connection with Ray.

If Ray enjoyed a drink at the Silver Dollar Room, he might have watched the entertainment Bill Cameron described in a Star profile that fall about Spadina Avenue. “The Silver Dollar Room,” Cameron observed, “is a bouncy rowdy little place with a busty tone-deaf singer and bored trio band and the greatest stripper I have ever seen, thin and not very pretty but with a splendid lascivious skill at detecting the rhythms of the house, of putting what she has just where it should be at precisely the right moment to get everybody there up just underneath the point of a riot.”

In 1970, poet Milton Acorn moved in for a long stay. “The Waverley Hotel was full of character and characters,” he noted. “It was a place for all sorts of strange but true types. People who were certainly down but not out.” The flophouse-like atmosphere suited the foul-smelling, highly-opinionated Acorn, who was named “The People’s Poet” by his peers soon after moving in. Acorn paid the daily rate rather than the monthly rent in case he ever decided to pick up and leave, and constantly changed rooms out of fear he was being bugged by the RCMP. Though he moved out in 1977, Acorn kept a writing room at the hotel until he left Toronto in 1981. His stay is commemorated with a small plaque.

Toronto Star, January 8, 1992.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the hotel was subject to periodic police raids and other woes. A bust in February 1978 netted 233 charges related to selling liquor to intoxicated persons. It was among the local bars hit by a two-week servers’ strike in September 1981, prompting the owners to personally serve trays of beer. A 1987 bust saw 16 people arrested for prostitution. Somewhere along the line, a new sign dropped the second “e” from the hotel’s name. Its rough atmosphere provided a great backdrop for Elmore Leonard, who set part of his novel Killshot at the Waverly. By the 1990s, management posted a sign reading “rooms should not be used for nefarious, wrongful or unlawful purposes.”

The Silver Dollar Room maintained a steady diet of blues and rock. For a time, it was home of the Elvis Monday music showcase. Around 1992, it changed its name to Jonny Vegas and briefly took down its signature sign. “I advised the new tenants against changing the sign,” property owner Paul Wynn told the Star. “I have a deal with them that, if the place fails, they’ll have to put up the Silver Dollar sign again.”

Time may be running out for the Waverly. The Wynn Group, which has owned the site since the mid-1980s, has released plans to replace the crumbling hotel with a 20-storey residential tower targeted to students that would include a gym and a rebuilt Silver Dollar Room. The project was criticized by Councillor Adam Vaughan, who called the plan “effectively a high-rise rooming house.”

Update: Those plans for a tower are in limbo at the moment, as Toronto City Council rejected a demolition proposal in January 2014.

Additional material from East/West, Nancy Byrtus, Mark Fram, Michael McClelland, editors (Toronto: Coach House, 2000), Toronto: A Literary Guide by Greg Gatenby (Toronto: McArthur & Company, 1999), Milton Acorn: In Love and Anger by Richard Lemm (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1999), the June 12, 2013 edition of BlogTO, the December 12, 1923 edition of the Globe, the July 19, 1957, October 29, 1963, April 7, 1976, and April 7, 2008 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the June 28, 1955, January 2, 1959, October 12, 1968, February 2, 1978, September 2, 1981, December 4, 1987, January 8, 1992, and June 11, 2013 editions of the Toronto Star.

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