Saturday, January 17, 2015

off the grid: ghost city - 203 yonge street

This story was originally published online by The Grid on May 21, 2013.

There were few sports John Francis Scholes tackled that he didn’t master. The Irish-born, Toronto-reared athlete racked up championship titles in boxing, rowing, and snowshoeing during the Victorian era. His first trophy, earned during a 220-yard hurdle race in 1869, was proudly displayed in the Yonge Street hotel that eventually bore his family’s name.

Illustration of John Francis Scholes, as it appeared in the March 25, 1871 edition of the Canadian Illustrated News.

Scholes entered the hospitality business around 1880, opening a bar and hotel at 185 Yonge St. He moved his business a few doors north to 203 Yonge St. in the late 1890s, christening it the Athlete Hotel. Scholes used it as a base to mentor local athletes, including his sons John (who inherited his amateur boxing skills) and Lou (a champion rower). Scholes’ tough nature carried him through to his end—when doctors indicated a stomach ailment was terminal, he insisted on dying at the Athlete Hotel, where he entertained friends and former competitors.


The Scholes Hotel, circa 1945. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 537.
Following Scholes’ death in March 1918, the hotel stayed in family hands and adopted their name. Ads for the Scholes’ Hotel offered typical hospitality promises—“good food, cleanliness, and efficient service.” Less impressed were provincial liquor officials, who suspended the hotel’s booze license in May 1946 for overcrowding and the heinous crime of permitting unaccompanied men to enter the women’s beverage room. (At this time, men and women legally drank in separate rooms.)

The business was sold in 1947 to Goody and Harvey Lichtenberg, who renamed it the Colonial Tavern. They secured the second cocktail lounge licence along Yonge Street (after the Silver Rail) and began booking jazz acts. Their first performer showed their enlightened attitude: pianist Cy McLean, who had led the first all-black jazz band in Ontario.

Disaster struck on September 27, 1948. Around 8:10 p.m., a refrigerator explosion blew out a wall and sent four men to hospital. “I just remember reaching for my beer when I went sailing across the table top and toward the bar,” patron Douglas Wilson told the Star. “A seven-foot paneled door landed right beside me.” Refrigeration at the Colonial was cursed: Faulty wiring led to a fire on July 24, 1960 that required a year-long reconstruction effort.

Amid these disasters, the Colonial became one of Toronto’s finest jazz joints. Headliners spanned the jazz spectrum, including Chet Baker, Sidney Bechet, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Charles Mingus, and Sarah Vaughan. Not all patrons found the surroundings enticing. “Nobody ever called it an ideal place to hear music,” Robert Fulford grumbled in the Star in 1987. “The ceiling was low, the food bad, the waitresses surly, the patrons sometimes loudly drunk. The room was a tunnel-like hall with a square bulge in the middle. If you sat in front of the bandstand the musicians seemed too loud; if you sat to left or right of them you had the sense of over-hearing rather than hearing the music. There were no good tables at the Colonial, only less bad tables.” Yet Fulford admitted that because of the quality of the music, “none of this mattered.”

The Colonial Tavern in the 1970s. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3, Item 123.
The Colonial benefitted from the Yonge Street Mall pedestrian-zone experiment of the early 1970s. Goody Lichtenberg was stunned at how packed his new patio was when Yonge was closed off in May 1971. “If I don’t look excited,” he told the Star, “it’s only because I’m dead beat.” Demand forced Lichtenberg to gather food from another restaurant. Within a week, he hired 20 part-time employees and found they weren’t enough.

Inside, the entertainment line-up changed through the 1970s. Jazz performers faded as the upstairs room gradually converted into a discotheque. A basement venue—whose names ranged from the unfortunate Meet Market to the Colonial Underground—aimed for a younger crowd through local acts like Rough Trade and the Viletones. Upstairs and downstairs didn’t always mix—when bluesman Long John Baldry sent staff downstairs to tell the Diodes to turn it down so that he could play an acoustic set, bouncers charged at the punks with pool cues.

After the Lichtenbergs sold the venue in the late 1970s, the Colonial descended into the general sleaziness of Yonge Street during that era. Ads for the “Bump and Grind Revue” in 1978 promised a combination of rock bands and “exotic Black Bottom serving maidens.” The venue’s strip-club phase ran into trouble when a dancer was convicted for public nudity. City regulations enforcing g-strings were blamed for chipping away at business. Several attempts were made to return to jazz programming, but none took.

In 1982, the City purchased the property. It intended to use it as a connecting link between Massey Hall and the Elgin and Winter Garden theatres to create a mini-Lincoln Center-style entertainment complex. Despite protests from the local jazz community, City Council approved plans to demolish the Colonial in 1987 and replace it with a parkette.

Site of the Colonial Tavern, post-demolition, 1987. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3, Item 152.


The following year, the Star’s Christopher Hume laughed at the notion the tiny park would improve its stretch of Yonge Street, viewing it as a hole in the streetscape. “This is one of the few stretches of Yonge where there are significant numbers of historical buildings left,” Hume observed. “It doesn’t make sense to mess it up for the sake of creating an ‘open’ space hardly anyone will use.”

Bracketed by the ghosts of the old banks surrounding it, the former site of the Colonial awaits its next incarnation as part of the Massey Tower condo development.

Additional material from Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk and Beyond 1977-1981 by Liz Worth (Montreal: Bongo Beat, 2010), the January 11, 1937, October 25, 1940, and July 13, 1978 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the March 5, 1918, May 6, 1946, September 28, 1948, July 25, 1960, June 10, 1961, May 31, 1971, February 20, 1979, April 3, 1987, May 9, 1987, and September 24, 1988 editions of the Toronto Star.

Postscript: The following comment was left by Bonnie Lawrence Shear on May 30, 2013:

The authors lack of anything resembling the facts is staggering. My father, Mike Lawrence, bought Scholes Hotel around 1945. I was a small child then but I believe the latest was 1946. He later took in my uncles (the Lichtenbergs) as minority partners, Harvey at the beginning, and Goody a couple of years later. Neither was involved in the purchase.While Goody was in charge of booking the acts, and Harvey in charge of day to day operations, my father was the brains behind the Colonial’s success.My father came from an extremely poor family, graduated as an engineer, but because he was Jewish, could not work as an engineer and had to go into business for himself. He was brilliant and a real risk taker.He went on to many other business and other achievements.

Although it probably had a lot of the faults Fulford talks about, it also was a great success, supported 3 families, and was beloved by many.

The Eaton Centre, and my father’s many illnesses in the 70′s before he died did lead to it’s eventual demise. The building of The Eaton Centre meant that the main thoroughfare on Yonge Street was no longer the street, but pedestrian traffic was transferred to inside the mall, especially in Toronto’s harsh weather.The Colonial’s demise began with the building of the Eaton Centre.

Our family did not sell it to the city, but to an interim purchaser who reneged on the contract. The city eventually took over the property.

So many fond memories, and some sad and poignant ones too.

No comments: