Historicist: Hospitality Without Pretension
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Historicist: Hospitality Without Pretension

From first nights in Toronto to one-night stands, the Ford Hotel saw a broad cross-section of life.

Postcard of the Ford Hotel. Image courtesy of {a href="http://www.oldstratforduponavon.com/toronto.html"}Postcards of the Past{/a}.

“It’s not pretty,” wrote Thom Counsellor in a requiem for the Ford Hotel in the Sun following the announcement that the low-end landmark at the northeast corner of Bay and Dundas would close its doors in October 1973. “It smells of must and tears and desperation, In short, the kind of place every city needs. A place to start out from. A place to finish in. A place that means something to just about everyone in this city. And if it doesn’t, well you don’t know Toronto.”

The Ford Hotel knew plenty of Toronto during its 45 years of operation. It played host to salesmen, tourists, immigrants, pensioners, cheaters, prostitutes, transients, murderers, thieves, burlesque dancers, sheltered families, homosexuals, country musicians, honeymooners, and all other varieties of humanity. As a Star editorial noted, “The Ford was the hotel for the people without suitcases or expensive luggage whose patronage was not cultivated by the more affluent hostelries.”

Counsellor noted that the Ford was often one’s introduction to Toronto:

A lot of us who now live in fancy high rises or sprawling suburban homes started out at the Ford. We wandered out of the bus terminal, looking for a good cheap place to stay the night. And there, across the road, stood the Ford. A dump, agreed, but the best dump in Toronto. You could get a very depressing room for $7 a night. Depressing enough so that, as you looked out the dirt-streaked window, you knew you had to get out first thing in the morning and find a job in this scary city—or else go back home to admit defeat. Anyone who survived a night at the Ford could survive anything.

Unfortunately, some people didn’t survive their first night. On November 14, 1970, thanks to a defective locking mechanism, 34-year-old Pakistani engineer Mohammad Ashaf fell down an elevator shaft from the 12th floor, fatally crashing through the steel roof of an elevator cage scheduled for replacement. Gotham Hotels, which had recently bought the Ford, had decided not to renew the hotel’s basic maintenance contract with Otis Elevators. A coroner’s jury found management guilty of negligence.

Advertisement, the Mail and Empire, May 31, 1928.

Such tragedies were far in the future when the Ford Hotel opened on May 31, 1928. Part of a growing chain that it shared its name with (locations eventually stretched from Erie, Pennsylvania to Montreal), the Ford was designed for budget-minded travellers and businessmen, with rates topping out at $2.50 for a single room and $3.50 for a double. While it lacked ballrooms or extravagant lounges, each of the 750 rooms was equipped with a reading lamp above each bed, baths, telephones, furnishings from Eaton’s, and an ice water tap. Previews touted the fireproof structure and décor, which seemed ironic decades later when the Ford was regularly plagued by room fires. The onsite restaurant was operated by J.G. Brown, who had served diners for over 35 years at the defunct Queen’s Hotel. The site was chosen in anticipation of future expansion of the downtown shopping district, though its proximity to the forerunner of the Toronto Coach Terminal didn’t hurt.

The official opening ceremony began at 8 p.m. when Mayor Sam McBride unlocked the doors with a disposable gold key. McBride told the assembled dignitaries that the hotel was “within a stone’s throw of where I went to Sunday school and church.” He felt the hotel added “a spoke to our wheel of progress” as it addressed the growing problem of tourist accommodation. Two days later, the Gideons held a dedication service for the bibles they would place in each room.

The Ford Hotel is in the background of this shot of the Gray Coach Lines Terminal property at Edward and Elizabeth Streets, June 10, 1931. Photo by Alfred Pearson. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 8616.

The blessing bestowed upon the good books didn’t extend to the rest of the hotel. The opening of the Royal York in June 1929 took away guests looking for more than basic comforts. By the time the depths of the Great Depression hit, room rates were slashed and ads catered to people who might settle in permanently for only six dollars a week. Ownership passed to Sheraton Corporation in 1949, then to a New York–based syndicate in 1954 who declared that “there is still a place for a good, modern, moderate-price hotel in Toronto.”

"Crowd gathers about hotel entrance as shooting goes on four floors above." The Telegram, October 27, 1955.

Within a year of the syndicate’s takeover came one of the most dramatic moments in the Ford’s history. Around 6:30 p.m. on October 26, 1955, Zarano Borg, a 22-year-old Maltese labourer, checked into the hotel. The night before he told the landlord of the rooming house he had resided in on Broadview Avenue that he was moving into a hotel for convenience, and that he wanted “to get out where there’s more life.” A few hours after arriving at the Ford, Borg roamed outside the beverage room clad only in a bed sheet. He was told to go back to his room. Upon his return, Borg reached for one of his most prized possessions, a semi-automatic 12-gauge shotgun. He began shooting up his fourth floor room around 11:30 p.m., which led to noise complaints. Night manager John Laxton went up to check, thinking a guest might be setting off firecrackers. He narrowly avoided being hit by a blast that splintered the door of Borg’s room. Laxton called the switchboard and told the operator to contact the police.

"Tear gas bomb is flung into room as armed police guard corridor outside door, in this artist's conception of the siege's dramatic climax." Illustration by Alan Maclean. The Telegram, October 27, 1955.

By the time officers arrived, Borg fired off shots every 30 seconds. Laxton had called Borg to calm him down, but was greeted with mutterings of “they’re waiting for me.” As rumours about the shooter spread, a nervous crowd gathered in the lobby. Guests who tried to approach Borg’s room were shooed away by police. Officers went to a nearby room where the window was angled so that they could toss a tear gas bomb into Borg’s room. Just as Inspector William Matthews reached out the window, the guest whose room they were using turned on the lights. Matthews and another officer yelled at the guest to turn them off, as otherwise, as Matthews later told the Telegram, all of them “would have been sitting ducks” should Borg turn on them. Once the lights were out, Matthews tossed the gas bomb onto Borg’s dresser. One more shot was heard, which Borg aimed at himself. When gas-masked police surveyed the damage around 1 a.m., it appeared Borg had fired off at least 30 rounds of ammunition.

Despite the Borg incident, and other suicides, assaults, fires, and murders, the Ford Hotel carried on under several owners. Guests without luggage paid cash up front, as it was felt those attempting to fleece the hotel would have a harder time making their getaway if weighed down by suitcases (though cardboard fakes were occasionally left behind). Some of those who laid down their money were drawn to the Ford due to its reputation for being a downtown sex spot for all persuasions, suitable for an afternoon quickie, a one-night stand, or an ongoing affair. Prostitutes were frequent visitors.

People who were forced out by a fire on Seaton Street taking shelter in the Ford Hotel, April 1966. Photo by Leo Harrison. York University Archives, Toronto Telegram Photo Collection, Citation 1974-002 / 083.

The Ford Hotel also came to the aid of many people. By the mid-1960s, the City utilized rooms for the temporary shelter of low-income families who were forced out of their homes due to evictions or fire. Elderly pensioners found the Ford an affordable place to live—some residents saw their rates frozen for years. Immigrants were introduced to the country through a night at the Ford, with some having their stay funded by the federal government.

By the 1970s, increased operating costs and the rising land values that flowed from nearby urban renewal projects like the Eaton Centre contributed to the Ford Hotel’s demise. Following the hotel’s closure, collectors descended upon sales where the items ranged from furniture to bottles of Russian Bear Oil hair tonic. The hotel was demolished and replaced with a parking lot while new property owner Trizec Corporation and the City battle over the nature of future redevelopment. The end result was the opening of Atrium on Bay in the early 1980s.

In its requiem for the Ford Hotel, the Sun offered these final thoughts:

There is no other great leveller like the Ford, no other place to confirm for us that we are all bums. That we should all spend at least one night at the Ford, staring at its cracked greenish walls and ceilings, watching the centipedes race each other along the hallways, listening to the strange mutters in the room next door. Then you shall know humanity.

Additional material from the May 31, 1928 edition of the Globe; the December 18, 1970 and December 19, 1970 editions of the Globe and Mail; the May 31, 1928 and June 1, 1928 editions of the Mail and Empire; the May 26, 1954, October 27, 1955, and October 1, 1973 editions of the Toronto Star; the November 4, 1973 edition of the Toronto Sun; and the October 27, 1955 edition of the Telegram. Special thanks to Heritage Toronto.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.