For Some, Much-Maligned Hotel Waverley is Home
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For Some, Much-Maligned Hotel Waverley is Home

Toronto's most disparaged hotel may soon be torn down by a developer. Here's a tour.

When news broke recently that Hotel Waverley’s owner, The Wynn Group, plans to raze the building and replace it and its neighbouring bar, The Silver Dollar Room, with student housing, the reaction was mostly one of indifference. General consensus is the three-story structure isn’t worth saving. Some have even argued that fleabag hotel is overdue for demolition.

No one denies Hotel Waverley, now about 113 years old, is long in the tooth and that it has experienced more than its fair share of misfortunes.

But a look inside reveals a diamond in the rough.

Kuma Suriya began working at the Waverley more than 20 years ago. Prior to departing India for Canada, the genial hotel manager was a police sergeant. For regulars calling Hotel Waverley home, Suriya is more than an hotelier. He has become a friend.

Mary checked into the Waverley 22 years ago. Now in her mid-eighties, she divides time between her room and the hotel lobby, where she watches the comings and goings of other guests. Periodically, she steps outside for a cigarette.

From his perch behind the registration desk, Suriya keeps an eye on Mary. It’s not unusual for him to prepare a simple meal for the hotel’s oldest lodger. Mary hasn’t been visited by her family in a decade.

Suriya places importance on family, and so the lodgers at the Waverley have become like kin to him. A husband with two teenage children, his parents are both deceased. To fill the void, he unofficially adopted Mary as his mother. Proving the point, this past Mother’s Day he presented her with 12 red roses. Overjoyed, Mary showed off the bouquet in the lobby, telling everyone of Suriya’s thoughtfulness.

Marsha Whelan recalls a time when the lobby served as the evening gathering place for her and other long-term residents. Whelan checked in 20 years ago, in 1993. Back from a teaching stint in Chile, she found herself stranded at Pearson Airport with nowhere to go. Desperate for lodgings, she scanned newspaper classifieds until she discovered an ad for rooms available at the Waverley.

It quickly became clear to her that living expenses in the city had increased dramatically in her absence. After a week, she moved into a less expensive room and settled in for good.

Whelan says the days of crack addicts stripping hotel room TV cables for the copper wire are over. She admits that, once upon a time, the high-ceilinged hallways echoed with cries of violence. No more. She says the hotel turned a corner about 10 years ago, thanks in no small part to Suriya and his staff.

If Mary is the Waverley’s pseudo-mother, then Whelan is surely its big sister. Voicing concern for a guest diagnosed with cancer who regularly checks into the Waverley when in Toronto for chemotherapy treatment, Whelan said, “A lot of people here couldn’t find another place [to live]. We look after each other.”

With its drab grey walls, sagging central staircase, and hallways that reek of some mixture of stale cigarette smoke, Doritos, and bleach, it’s easy to cast aspersions on the hotel’s present condition. Compared to boutique inns like the Drake and Gladstone, the forlorn Hotel Waverley is an ugly duckling.

Nonetheless, the place boasts a few endearing qualities. Take the lift for example. Actually, you can’t. The elevator with a door no wider than a bar fridge has been out of commission since Pierre Trudeau was first elected prime minister.

Laundry facilities, described in hotel literature as modern, were installed around the same era.

The correct spelling of the hotel’s name is as confounding as nailing down the precise year of the hotel’s opening. (The majority of historical sources claim the first guests registered at the Waverley in 1900; brochures in the lobby place the date in 1897.) Above the cantilever on Spadina Avenue, the second “e” in Waverley is absent. However, on signs painted on the north side of the building, as well as on the front door (and in most of the hotel’s literature), this final vowel is included.

Of the 70 rooms, 28 house permanent guests. Most are getting on in years. During a typical weekend, the remainder of the rooms are booked. Suriya maintains that the rumours the hotel rents by the hour are false. Asked about this practice, he said it wouldn’t be profitable. Rooms must be tidied and bedding laundered after each visit. The staff of 10 is busy enough meeting the needs of regular lodgers, so short-term stays of this nature wouldn’t be practical. The hotel’s website lists prices ranging from $60 a night for an economy room, to at least $700 for a month’s stay, with discounts for seniors and students.

Hatchet men, fictional or otherwise, who have (and haven’t) lodged at the hotel are legendary. Though claims have been made to the contrary, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin, James Earl Ray, didn’t stay at the Waverley. One of the last men to hang in Canada, Arthur Lucas, did. The Elmore Leonard character Armand Degas, a fictional killer-for-hire in the crime novel Killshot, rents by the week at the Waverley.

Not coincidentally, the film version of Killshot was shot at the hotel.

Today, the hotel’s lodgers are a cross-section of low-income society. Among those currently checked in are foreign students enrolled at University of Toronto, a security guard employed at the University Avenue courthouse, a number of individuals with mental health challenges, and businesspeople who have come to Toronto for short-term stays. Out-of-town fans attending Jays and Leafs games also frequent the rooms.

Of the four and six-legged variety, lodgers include Marsha Whalen’s cat, Bit-Bit, as well as an elderly Chihuahua who needs to be carried most places on account of declining health. According to Suriya, bed bugs are not on the registry.

A former mayoral candidate has a room at the hotel. C. Lenora Macklin ran for the city’s highest office in the 2010 municipal election. A newcomer to the city who arrived four months prior to the October election, Macklin said she enjoyed the challenge of squaring off against fellow contenders.

Earning just 575 votes hasn’t deterred her from running in the next municipal election. If details can be worked out, expect to see her name on the ballot in 2014.

Disparaging Hotel Waverley is easy. It’s far from upscale. But for life’s weariest travelers, as ramshackle as it appears, you’d be hard pressed to find more welcoming lodgings anywhere in the city.

CORRECTION: July 12, 2013, 10:52 AM This post originally said, incorrectly, that Toronto’s last municipal election took place in 2011. In fact, it happened in 2010.