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The Gutting of the Canary Reveals Its Past, but Can it Survive the Wrath of the Pan Am Games?

Posted by Rick McGinnis / January 22, 2010

Exterior of the Canary buildingIt's been almost three years since the Canary served its last open-faced turkey sandwich. Sadly, the much-photographed sign is gone, but rumours that there was something going on behind the closed blinds at the Cherry Street landmark have revealed a fascinating moment in the history of the building.

As layers of history have been peeled back, the survival of the building itself has become dubious.

I arrived before noon to find Ken - he wouldn't give his last name - working amidst the dust and chaos of the greasy spoon's dining room, which has been gutted to the walls, with only the short order kitchen still intact, and divots on the floor where the stools and the lunch counter once stood. Ken's been living in the building for two years, but has had friends and family here for over twenty - a revolving community of artists, many of them employed in the film industry that gave the Canary its last gust of business after the industries that once surrounded the building evaporated in the '70s and '80s.

Long-closed doors in the lobby of the Cherry Street HotelThe Canary's counter and soda fountain have been on a curious journey back to where they started 50 years ago. Juxta Productions, a building tenant, are behind the pop-up store at Queen and McCaul which has been publicizing movies like the latest Harry Potter and Daybreakers, the vampire thriller for which Ken and Juxta built a bloodsucker diner using the Canary's fixtures. Ironically, it was just up the street, near Dundas and University, where the Canary restaurant operated for five years before moving out to the industrial bustle of Cherry and Front in 1965, where members of the same family ran it until it closed in 2007, a victim of the closure of the Bayview Extension and the long development limbo of the Donlands.

Canary TorontoThe space was in bad shape when Ken and his fellow tenants got permission from Ontario Realty Corporation, the building's owners, to clean it up for use as a film location and event space late last year. "It was pretty decrepit," he says. "I wouldn't have eaten here - it was pretty bad." Worst of all was the hundred or so paint cans full of congealed kitchen grease they found in a back room, which they cleaned up prior to gutting the space and opening up windows and doorways long boarded over.

Details in the old Canary Restaurant buildingWhat they've revealed is the ghost of the building's former tenants. There's not much left of the Palace Street Schoolhouse, the second oldest in the city, and just a storey tall when it opened in the 1850s. By the 1890s, however, it had become a turreted and gabled Victorian hotel - the Irvine House and then the Cherry Street Hotel, and that building has emerged again under Ken's care. The Canary dining room was probably its tavern, and the space next door, which housed the diner's storerooms and walk-in fridge, was a sun-filled lobby, complete with a room-sized safe behind the check-in desk.

Canary Restaurant interior - guttedKen has uncovered layers of wallpaper and murals, and traces of flowers stencilled onto the walls. A blackboard by the door still advertises the specials on the Canary's last day, but a grander space is emerging from the dust and grime. The building can still be glimpsed on architect's drawings for the Pan Am Games athlete's village, part of a grand entranceway, but the tenants have heard that the ORC and the Pan Am organizers have plans to tear down everything but the fa├žade - "and wipe out 150 years of Toronto history," says Ken, noting that everyone is on a 2-year lease. "They have plans but they don't tell you very much. They're only putting band-aids on these buildings - they said they spent a million on the brickwork and new slate roof, which might be true."

Ken says they're hoping that their rehab of the space will give people a sense of the building's evocative qualities, and discourage Waterfront Toronto and the Pan Am organizers from gutting all that history away. "Maybe you can help us out," he asks as I take pictures. "Do you know anyone who needs a really nice party space?"

Discussion

23 Comments

J / January 22, 2010 at 11:08 am
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Thanks Rick for another great article.
Snowman / January 22, 2010 at 11:20 am
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I recently saw an artist's concept of the Pan Am Village area and I believe it showed this building retained. I'll try to find it...
Adam Gorley / January 22, 2010 at 11:33 am
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I would squat in this building for as long as it takes to prevent the city or anyone from gutting it.

It would be forever to Toronto's shame if it were to fall prey to our disastrous and pathetic facadism. That's what Toronto will be if we continue to gut our history: nothing more than a pretty facade. It makes me so sad.

This building could be the grand centrepiece of the new community on the West Donlands--something really important. But all developers are thinking about (and the city that supports them) is: how can we appease the poor suckers and the most basic heritage restrictions?

Please Toronto: do the right thing for once.

I ate at the Canary a couple of times a week when I attended Inglenook Community High School up the street, and I remember it very fondly. If it suffers the fate of facading, I wouldn't be able to look at it without feeling a little sick inside.
Nick W / January 22, 2010 at 11:45 am
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Reducing 409 Front, which is a Heritage Designated property, to a purely decorative role would be showing a huge amount of contempt for our past. The building is one of the oldest and most interesting in the city -- by anyone's standards -- and it should be restored, maintained and reused at any cost, especially considering we don't live in a city with the architectural richness of, say, a New York. We should be fiercely guarding and protecting what minuscule bits of history remain, and we should be doing it as a city.

If you agree, 409 Front sits in Ward 28. Dropping Councillor Pam McConnell a line at councillor_mcconnell@toronto.ca would be a good first step.
Nick W / January 22, 2010 at 11:54 am
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...and the Pan Am Village rendering Snowman was referring to can be found here:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/real-estate/the-race-to-build-a-pan-am-games-village-has-begun/article1370223/
Patrick / January 22, 2010 at 12:13 pm
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We here at Juxta; as but one member of the West Don Lands community at large, are all pretty optimistic that we can re-mediate the space and capture the different phases of its' history without standing in the way of the needs of the Pan Am Games. In the end everyone agrees on the importance of the building with its' dynamic history and so people really do need to see that history preserved, inside and out, for at least another 150 years. But we're actually pleased to see that is how this process is unfolding and that our public officials are in fact doing the right thing on this one. They've restored the exterior facade and by allowing us the opportunity to pursue a creative vision on the corner space, they are moving in the right direction.
Darcy McGee / January 22, 2010 at 12:19 pm
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Loved the Canary. Vangroovy has no equivalent.
dionysus / January 22, 2010 at 01:14 pm
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I've worked in Heritage planning and I am studying architecture and such, but sometimes I wonder how long we should hold on to our cherished memories, and when to let old decrepit buildings go and make way to new ones? I am not judging this building, as I have no personal thoughts on it, but it seems too often in Canada we are going about preserving our old "memories" (even if its some forced means of retaining the facades), and not going forward. We, of course, don't have any lack of land, but seeing from examples like Japan, where old is continually replaced with new...makes for a forward-thinking city, rather than an aging one. Just thoughts...
John replying to a comment from dionysus / January 22, 2010 at 01:28 pm
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Maybe, but I find Japanese cities fantastically ugly.

The problem with tearing down old buildings is not simply about severing the emotional ties with the past (which is a legit concern). It's not even just the Jacobs-ian argument that old and even run-down buildings are necessary to provide cheaper space for marginal businesses and tenants. It's also because if a city's building stock and infrastructure is replaced every generation or two, the mistakes of one era's planning orthodoxies will be visited on the entire city. And when we have no points of comparison, we have no way of seeing our mistakes and learning from them.
P / January 22, 2010 at 01:40 pm
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Why should Canada make way to new buildings? Modern architecture doesn't even come close to beauty things from decades past hold, even something as simple as an old school building like this one. It has history; imagine what it could say if its walls could talk... I don't think the old is a sign of lack in forward thinking on the part of Toronto. Europe preserves its old buildings and it doesn't have any problems with moving forward... And look what can happen when we do preserve the old, you don't even have to look far the distillery is the best example. I'm not saying we have the same architectural beauty as other places do like in Europe or New York but there is still some. And it should be protected.

I think Canada is in limbo. It has two forces, people like dionysus who believe we should look to the modern and places like Japan and there are those people who believe we should look to countries like Europe who preserve the old architecture and barely destroy old landmarks. Toronto seems to want the best of both, it's most evident with a place like The ROM (and look how ugly that turned out...) And it seems thats what they want to do yet again with the Pan Am games.
Cindy Wilkey / January 22, 2010 at 01:59 pm
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I chair the West Don Lands Committee, the community coaltion that has been working on revitalization of the WDL for over a decade. Preserving the Canary has been on the books from day 1 of the precinct planning process. It has been imagined as part of the gateway to the new plaza along Front Street that will connect the Don River Park to Cherry Street. I can assure you that the community will be very vigilant about preservation of this building - it is seen as an important heritage feature by us and by Waterfront Toronto. As the Pan Am Games roll out, we have been assured by the Province, that the precinct plan developed by Waterfront Toronto, in consultation with the community, will be respected. It is reassuring to know that so many eyes will be on the process to make sure there is no slippage from that commitment.
Adam replying to a comment from Cindy Wilkey / January 22, 2010 at 02:14 pm
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Cindy, does the West Don Lands Committee have a website or a mailing list I could sign up for to keep up on what's going on with this development and your part in it?
Matts replying to a comment from dionysus / January 22, 2010 at 02:45 pm
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and Kyoto is often cited as the most beautiful city in Japan, precisely becuase parts of it were preserved intact....
Adam Sobolak / January 22, 2010 at 08:55 pm
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And keep in mind that even within booming Asian metropolii, the "forward-thinking" urge hasn't been without controversy, especially when it comes to the obliteration of swaths of old Beijing, Shanghai, etc--if anything, the real or latent emergence of preservation movements in those centres should be a more telling signal of urban maturity and sophistication. *Not* simply wiping out the new and starting over.
Mark / January 23, 2010 at 12:03 am
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nitroMiner / January 23, 2010 at 01:16 pm
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Gutting the interior is rather necessary to accommodate today's modern bldg features any tennant would want. Otherwise, you couldn't rent it to a farmer as a barn! Think of modern wiring for instance and use of interior space - not numerous small rooms...

The main 1st built section is certainly nice of the old Canary bldg, but that add on to the East.. isn't anything worth 'preserving'. It's an ugly box that doesn't tie the bldg together at all. It certainly should be razed.

The question is, what will be the use/function of the main old section? The hard part of this preservation is finding double paned gas filled windows to fit their original framing. Custom made? That'll cost a fortune. That curved glass window [is it?] above the entrance?

Thankfully there are no neighbours to shoot down any truly modern designs proposed by architects.

Sounds like too many bldgs will be cheap and cheerful, only to be razed after these Pan Am games. Nice make work project, where you design twice and build twice and raze once. Is this necessary?

Design and build the bldgs of the project once, with an eye to its function post Pan Am games would be my wish. Or is that the point, shuffling money around for 'work' and calling it lookit all the employed by this project??

I don't miss that grease pit that the Canary restaurant was in the past. No sireebob!
nitoMiner replying to a comment from Mark / January 23, 2010 at 01:22 pm
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Thanks for the spam, Mark.

I'm already chuffed that McGuinty hired Samsung for wind generators....

I would prefer a Canadian company get the contract.
Rico / January 23, 2010 at 01:27 pm
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My Dad used to go to this place weekly. There was nothing going on there but a fun diner. The previous owner is a nice guy. He's working in the restaurant industry here in Toronto.
Adam replying to a comment from nitroMiner / January 25, 2010 at 03:17 pm
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I'm not against updating heritage buildings. Obviously that's important for a couple of reasons: to maintain the integrity of the building for the future and to make it hospitable for any future tenant.

But can we find no creative solution that avoids gutting or facading? I think many people come across a challenge like this and simply throw up their hands saying, "impossible!" When all it will take is some inventiveness and, sure, some money. Of course, there's also the other side that looks at the project and simply says, "too expensive!" And that's the end of that, as if we can put a price on history and art and culture.

I'm sure there are minimally or reasonably invasive methods of upgrading old buildings that would be appropriate here, especially given all of the money that will be thrown at the Pan Am Games anyway. I'm not even against modern updates, and I don't know exactly which features should be retained and which aren't worth keeping, but I do believe that the interior of a building is at least as important as the exterior. It's just easier to save a facade.

Unlike the other Pan Am buildings you mention that are designed simply to be torn down (if true, and I'm sure you are right), this could be a strong example of an opposite trend and an example for all of Toronto: durability, sustainability, the past and the future together. The Automotive Building just had a complete overhaul and it has held onto much of its character and integrity (despite the name change ;). I know it's mostly just a box and it's not as old, but it demonstrates the possibility of retaining and restoring a connection to our past.
Richard Reinert / January 28, 2010 at 12:06 pm
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Thank you, Rick,
for such a good article about the Canary. I wrote a story about the Canary for the GWNA newsletter (VISION) the week before it closed. I interviewed Chuck, Clark and Ana Yovanoski, who inherited the place from their father. They were the cook(s) and waitress. I took some photos and interviewed a 71 year old retired TV and photo professional who used to drive his BMW from across town. He said he had been coming there for seven or ten years just for the coffee and the conversation.
I still have the story and the photos I took from inside and out, if you would lie to have them posted here.
Richard Reinert
Margaret White / January 29, 2010 at 10:05 am
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Is the City of Toronto still looking for a museum site for and about the History of Toronto?
PS Is the Canary sign going to be reinstalled? I miss it.
ana / April 20, 2010 at 03:54 pm
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Hi
I am one of the owners Ana I'm sure thos of you who came to the Canary remember me. I miss that place but more so the customers. As for the grease filled paint cans WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT. There was not any when we left. the restaurant was in are family for over 50 years. and its said to it go
Adam Gorley / May 28, 2010 at 10:50 am
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I just heard that the building has been at least partly demolished. Can anyone confirm or deny this?

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