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A brief history of the Ford Hotel's fall from grace

Posted by Chris Bateman / November 24, 2012

toronto ford hotelIn the early 1920s, R.T. Ford & Company was busily building near-identical hotel buildings in the state of New York and here in Ontario. The company's founder and president Richard T. Ford clearly believed in his business model: he named the luxury chain and every hotel in his empire after himself.

In Toronto, the Ford Hotel was finished in 1929, a year before the Royal York, on the northeast corner of Bay and Dundas at a cost of $2 million, including land. Its location on the site of a former church next to the open-air bus terminal made it extremely convenient for inbound visitors to the city. Unfortunately, the owners' dedication to low prices didn't translate into a glamourous reputation. When it was eventually demolished in 1973, The Star rightly crowned it the "Queen of Dumps." Its story might be sleazy and blighted by horrific violence and terrible sadness but the history of the Ford Hotel is anything but boring.

toronto street agnes churchWhen the Old National Theater was gutted by fire in the winter of 1924, the former Agnus St. Church building it was housed inside gave up a 51-year-old secret. A copy of The Globe, tucked inside the cornerstone of the building, dryly discussed economic news from England and the benefits of a new municipal waterworks. The building that would replace the church would make headlines for entirely different reasons.

toronto globe paperIn 1928, the 12-storey Ford Hotel became the latest in an expanding empire of near-identical buildings popping up in the Lake Ontario and Erie region. The chain was headquartered in Rochester, NY.

James Suydam, a director of the Toronto hotel, hoped to have a portion of the brick building open for a race weekend that was expected to draw a big out-of-town crowd. In the restaurant downstairs, Lou Scholes, champion rower and part-owner of the old Scholes Hotel on Yonge Street, feverishly prepped the kitchen and dining room. Construction also hadn't gone entirely to plan: a worker, Jack Holton, accidentally got banana oil (a common ingredient in varnishes and lacquers) in his eyes. Half blind, he had to be escorted to the hospital but was able to return to work a few days later.

toronto ford hotelThe opening reception on May 31st 1928 featured Toronto mayor Sam McBride, Ontario Premier Howard Ferguson, a delegation of MPPs, and a group of the company's top brass from Buffalo. McBride was given a golden key that he used to ceremonially unlock the hotel doors and register as the first official guest. According to The Star, "the rotunda of the hotel was profuse with flowers, gifts of local and international hotel associations, and private well-wishers."

The 500 guests ate in the main dining room and toasted the city, Buffalo, and Lou Scholes, a man still held in high regard for his victory in the prestigious Diamond Challenge Sculls at the Henley Royal Regatta in England. Scholes became the first Canadian to win the men's singles event when he beat Arthur Cloutte to victory in 1904. Cloutte would be sentenced to hard labour in 1913 for stealing from his employer, Barings Bank.

On its first day, the Ford Hotel advertised rooms for between $1.50 and $3.50 and boasted a valet, barber, cigar store, newsstand, public stenographer, and laundry service. Guests had access to circulating iced water and reading lamps. The beds, apparently, induced "vigor, ambition, and charm." It wouldn't last.

toronto ford hotelDown on Front Street, the Royal York hotel was opened on the site of the old Queen's Hotel - a former employer of manager Scholes - in 1929 and immediately snatched the title of Toronto's most luxurious hotel from the Ford. Despite the competition, the hotel at Bay and Dundas continued to peddle affordable splendor.

All manner of dances, dinners and galas were held in the restaurant space in the lower levels. Ironically, one of the early conventions was put on by Seventh Day Adventists who railed against modern evils to a group of young women. "Young people were urged to eschew erotic literature and to shun the evils of stage, film, and dancehall," according to newspaper reports.

toronto ford hotelIn what appears to be the first in a series of tragic events, a 30-year-old Montreal woman, "Mrs. Richie," dressed in a red dress, fur hat, and fawn coloured coat, requested a room with a view at the Ford. Once inside, at 11:40 am precisely, she pushed a chair against the window, opened it wide, and jumped to her death onto the roof of the second-floor restaurant. Her fair hair was gently blowing in the late summer breeze when police reached her lifeless body minutes later.

The Ford's decent into seediness was gradual. Attempts at reworking the venue into a swinging performance venue were optimistic but never gained traction. Various themed rooms, hopelessly tacky by today's standards, and a reworking of the existing bar were in place when it was taken over by group from New York in 1954.

toronto city hallIn 1955, all hell broke lose. Zarano Borg, an itinerant Maltese laborer, checked into the Ford Hotel claiming he wanted to be closer to the hustle and bustle of the city. His old place on Broadview Avenue was too quiet.

Clearly unstable, Borg paced the hotel wrapped in a bedsheet until management ordered him back to his room. In the confined space, Borg became increasingly agitated and distressed. Then things took a nasty turn. The laborer pulled a 12-gauge shotgun from his suitcase and began firing shots into the walls. The night manager, who believed Borg had firecrackers, had to jump out of the way when the door to the room exploded into splinters as he arrived to investigate.

Police quickly commandeered a nearby room, which, thanks to the design of the hotel, had a window facing Borg's. In a moment, after a brief scare, cops tossed a tear gas capsule inside the room to temporarily blind the crazed man. When the gas cleared and Borg appeared to be still, police ventured inside to find his lifeless body slumped on the bed. He had shot himself.

toronto ford hotelDespite minor renovations during its brief spell in the Sheraton chain, the Ford Toronto was increasingly dilapidated in its final decades. Not only were some of the old fixtures defective, one would prove deadly.

A serious fire killed one man, Edwin Paterson, and injured three others on the seventh floor in 1969. Paterson, a 77-year-old resident of the hotel, died from his injuries in the fire which started in the room of another elderly resident, C. H. Villiers. The damage to the building was around $16,000.

The next year, Mohammad Ashraf, a 34-year-old engineer recently arrived from Pakistan, left his 12th floor room to explore the city and called an elevator. When the doors opened, Ashraf, without thinking, stepped through. He fell to his death down the empty lift shaft and crashed through the roof of the car, which was still at the lobby.

toronto ford hotelThe final chapter in the Ford Hotel's history was similarly tragic. On July 26th, 1973 the lifeless, mutilated body of 9-year-old Kirkland Deasley was found on the bed of a ninth floor room by Nabir Cassir, a clerk. Deasley had left home that day to earn money carrying groceries at a Parliament Street supermarket and had seemingly been lured inside by a man later identified as John McBeth Finlayson, a 37-year-old drifter and part-time baker. He had been sexually assaulted, bitten, and strangled.

As police released details of the shocking crime, vigilante groups began roaming the east end where men matching Finlayson's description had been seen. Meanwhile, Cassir, the clerk who made the gruesome discovery, received threatening calls telling him to keep quiet about the crime. He said an anonymous caller to the hotel has asked room 955 to be locked prior to the child's body being found. Kirk Deasley was buried in his baseball uniform along with his catching glove, ball, and prized hockey trophy on July 31, 1973.

toronto ford hotelThe day before, a man wearing blue workpants and shirt was spotted walking along a highway feeder road west of Burlington, his thumb out for a ride. A suspicious driver called phoned in a report and that afternoon cops picked up the wanted man and returned him to Toronto.

At his trial, John McBeth Finlayson pleaded not guilty but admitted he was responsible for the death of Deasley. The court heard how Finlayson attacked his sisters as a child and would watch them dress. In separate incidents, the troubled man attempted to throttle his older sister and bludgeon his younger sibling with a wrench. His family life was defined by fights, alcohol abuse, and screaming matches.

As an adult, he would regularly beat his wife and spend several months in the Don Jail for attacking the four-year-old son of a friend. In 1969, he lured two young girls to his apartment on Parkwoods Village Drive. He was sentenced to Millbrook Correctional Centre but later moved to a facility for alcoholics and sexual deviants. A 12-person jury found Finlayson not guilty by reason of insanity and he was admitted to a high-security psychiatric hospital.

toronto ford hotelThe case likely finished off the Ford Hotel's reputation. The business announced it would close in 1973 and workers would soon begin demolishing the building. Bar and bedroom furniture, TVs, pictures, and furnishings were snapped up by nostalgia buffs. Various grubby signs, bottles of bear oil, and even a barber's chair were hot ticket items at the sale.

Various papers eulogized the hotel but none seemed to believe it would be missed. "The Big F," as it had came to be known, was "a haven for prostitutes and homosexuals, a place for one-night stands, a hideout for cheating wives and husbands," according to The Star. A few indignant former customers sent letters to the editor in its defense, but when the Ford finally came down in October 1973, no-one really cared.

Photos: City of Toronto Archives, Wikimedia Commons, Bob Whalen, Robert Taylor, and Steve Munro

Discussion

17 Comments

Simon Tarses / November 24, 2012 at 03:02 am
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Too bad nobody could renovate it and keep it going as a luxury hotel, but I guess with Sutton Place already up the street, it wasn't needed.

This story serves up a warning for those places that are brand spanking new like the condo that is being built on the land that Sutton Place now is; they too, with just a little bad luck and bad timing (as well as changing tastes and economic fluctuations) could end up like the Ford Hotel. I wonder which new place will that same fate happen to?
Jensen / November 24, 2012 at 09:22 am
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ParkwoodS Village Dr. Plural.
Adam Sobolak / November 24, 2012 at 09:42 am
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"I wonder which new place will that same fate happen to?"

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Not that *it's* the said place; but interesting that this piece popped up right after Toronto's Trump Tower got mired in investor etc. controversy...
norm / November 24, 2012 at 02:07 pm
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Hi Chris, I'll send a copy of my 4 page memoir "Ford Hotel Days" to anyone interested in my memories of being a room clerk there in the mid-'60's. ncopperman@yahoo.ca
Chris Bateman replying to a comment from norm / November 24, 2012 at 02:21 pm
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Sure, sounds good Norm: chris@blogto.com
Robert Taylor / November 24, 2012 at 04:06 pm
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My late father-in-law spent his first night as an immigrant to Toronto at the Ford Hotel.
Dean / November 24, 2012 at 11:10 pm
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When I visited Calgary in Fall 1963, a slight acquaintance asked me if there were still two dollar girls at the Ford Hotel in Toronto. Norm?
Jonathan / November 25, 2012 at 11:30 am
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I have always found it fascinating to read how people lived for so many years in such confined spaces, but I'm guessing the next 20 years will show a growing demand for simple housing like this. Thunder Bay had the West Hotel, Fort Frances had the Rainy Lake Hotel (both closed and were in terrible shape at the end) but served a purpose - in the 1950's they usually housed single men who worked in the lumber camps or iron ore mines; these were often in the roughest parts of town (like those hotels along Main St in Winnipeg) and after the lumber mills slowed down these hotels became home to anyone needing a cheap place. It's not a good sign when people with a masters degree can barely afford to live in Toronto, and the days of living at the Y or other low-cost downtown housing (so one doesn't need a car or a $100 bus pass) are over.
norm replying to a comment from Jonathan / November 25, 2012 at 03:58 pm
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Jonathan, there were many "working class" men just arrived by bus or train who stayed at the Ford because it was the cheapest downtown handy hotel. The "Y" might have been cheaper but you usually shared a room. They stayed briefly while they were looking for a reasonable room for rent somewhere close to their job. The Ford served a very useful purpose in this respect and it was safe. Norm.
norm replying to a comment from Dean / November 25, 2012 at 04:04 pm
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Dean, As a randy young desk clerk I met many young women just arrived in Canada looking to settle in Toronto if they could get a job. As for $2 girls, well, I never met any but again I did not hang out in the Tropical Room because it was forbidden for hotel staff to patronize this bar. Our house "dick" Mr. King had express orders to keep an eye out for naughty ladies and I certainly didn't sell rooms to "quicky" couples (believe it or not). Norm.
CJ / November 30, 2012 at 01:25 am
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:( The Atrium is so ugly
omer Atcha replying to a comment from Robert Taylor / December 2, 2012 at 08:09 pm
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I also spend 2 nights after I arrived from India, kind immigration officer recommend me to stay there because I had $90.00, paid $12.00 per night, I share with my friend a huge king size bed, beautiful decoration. Victorian type furniture and big ceramic tub.


Rutherford / January 4, 2013 at 10:34 am
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As a British academic undertaking research into the case of John McBeth Finlayson described above, I would be grateful for any additional biographical information that either the author or any readers may have about Finlayson -- and in particular, information about his family and his childhood.

Any assistance would be very gratefully appreciated.
Harry / May 19, 2013 at 05:22 pm
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I will always remember this Hotel, it gave me my first four night of refuge and place to sleep on my arrival in Canada on July 1, 1963 - almost 50 years ago. I didn't know it was Canada's birthday and everywhere else was full, including the Y and all I had to my name was $300. I paid $10 per night. After checking the Y at about 11 p.m. that night and found it full, I asked the TAXI driver to take me to a cheap Hotel - that's where he took me. I had no idea I was sharing it with men and women of the Night. That marked my arrival to Canada.
Evelyn / January 21, 2014 at 04:41 pm
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In 1968 my 6 month old brother and myself (16mth) were taken from mothers house and abandoned. The childrens aide were later called and we were taken and put in foster care where we were later put up for adoption. I would love to here from anyone that may have more information on this.
Evelyn / January 21, 2014 at 04:43 pm
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Correction on my last post...I was 18 months when abandoned at the Ford Hotel by my biological father.
Steve / January 27, 2014 at 04:59 pm
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Thank god that peice of shit is gone!!!

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