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A brief history of the Spadina Hotel

Posted by Chris Bateman / January 21, 2014

toronto global backpackersJames Macdonald's farm in the community of Minesing, a tiny settlement near the shores of the Nottawasaga River, sold for a handsome price in 1885. The proceeds, an unspecified "large sum of money," was more cash than the 24-year-old had ever seen in his life, and he planned to guard it closely during his stay at what was then referred to as the Richardson House Hotel at King and Spadina.

On arrival, Samuel Richardson, the owner of the wooden three-storey building with its neat shaded windows and ground floor bar, warned Macdonald about the gas lights in the room. The young man wasn't accustomed to the technology of the big city. He had "never tasted liquor in his life," according to a newspaper report, and the room on Toronto's busy Spadina Avenue must have seemed a world away from his rural farmhouse near Barrie.

It's not clear what he planned to do with the windfall: perhaps buy a house, stash it in the bank, or split from Union Station for a new life away from the harsh winters of Canada.

Richardson explained how to extinguish the dim lights by closing the little metal tap but Macdonald didn't follow. He was too busy worrying about the cash. Before climbing in to bed, the young man bolted the shutters, securely fastened the window, and fell asleep with gas gently hissing from the darkened lamp.

The next morning Macdonald was found "insensible" from the fumes. "For several hours his life was in danger, but at midnight, though still insensible, he was able to raise his hand to his ear, and the two physicians have good hopes of his recovery," wrote The Globe.

toronto global backpackersThe story of James Macdonald's brush with death is one of the first printed mentions of the Richardson House hotel, now the bright blue Global Village Backpackers, which closed for good last weekend "due to unforeseen circumstances." As its ramshackle appearance suggests, the property has been sheltering weary travellers for more than 130 years.

Built in 1875, the original block of the hotel was operated for several decades by Samuel Richardson, a decorated military veteran from the 13th Hussars, a cavalry regiment of the British Army that fought skirmishes in The Peninsular War, Battle of Waterloo, and the Crimean War. Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout movement, served in the regiment in India.

His property "when necessary, could room nearly 100 guests," an early advertisement declared. Richardson added two brick extensions to the building, more than doubling its capacity and dwarfing the original corner structure, before hotelier Robert Falconer took over and renamed the hotel for himself in 1906.

The Falconer Hotel (shown above) didn't last long, and it was renamed the Ziegler Hotel with another new owner seven years later. As the Toronto Sun's Mike Filey notes, the Ziegler name quickly vanished with the start of the first world war, possibly because of its Germanic sound.

toronto global backpackersThe budget Hotel Spadina emerged from the shadow of the Richardson, Falconer, and Ziegler, keeping its name in a slightly tweaked format - Spadina Hotel - until 1997.

The Spadina Hotel with its "good food," "5 T.V. screens," and nightly music in the beach themed Cabana Room accommodated the Tragically Hip, Leonard Cohen, and the Rolling Stones and served (briefly) as a backdrop to the 1973 Jack Nicholson movie The Last Detail, tagline: "No *#@!!* Navy's going to give some poor **!!@* kid eight years in the #@!* brig without me taking him out for the time of his *#@!!* life."

For bands like the Skydiggers in the '70s and '80s, the close quarters of the Cabana Room provided a much-needed springboard to wider success. The grimy interior was part of the same gig circuit that included Lee's Palace and The Cameron House.

The Spadina Hotel became one of Toronto's heritage assets in 1985. In 1997, a $250,000 renovation stripped out the many of the timeworn fixtures and faded bar furniture for bunk beds, communal bathrooms, and shared kitchens and returned the building's focus on cheap accommodation.

When it opened, Global Village Backpackers was the largest hostel in downtown Toronto - a title it passed on for good last weekend.

toronto global villageChris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Image: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library, Scott Snider/blogTO Flickr pool.



CaligulaJones / January 21, 2014 at 01:53 pm
Ah, memories of hooker haven...
scottd / January 21, 2014 at 02:09 pm
The Skydiggers did not exist in the 70's. They mostly played the ground floor taproom which most of the time was for lunch and then drinking. The upstairs Cabana (featuring Jimmy Scopes on Bar) was a full time music space that often had music 7 nights a week. In the basement was the groovy Subway room that had been a jazz space in the 70's. It had a sort of swinger lounge ski chalet vibe. It re-opened in the late 80's but by then then the Spadina Hotels days were numbered.
gz / January 21, 2014 at 02:12 pm
Sadly - due to tragic passing of Richard McCarron last month?
Gabe / January 21, 2014 at 02:13 pm
It clearly states "For bands like the Skydiggers in the '70s and '80s," LIKE THE SKYDIGGERS not The Skydiggers - the 80's covers the SkyDiggers so CHILL THE F OUT!!!!
Spike / January 21, 2014 at 04:28 pm
And yet, the Skydiggers are still preforming and making great music:
moonshake / January 21, 2014 at 05:01 pm
Fact Check: it was The Cabana ROOM not The Cabana Lounge. Skydiggers played there? ;-) I remember The Rheostatics, L'Etranger, The Woods are Full of Cuckoos and many many more. The Subway Room in the basement was really ultra retro cool. Attended a couple of birthday parties and an Oscar night pool down there.
gerry merchant / January 21, 2014 at 06:51 pm
Funny no one has mentioned that the hotel bar was used in the mid-'70s Jack Nicholson Movie "The Last Detail." Jack's character gets mad and bangs his military pistol on the bakelite surface of the bar. It made huge gouges on the surface and they were still there last time I checked.
The Lonely Troll / January 21, 2014 at 08:30 pm
I remember 'The lush sounds of the Florida Everglades'
John Labatt / January 21, 2014 at 10:26 pm
Start up the Bull Dozer Henry. Lets build a Condo Yea Haw
Hamish Grant / January 21, 2014 at 10:35 pm
Reg Hartt used to show his Sex & Violence Cartoon festival upstairs at the hotel... I remember going there several times to enjoy the seedy ambiance.
Norm / January 21, 2014 at 10:50 pm
So this is the brief History, when is the full history of the hotel coming out?
Steven Mclellan / January 21, 2014 at 10:56 pm
I only moved to Toronto 5 years ago, I love reading and seeing about the history of this great city, please keep sharing and educating.
Mk / January 21, 2014 at 11:33 pm
Best Scotch bar in town. Loved the chrome bar on a winters night. First time I saw the Inbreds upstairs.
mick / January 22, 2014 at 12:28 am
can't someone buy This property and keep it for what it is and what it was. there's not much good history in Toronto. it's all going to be condos it's not going to be downtown Toronto.. it's going to be downtown Condo
Maria / January 22, 2014 at 09:55 am
This place was a haven for me while I got my start in Canada though it defiantly needed some tlc. It was a striking building in a city with little soul. Toronto will be a strange place to me again when I return with places like Wallymagoos pushed out and condos in place of the Spadina Hotel and Honest Ed's. Have more respect for your city Toronto, buildings this old should be protected.
Yo Ma Ma / January 23, 2014 at 03:46 am
I have a postcard from the 50's which shows the Cabana Room as a type of fine dining experience. How times have changed, several times since then.
Gerry / October 8, 2014 at 09:09 am
My dad was the chef here for almost 25 years in the 60s to the 80s. I worked here when .i was a student in the 70s. At the time, it was owned by the Poulis family, dad and three sons although the youngest son moved to Nova Scotia early on.
Mike / April 8, 2015 at 05:19 pm
Loved the Spadina Hotel. Drank there from the late 80s until it closed. Especially admired the Little Bar. Cabana and Subway rooms were cool, too. I remember Dave Howard of The Dave Howard Singers working the bar for awhile.

When they opened the hostel, I hated that they gutted the Little Bar and turned it to the front desk. But it's nice to see that they're restoring it in 2015. Hopefully, they maintain any surviving interior coolness from the building we all knew and loved.
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