The echoes of Toronto’s torn-down buildings are loud and empty.
If there were international prizes for destroying a city’s heritage, Hogtown’s prowess at demolishing its own history would take a gold every time.
Sometimes all that’s left is empty space – alleyways, parking lots, public squares.
I’m writing a book and companion podcast about the disappearance of Toronto theatre magnate Ambrose Small on December 2nd, 1919.
Trying to find more than a handful of buildings in which Ambrose Small and his wife, Theresa, might have set foot is surprisingly difficult.
There’s the Smalls’ house in Rosedale, the Dominion Bank building at King and Yonge, Massey Hall, the Royal Alex and the King Eddy – but that’s about it.
The Dominion Bank Building, at the southwest corner of King and Yonge, plays a key part in the Ambrose Small mystery.
The ‘Before’ image here is from an old postcard.
On December 1st, 1919, in an upper boardroom, Ambrose and Theresa Small received a $1-million dollar down payment cheque for the sale of their theatre chain.
The next day, the Smalls retuned and Ambrose deposited the cheque in the central banking room with its soaring two-storey ceilings.
Then there’s the matter of the $200,000 worth of bonds that Ambrose’s secretary, John Doughty, removed from the Smalls’ safe-deposit box in the basement.
Ambrose Small disappeared on the evening of December 2nd, 1919, just a few hours after depositing the million-dollar cheque.
John Doughty had removed the bonds over the course of three visits to the bank – on December 1st and 2nd.
But for our purposes, the Dominion Bank building is a rarity, first, in the sense that it survived, and second, that it directly ties into the mystery.
Even when one tries to find buildings that the Smalls might have been in throughout the course of their everyday lives – never mind during Ambrose’s last days – the pickings are slim.
In some cases where once there was something, there is now nothing – not even a new building.
Theresa Small was an active and prominent fundraiser for various charities.
As such, she attended numerous charity events at the Carl-Rite Hotel, later renamed the Union Hotel.
It stood on the northeast corner of Front and Lower Simcoe streets, kitty-corner to the present-day Toronto Convention Centre.
Today, its pleasantly rambling bulk is absent in favour of – a parking lot.
The ‘Before’ image is an old postcard from its Union Hotel days.
But you can see that the building just visible at the far right has survived.
It’s home to the Canyon Creek Chop House.
The Toronto Armouries resided in a wonderfully castle-like building on the present-day site of the Provincial Courts building on University Avenue.
Part of the space once occupied by the Armouries is now an open area almost purpose-made for protests.
Ambrose and Theresa Small attended the Motor Show (the pre-cursor of today’s Auto Show) at the Armouries in 1912.
During World War I Theresa Small also attended events there as a member of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE) a sort of Monarchist benevolent society.
As for Ambrose Small’s headquarters, the Grand Opera House on the south side of Adelaide Street, just west of Yonge, the only thing that survives today is an alleyway called Grand Opera Lane.
And here’s how desperate this search has become – Grand Opera Lane was an alleyway back in the day.
It ran its present course south off Adelaide on the east side of the Grand Opera House.
That’s more than you can say for Johnston’s Lane that ran down the west side of the building.
Johnston’s Lane included a private exit from the building so that Ambrose could come and go without having to worry about meeting the numerous people he’d wronged, to whom he refused to pay monies owed, or to whom he’d simply been a jerk.
Alas, as you can see from the present-day photo, Johnston’s Lane has long since been built over.
For that matter, you can’t even see any sky in today’s photo, so dense are the looming skyscrapers.
That’s all the search for Ambrose Small leaves us – a parking lot, a small public square, and … an alleyway.
Geordie Telfer has written several non-fiction books of Canadian history and trivia for various imprints of Folklore Publishing in Edmonton. You can find his Ambrose Small podcast, Hogtown Empire, at hogtownempire.com or subscribe through iTunes.