Gladstone no more?

Trendy art set will soon occupy last old-time hotel -- where will real people go?

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The desire to own a house or condoloft is completely foreign to me. My dream home is something much simpler, and like anything simple or sensible, the modern world has rendered it, if not obsolete, at least unattainable. I have always wanted to live in a hotel.

When you live in a hotel, you don’t have to buy furniture, clean house or wash sheets. There’s no first and last month’s rent to pay, no references beyond the desk clerk’s assessment of your character.

You receive your phone messages with your key, and there is a sense of security — however false — that goes with the sign “No non-paying guests in the rooms.”

Toronto has always lacked hotels with reasonable weekly rates. The Spadina Hotel has been converted into a backpackers’ hostel ($24-$27 per bunk, four to 10 people per room).

The former hotel’s tavern, 1950s time-capsule Cabana Room and quietly elegant “bar car” have all been wiped out to create an environment ugly enough to make the kids comfortable.

Train station

There remains only the venerable Gladstone Hotel, a handsome landmark since 1889. Passengers alighting at the old Parkdale train station could be assured of the quality befitting a hotel that was the west-end alternative to the King Edward.

The train station is gone, but the Gladstone is still a stunning edifice, its stone carvings and romantic corner room rising above the four floors below. Inside, things have slipped a little in 112 years.

Of the Gladstone’s 62 rooms, most are rented by the night to visitors like the eccentric young farmer from Beaverton I met in the hotel bar. He found the hotel through an ad in the accommodations listings in a Toronto daily.

There are, however, at least 30 paying guests who have been at the Gladstone for more than a year, some more than a decade. Artist Walt Ruston, who lives in the “penthouse,” has been here since 1963.

I’ve met construction workers staying at the hotel who have been unable, not surprisingly, to find any other housing in the city.

Mean climate

Among the long-term tenants are pensioners who are too physically and financially challenged to relocate in the impossibly mean rental climate of downtown Toronto. The current weekly rate at the Gladstone is $156.20, without a phone, washroom in the room or cable or air conditioning. The older residents are paying an older rate.

I have lived in cheap hotels in Vancouver, Mexico City and one in San Francisco that’s long gone. Hotels everywhere have always had discreet long-term tenants as well as tourists and temporary guests. This fact is unknown to outsiders. Naturally, hoteliers prefer to make more money renting by the night (by the quarter-hour in Mexico).

Michael Tippin, the developer responsible for the renovation of the Flatiron building on Wellington Street, who has conditionally purchased the Gladstone Hotel for the relatively nominal sum of $2.5 million, says he was initially unaware of the existence of tenured residents.

He was informed by the owners, the feuding Appleby brothers (Herb wants to sell Al doesn’t Herb has been charged after allegedly trying to get someone to off Al) that the hotel would be emptied and closed in any case. Tippin, who envisions the place as a haven for artists, says of the old tenants, “Legally, it’s not our issue. Morally, it could be.”

There are so many hotel-dwellers in Vancouver that they’re recognized as tenants by the Downtown Eastside Residents Association. But, then, Vancouver has always been more honest about the existence of poverty than Toronto, where recognition comes only in the form of more policing.

When I say I always wanted to live in a hotel, I mean a place like the one in Marilyn Monroe’s noirest film, Don’t Bother To Knock.

That hotel had a restaurant, pharmacy, beauty shop and tobacconist. In the Roundup Room, a gal took photos of the patrons that could be transferred onto matchbooks or dishes.

Best of all, in each hotel room was a switch to bring in a broadcast of the live music from the Roundup Room. In Vancouver, I just used to crook my head out the ventilation shaft to hear the band. When they lured me downstairs by doing Sea Of Heartbreak, the perceptive guitarist said I looked like a performer and invited me to Seattle.

But even those days are gone. There is no glamour in hotel residency now.

When I was on a bus tour with some American urban planners, we passed by the Gladstone and that changing section of Queen West. “Look at all the new art galleries,” I pointed out. “Bad sign.”

Final round

My interpretation left them gaping. Art galleries are a sign of “urban renewal,” aren’t they? To me they’re just the harbinger of a final round of gentrification. Years ago the Cameron went from tavern to “art bar.”

The existing culture of older day drinkers, single men who drank alone, was driven out. The Thursday-night art workshop is a tradition in the side bar at the Gladstone, but the regular clientele is a much broader mix, more representative of established Parkdale.

The Gladstone is one of the very few places left for people who are not rich, young or beautiful to drink in comfort.

The manufacturing industries that provided a ready crowd for the Gladstone’s beer are gone. Nick, the dignified waiter with exactly 32 years and 2 months service in the bar, remembers the times when the draft just flew off the double-stacked trays and drinkers on the far side of the room went thirsty due to demand.

Still, the back room called Bronco’s is packed out every time Swamperella plays, karaoke draws on the weekends and the bars could easily do better under optimistic management.

It’s Monday at 5, and the bar is pretty quiet except for the sound of the two TVs on different channels and the banter of the half-dozen customers seated at the long, curvy oak-edged bar.

Across the road, the Street Connection bus gives hot dogs to the hungry. GO trains whip by the piles of freshly excavated railroad ties. Talk turns to the imminent closure.

Ann, the bartender, expresses her doubts about finding another job. “They’ll take a young woman before they’ll take me,” she says.

One of the fellas declares of any bar that turns her down, “We’ll say we’re not drinking here unless they hire you!” “Sure,” she answers, “you say that when you’re drinking, but when it gets down to the nitty gritty….”

She mock-admonishes an older patron, “You shouldn’t be saying ‘one for the road.’ Good thing you don’t drive — I’d have to cut you off.”

A resident tells me Herb Appleby recently tried to oust him over a $200 debt. The debt is paid, but according to a staffer, Herb, who is banned from the hotel at specific times and hours, intends to clear the tenants out “one by one — he’s going to get everybody.”

Herb has a preliminary hearing on Friday (August 26) over the charges stemming from his death threats against Al.

Filthy shag

I go to the desk and ask to see a room. They have been told not to rent any more by the week. The nightly rooms are on the lowest floor. I put my shoulder to the door that’s stuck on a lump of filthy shag carpet. Big ridges under the rug make walking on it precarious. This $49.25 room has a double bed, bath, TV and a phone to the front desk.

It overlooks a roof covered in glass shards and the Price Chopper parking lot. It’s not a bad room, but the dispute between the hotel owners has prevented investment in upgrading.

I have to pull the door hard to close it. This brings an all-swearing condemnation of door-slamming from an unseen neighbour.

If Tippin’s bid goes through, he will spend as much as he pays for the Gladstone to restore it. Room rates will double, and the nature of the place will change.

The farmer from Beaverton won’t be able to afford to visit the city. So far, neither hotel staff nor tenants have been given any notice pertaining to the impending deal. If the future of the long-term hotel residents is dependent on the conscience of the current owners, I fear for them.

For a few million dollars of national disaster aid, Toronto could buy the Gladstone and maintain it as low-cost temporary and long-term housing and licensed community centre.

Sorry, the mayor is busy packing moose to fly to Sydney. Maybe that will lose us the Olympics.

At this moment, the fate of the Gladstone has not been sealed. Hope for good news at the “Happy Rock.”





Built: 1889

Architect: George M. Miller

Original name: Robson Hotel

Present owners: the Appleby family, since 1964

Last restored: 1988

Number of rooms: 58-62

Cost of a room per night: $49.25

Compiled by Geoffrey Chan

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