Touring what remains of the Palace Arms one last time: photo essay

The 19th century rooming house at King and Strachan is nearing its final days to make way for a condo


The curious pink building at the corner of King and Strachan is about to be turned into a condo. Since the 19th century, it’s been known as The Palace Arms, and for years it has served primarily as a 91-unit rooming house for poor men. Nearing its final days, I had the unique opportunity to explore it. I had no expectations, wanting only to better understand the historical (and often unfairly maligned) building as it is today.

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Paul Salvatori

Myette says he’s been falsely accused of coercing tenants to move out so developers can take over the building sooner than later. The cryptic messages on these signs – mostly in Spanish and German so, as he says, the reader has to “work” to figure it out – are some of many he’s posted on his office window facing King St. They’re intended for city personnel to question their obligation to the poor, saying that he’s helped tenants find homes.

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Paul Salvatori

This is what a typical vacant room looks like. It is far from luxury, but Myette takes pride in keeping the humble dwellings clean and functional. He tells me that a few journalists have approached him, wanting to produce sensational stories about the Palace, but he was weary of tarnishing its reputation. 

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Paul Salvatori

The roof of the Palace has a distinctive conical tower cap in the corner. Getting there was a bit of a risk, having to climb a scalding hot incline adjacent to it. I was curious to see it – not just because of the view – I wanted to know what the weathered roof of a heritage building might look like. I was impressed to see it in great condition, restored by Donald’s own hands. It’s with a heavy heart that Donald stands here, recalling a tenant who jumped to his death only steps away.

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Paul Salvatori

The Palace is no stranger to tragedy. This is a room, Donald tells me, where he found a tenant who had hung himself. Like others, he has also been haunted by several deaths in the Palace, often related to drug abuse, despair and untreated mental and physical illnesses. There is a lot of pain in Myette’s voice.

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Paul Salvatori

On one day that I visit, Myette is emptying the contents of this room. A tenant of more than 20 years suddenly abandoned it. He was both a longtime hoarder and hermit, though at one time a successful steel worker. It’s a common story, Myette says: many of his tenants once led purposeful and accomplished lives. But after being in crisis, such as being fired or divorced, without supports to keep afloat. That’s how they came to the Palace.

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Paul Salvatori

Squatters have a regular presence at the Palace. Donald tells me they occupied this room by breaking through its window and, as elsewhere in the building, they likely came in to beat the elements or to consume drugs. The contents on the floor appear like the debris of an exploded time capsule – yesterday’s videotapes, letters, clothing and even a mysterious portrait of a girl litter the room. Many squatters at the Palace hold on to a hodgepodge of belongings, perhaps to establish their existence in a world where they feel invisible.

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Paul Salvatori

Before Donald gated the staircase leading to it, squatters would also occupy the basement of the Palace that used to be a popular watering hole, known as The Palace Tavern. Still with its original sign, it has since become a storage area that feels like a David Lynch movie set: retro vacuum cleaners, lamps, cash registers and pink-tiled washrooms are among the anomalies that fill it. The items s speak to a happier time when the Palace was alive and not as desolate, with only a few tenants remaining, as it is today.

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Paul Salvatori

Far from being just junk, the stuff left behind by former tenants and squatters alike includes valuable items. Myette says it’s not uncommon to discover expensive items like these rings, as former dwellers often leave without any of their belongings. I ask him why he thinks this is so, especially since valuables might ease their economic strain. Myette says that they either forgot they owned them or, worse, they’ve resigned themselves to poverty.

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Paul Salvatori

Despite its many challenges, there is a bright side to the Palace. Myette shows me a painting he made in a modest but charming living room he put together with found pieces of furniture, books and other objects.

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Paul Salvatori

Even the dingier parts of the building have not been forgotten, at least not by Myette, who has kept this withering basement washroom functional. I notice signs of human activity like the towel on the right, which could belong to one of the squatters who lives directly outside the washroom. The room is dark – only my camera flash illuminates it here.

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Paul Salvatori

At the end of my tour, Myette shows me this endearing room. Over the bed, it reads “home is where our story begins.” How many tenants are able to return to a conventional, privileged understanding of home? Myette says a large number of tenants, on account of troubled backgrounds, sadly won’t have the opportunity. I leave the Palace unceremoniously. Toronto needs much more than condos. Every person, rich or poor, deserves a safe, comfortable home.  

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