The Hotel Hamilton sign on James North was put up more than 20 years ago by the shamelessly-flamboyant Rev. Ron Burridge. Check that sign out now, because it’s coming down.
I first ran into Rev. Ron in 1984, when he had parishioners coming to a makeshift place of worship on West Avenue. "Devil, you’re not taking her with you," he shouted to a woman writhing on the floor.
In Toronto, he’d been a hair colourist. Here, he was an exorcist and landlord. He had a couple of rooming houses and his tenants gave him lots of trouble, probably for good reason.
Rev. Ron hated the landlord and tenant legislation because it made it hard to kick people out when they didn’t pay. "My Bible says if you don’t work, you don’t eat," he declared.
A drive in his Lincoln
So Rev. Ron went driving one night in his silver Lincoln. And there at the corner of James and Mulberry, he saw a For Sale sign on a place called Siesta Rooms. It was a three-storey building that began life 125 years ago as the Armoury Hotel, then the Drake Hotel.
The hotel part was important. It meant Rev. Ron could send guests packing without a lot of fuss. He decided to call his place Hotel Hamilton and put up a shiny new sign.
Inside, however, the place was a dive. And Rev. Ron wasn’t prepared to do much more than slap on a coat of paint and collect the rent. He eventually tired of the life. He put the place up for sale. He’d paid $200,000, and thought it was worth a million more than that.
It wasn’t. Somebody from Toronto finally bought it about six years ago and Rev. Ron went off to Mexico.
New investors cared
Everything changed three years ago when four investors who cared about downtown bought the Hotel Hamilton for $530,000 and then spent a lot more than that turning it into studios for painters, photographers, writers, whoever needed clean, affordable and funky work space on burgeoning James North.
Glen Norton, now the city’s manager of urban renewal, was one of those investors. He says one reason they left Rev. Ron’s sign up was that funds were short after spending so much restoring the interior of the old hotel.
Now they have the cash to take the old panel out, refurbish the frame, renew the lights and put in a new panel to trumpet The Studios at Hotel Hamilton. And the brick facade will be repaired and sealed. That work takes place this month.
Norton says they had liked the idea of going slow with the exterior, to reflect the evolutionary changes taking place on the street.
"But we have now reached the point where more people are saying, ‘Why don’t you fix that sign?’ than are saying, ‘Cool, I like that you kept the old sign.’"
A Sign Past Its Time will pop up every now and then on CBC Hamilton. If you’ve spotted an old sign that needs its story told, do let me know.