Paul Wilson: Lister Block memories live on

The restoration of the Lister Block has made it shiny and new, but the old spirits still wander its corridors.

Lawyer worked there a lifetime

Frances Markle and daughter Maureen Markle Reid remember the lawyer who made the Lister Block his home for nearly seven decades. (Paul Wilson)

The city hopes to officially open the Lister Block next month. You should go to the ceremony, because that building belongs to you. Hamilton paid nearly $30 million for the restored Lister. That's $60 from every man, woman and child.

I got a lot of stories out of the Lister over the years. Don't hold me to it, but this could be the last.

The building opened in 1924, and there was a bowling alley, radio station, billiards hall, restaurant, a steamship agency selling pilgrimages to Rome for the 1925 Holy Year. In the offices, lawyers, accountants, realtors, insurance agents, dentists, chiropractors.

 But when I first visited the Lister in the mid-'80s, the building was on life support. The elevator only went to the fourth floor by then - five and six had been sealed off for nearly a decade.

Eerie trip

I managed to get up there anyway. It was an eerie trip, long lines of wooden doors with the names of departed occupants  stenciled in gold on the frosted glass - Cowan Investigations, Alcoholics Anonymous, Foresight Psychic Centre.

(It was a sad day when the building switched from manned elevators to automatic in the '50s. The disabled lift operator, put out of work by the move, saw northing else ahead and killed himself.)

I went back to the Lister several times through the early '90s. I met those who wouldn't leave until someone ordered them to go.

There was German immigrant Fred Ludewigt, owner of Mr. Fredericks Arpege Beauty Salon. He said his 80 regulars didn't mind walking down the dim, dusty hallways.

And George Bulatko, barber. In his chair when I stopped by was a  broad-chested steelworker named Frank, who for some reason had taken off his shirt to get that $6 haircut.

I met Connie Pucai, survivor of a Russian work camp. She started renting a chair at the Lister Block's Powder Bar in 1959 and took over the business a couple of decades later. She always flew a little Canadian flag.

And I heard stories of those long gone, like shoeshine kings 'Dubber' Salerno and Joe Diciccio, who ran chairs in the Lister for some 40 years.
The Lister Block, directly across from the old city hall on James North, was one of the busiest addresses in town. (Hamilton Public Library)

But for longevity at the Lister, no one could touch H. Patrick Marck. He arrived in 1926, just a couple of years after it opened. And he left in 1993, just a couple of years before they sent the last tenants packing.

Lawyer loved the Lister

Marck, one of ten kids of a North End barber, was a lawyer. He and brother Albert graduated from Osgoode on the same day and promptly moved into a corner office at the Lister. Years later, the brother relocated  to Main East.

Marck didn't even consider making the move. He loved the Lister and being right downtown and poking into Eatons, Birks, the Right House. From his soft-lit quarters, he handled property, estates, general duties, the odd divorce.

He did change floors through the decades. At the end, he was on the second floor and I visited him there. He sat at a walnut desk he bought in 1941, when he upgraded all the office furniture from oak. And I met his true-blue secretary of 35 years, Lillian Anderson.

By then Marck was 90 and liked to take the odd nap. He would draw the curtain across and the loyal Lillian would run the ship. The following summer, Marck retired. The next year, after a brief illness, he died.

Daughter returns

He and wife Kathleen left one child, Frances Markle. She has not been in the Lister since her father left there. Until now. We head there, to see the shiny restoration, with her daughter Maureen Markle Reid.

Frances would stop by the Lister in the '40s, after a soda up the street at Renner's. She would visit her dad's office, where her uncle always fished into his pocket for some spare change.

Frances would stop in at Anne Foster's music shop in the Lister for accordion sheet music, and some days head upstairs to Mr. Hanna at the Brenmore Beauty Clinic. "He was fabulous," Frances says. "People used to stop me on the street and ask where I got my haircut."
Frances Markle used to visit her father's office at the Lister in the 1940s. (Paul Wilson)

Her daughter Maureen remembers too. After swimming lessons at the Y, she would stop by her grandfather's office. "It gave me a warm feeling there. He liked to show me off." And she too bought sheet music at Anne Foster's, but for the piano.

Mother and daughter walk through the wide entrance off James, just as they did all those years ago. They are moved.

Great cost

The transformation is hard to believe. The skylights, the gleaming terrazzo floor, the dark-wood doors and brass hardware - it's all familiar, all beautiful.

But it came at great cost. Was it a good thing to bring back the Lister? "I hope so," Maureen says.

She is assistant dean at Mac's School of Nursing, and healthy aging is her research speciality - an interest she's sure was inspired by her grandfather. These days she hardly ever visits the core. But if the Lister can spark new life, she says, she might return to the downtown that H. Patrick Marck loved so much.

The spirits of those who went before have not left the Lister Block.

Anna Bradford, head of culture and tourism for the city, has a new office on the second floor. "We walk up and down these halls and we feel the connection to all those people," she says. "The memories are still here."