Is Hotel Waverly's lurid past keeping it from heritage designation?

One of Toronto’s oldest (and, some say, seediest) hotels does not meet the criteria for a heritage building, the Heritage Preservation Services ruled recently.

'A sense of nostalgia...doesn’t necessarily warrant physical protection'

The Hotel Waverly, located on the northwest side of Spadina Avenue and College Street, will not qualify for heritage status, according to a re-evaluation by Heritage Preservation Services. (Wikimedia Commons)

One of Toronto’s oldest (and, some say, seediest) hotels does not meet the criteria for a heritage building, it was decided recently.

Hotel Waverly is a four-storey low-rise hotel located in on Spadina Avenue close to the University of Toronto's downtown campus. It first opened in 1900, and has been in continuous operation since.

It seems like a shoo-in for Toronto's Heritage Preservation Services, the group which determines the designations for the Toronto Presentation Board. But it did not qualify as a Toronto heritage building — which led to a discussion on what the criteria for preservation should be and how the nature of heritage in Toronto is changing.

The Wynne Group, which has owned the the site of the Hotel Waverly for nearly 30 years, had plans to build a 20-storey tower that will house mostly students and also include a rebuilt Silver Dollar Room, the live music bar attached to the hotel.

Heritage Preservation Services is a group that advises the Toronto Preservation Board and City Council on issues relating to the Ontario Heritage Act. The Act "allows municipalities and the provincial government to designate individual properties and districts in the Province of Ontario, Canada, as being of cultural heritage value or interest." according to their website. 

Staff recently completed their re-evaluation and decided that The Hotel Waverly, located on the northwest side of Spadina Avenue and College Street, should not qualify for heritage status.

But many argued and fought for the historic spot, built in 1900 by John J Powell, touting of its cultural significance. The poet Milton Acorn stayed in the hotel for many years while writing of the area.

Despite a failure to receive heritage protection, Mary MacDonald, acting manager of Heritage Preservation Services, said that the public discourse over the matter showed we're seeing a shift in what we see as worthy of the heritage designation, that it isn’t just something for the very old and ornately beautiful.

"I think in the city what we are definitely challenging ourselves to do is make sure we are taking into account all levels of society, all of the various groups that have come to the city over the last couple of centuries," she told Metro Morning Thursday.

They had already decided to preserve part of the structure connected to the Silver Dollar Room — an iconic jazz, blues and rock venue, but during the re-evaluation MacDonald said they looked at if the Waverly itself held enough cultural importance "particularly in the poetry community" largely in part to the fact that poet Milton Acorn lived in the hotel for a long while.

But the committee found that other locations had stronger links to the city’s poetic past.

They did a lot of research, looking through mentions of the Waverly in newspapers over its century-long existence and found "a lot of stories you'd find for any number of buildings in the city" like social gatherings, problems and even murder.

A sordid past

  • Hotel guest, Arthur Lucas — a criminal from Detroit — killed two people on Nov. 17 1961. He fled and was caught in Detroit the next day. He, along with Ronald Turpin, was hung in 1962 at the Don Jail in what would become Canada’s last execution.
  • There are rumours that James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., spent time at the Waverly while on the run.
  • During the 1970s and 1980s the hotel was saw many drugs and prostitution raids. 

How does this more lurid past affect the prospect of a heritage designation?

"Definitely not from the city's perspective," she said, adding that there are a number of recommendations given by staff to preserve places some people do not care to remember.

"It's not because it has a kind of checkered past that staff have come to the conclusion that it doesn't merit protection. Its because we need to make sure we are being intentional about the places that we want to have preserved which doesn't mean anything about the history."

Toronto as a city does have a certain history of…well, erasing history. But MacDonald says a lot of that is changing as sites are being examined more frequently because of rampant development across the city. The goal, however, would also be to begin surveys before development commences.

"We do research the places that are valuable to people, whether or not a place has some interest in memory or some sense of nostalgia to a group doesn’t necessarily mean it warrants physical protection."