A Victorian on Victoria: The Comstock Building

The Comstock building has been an anchor on the west end of Lombard Street since 1890. The origin of its name is a bit of a mystery. A Toronto Daily Star article on October 20, 1920 states that it was, “Built some forty or fifty years ago by the man whose name it bore”, but does not identify who that might have been, and the city directories do not shed any light on a Mr. Comstock. Contradicting this is a 1988 City of Toronto Notice of Intention to Designate that states the building was “Built for developer Alan G. Thompson…”.  The building was actually built for Alan C. Thompson (not Alan G), an architect and real estate developer in Toronto. Why the building is called Comstock remains a mystery.

TCA initials
Alan C. Thompson’s initials in the terracotta panels on the Comstock building

Before the Comstock building, the northeast corner of Lombard and Victoria Streets was the site of the Londonderry Inn, run by Edward Brown from 1866 to 1869. Subsequent proprietors were Mrs. Mary Downey, William Robinson, and P. McNichol. Later, Richard Smith ran it as an eating house.

Londonderry Inn
Source: Toronto Public Library, 1890; Londonderry Inn

This photo shows the inn right before it was demolished to make way for the Comstock building. The building looks vacant; there appears to be no glass in the second-storey windows and you can see piles of fallen stucco on the sidewalk to the left of the front door. The ads in the windows read “Houses, Lots and Farms for sale and exchange”, possibly for real estate agents McNichol Smith & Co., and “coal and wood for sale” by McConnell & Co. Coal (both companies listed at this address in the 1890 city directory).

Architects Denison & King designed the Comstock building. Colonel Arthur Richard Denison was a prominent Toronto architect who had several different partners over his 40-year career. His collaboration with George King was very brief, lasting only from 1890 to 1891. Lombard Street has another example of Arthur Denison’s work; he was responsible for adding the tower onto Lombard Street Firehall in 1895.

From staff report-date unknown_recent
Comstock Building 73 Victoria Street. Source: City Staff Report, date between 2012-2016
Comstock Blg looking from Yonge Street
A view of the Comstock building looking from Yonge Street, when the Yonge Arcade building was demolished in 1954. Source: blogTO June 15, 2013

Arthur Denison also designed the Athenaeum Club (1891) on Church Street, south of Shuter, the façade of which still stands. Interestingly, he incorporated Moorish elements in that building. However, for the Comstock building, he was faithful to Toronto’s favoured style at that time, Richardsonian Romanesque. If one cares to look closely, they will notice a lot of ornate details, not the least of which is the squat tower on the corner that has an east facing wheel window with radiating spokes.

Comstock details labelled

The above picture shows some of these details like the wheel window. The face in profileTerra-cotta highlights include the second-story brick pilasters that are crowned by terra-cotta capitals in the composite style; the scrolls of the Ionic order and acanthus leaves of the Corinthian order are not often seen replicated in red terracotta; they are more common in stone or white terracotta.  A Greek key in brick runs along the frieze and a bearded face oversees the activity on the street corner.

On the ground floor, the large openings constructed of rusticated, or rough-faced, stone and the glazed corner with a supporting iron column are classic features of Richardsonian Romanesque commercial structures.  So too are the large arched openings (typically a true semi-circle arch) with a squat stone column surmounted with a foliage-decorated stone capital as seen in the photo on the right.

2018-05-05-14-39-15.jpg2018-05-05 14.42.30

Looking up again, we notice handsome multi-paned windows on the third-storey where the middle section of the window is curved or arched. Missing today are the gables above the 3rd storey corner windows and those on the northern and eastern bays; you can see a bit of brick corbelling in the shape of a triangle where the gables once were. The wood double brackets that used to support the gables remain and are painted grey. It looks like there are some missing decorative acroteria on the very top cornice of the tower.

Window details_Comstock Building_with labels

The next time you stroll past this building, stop, look up and consider some of these architectural features. Today’s architects struggle to animate the plain glass towers they design; Arthur Denison faced no such challenge.

The City of Toronto designated the Comstock building as a heritage structure in 1973. It stated, “The Comstock building is an excellent example of a small office building in downtown Toronto”. It was not until the 1840’s and 1850’s that Toronto saw its first purpose-built office buildings with multiple tenants, and the Comstock Building is a good example of a late-Victorian era building of this type. It is a unique building on Lombard because most of the other buildings along the street were either built as general-purpose manufactories with multiple tenants, or were single company buildings, like the R.G. McLean Co., which housed both their offices and manufacturing spaces together. Arthur C. Thompson, the first owner of the Comstock building, was a developer who invested in what was then a new concept of speculative commercial real estate.

The interior of the building has probably been reconfigured considerably; it’s likely that the offices were small, to attract sole-proprietor and smaller businesses. In fact, most of the first tenants were real estate agents, barristers, and solicitors. The 1910 city directory lists 10 real estate agents, 4 barristers and an accountant.  Sinclair & Sinclair real estate agents were tenants for over 40 years.

sinclair_sinclair ad
Source: Toronto Daily Star May 7, 1904: a good year of real estate sales for Sinclair and Sinclair

In 1910 an unnamed land syndicate company bought the building. By this time a new breed of taller office buildings (five and six-storeys!) were built in the area of King Street East, Adelaide Street East, Toronto and Victoria Streets as a result of the demand for office space and an increase in property values. By the mid-1880’s Toronto was busy annexing neighbourhoods, like Riverdale in 1884, the Annex in 1887, and Parkdale in 1889. Many of the developers and the mortgage & loan companies financing these new sub-divisions were in offices in and around Victoria Street. This became a place where those selling and financing the speculative real estate converged. A quick survey of the area in 1893 identified a minimum of 13 savings and loan companies in this vicinity, including several in the Comstock building.

For example, the Globe Savings and Loan Company was one of the first tenants in the Comstock building. Established in 1892, it remained in the building until at least 1950. It was a cooperative financial institution where individual members, with little equity, subscribed and paid monthly dues in exchange for personal loans, mostly for home mortgages.

Globe Savings and Loan Co_from the Globe Jul 6 1985_2
Source: Globe & Mail July 6, 1985. Note the canopy over the entrance on the south elevation

In 1917 another real estate developer called Dovercourt Land, Building and Savings Company bought the Comstock building. This company had their own offices nearby on Victoria and they also owned the Yonge Arcade building right across the street from the Comstock building. The president of the Dovercourt Land Company, Wilfred Servington Dinnick, was known for bringing the “Garden City” movement from England to Toronto through the development of Lawrence Park Estates, or the Garden Suburb.

Dovercourt ad_TO Daily Star_1915
Source: Toronto Daily Star March 12, 1915

Another Comstock building agent, H.B.E. Scott, advertised a new housing development called Woburn Park near Bathurst and Lawrence as “The Ideal Homesite for the Man of Moderate Means”. Home ownership was heavily promoted in Canada. Toronto remained reluctant to build apartment buildings for years, believing that apartments attracted “people of lesser quality”. Consider the messaging at the top of the ad pictured below.

“Don’t ENVY the Man Who Owns His Home. Buy a home of your own. You can be like the proud and happy home-owner coming home to his wife and kiddies in Woburn Park. No gloomy, “rent-day” look ever appears on his face. Landlords are but an evil memory to him. The landlord is a terrible reality for the other man who rents his home- a constant shadow on his happiness.”

woburn-park-development.jpg
Source: Toronto Daily Star April 14, 1914

Many companies had fleeting stays in the building but are intriguing nonetheless. The famous Marconi Wireless Co. was a tenant from 1911 to 1915. It is always amusing to read advertisements for patent medicines being hocked at the time, including this September 22, 1900 help wanted ad in the Globe and Mail, which solicited “lady agents” to sell the French Remedy: “the only certain and safe remedy for all Uterine Obstructions, Monthly Difficulties, irregularities and all the other diseases to which the Woman, Wife and Mother is peculiarly liable”.

Ladies Wanted_The Globe_Sep 22 1900
Source: The Globe Sep 22, 1900

The New Idea Pattern Company, an American firm, operated their Toronto office here. The company was in business from 1894 to 1920 and bought out by Butterick. This June 14, 1909 ad for a demonstration by the New York representative at the W. A. Murray & Company clothing and fabric store on King Street East would have been a certain draw.

New Pattern_TheGlobe_June 14, 1909
Source: The Globe June 14, 1909

The Eadie-Douglas Company was a sales agent for the Terrano Flooring Co. of Canada. “Terrano Flooring has scored a wonderful success in the short time it has been in use in Canada. Architects are recommending it because “Terrano” is absolutely waterproof and dampproof, fireproof and germproof…” and according to the ad below it did wonders – it helped prevent cases of La Grippe, Pneumonia and Rheumatism due to cold floors!

Terrano Flooring_TO Daily Star_Nov 3 1908
Source: Toronto Daily Star Nov 3, 1908

It would be a surprise if research did not uncover reports of at least one fire. Luckily when the Comstock building caught fire on January 22, 1907 there was minimal damage.

Fire in Comstock Article_2

In 1920 the building was sold to Mr. R. McLelland. After this, the make up of the building’s tenants changed. It became a collection of jewellers. By 1960, diamond setters, engravers, jewellers, pearl polishers, and watchmakers fully occupied the building. This was not unusual for this neighbourhood. When Birks set up shop at 132 Yonge (between Adelaide and Richmond and directly in line with Lombard Street through the Young Arcade building), it made sense for jewellers to locate nearby. People’s Jewellers was also nearby on Yonge Street. Many buildings in the area today continue to be tenanted by businesses in the jewellery industry.

Tidman and Co articleVery few jewellery businesses advertised in the newspapers because they mostly supplied larger retailers like Birks. If they are mentioned in the newspapers it was to advertise in the Employment section, or in the case of one engraver, Tidman & Co., it was because they were in the habit of being held up. On August 11, 1951, a cash box with $24 was stolen from their engraving shop. Four years later, owner Harry Tidman had his briefcase with the weekly payroll stolen from him, but a helpful bystander tackled the would-be thieves and the money was recovered.

Over the years, a number retail tenants set up shop at street level. Crescent Concrete Paving occupied the Lombard street side from 1903 to 1910. A decorator by the name of J. T. Rowles and the Peerless Real Estate & Securities Co. also occupied the Lombard side in the early 1920s. Paul Kunze, a barber had his shop in the building from 1925 to 1947. Paul Brancier had his watch repair shop there from 1941-1967. Pollock’s Key Shop (later Pollock’s Locksmith Co.) held shop from 1952 to 1973. In this 1972 picture you can see the “keys” sign slightly blocked by a pedestrian. To the right of Pollock’s, a Coca-Cola sign for Maxie’s Smoke Shop (a chain) overhands the sidewalk. On the corner is Leon’s restaurant. On the left, on Victoria Street, is City Typewriters.

Comstock Building 1972 City Archives
Source: Toronto City Archives, 1972, Leon’s Restaurant

The first restaurant to take over the retail space on the ground level was called was the Spot Restaurant and it no doubt served up hot lunches for the surrounding businesses throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. In the early 1970’s, it was a greasy spoon called Leon’s that advertised “bacon or ham-n-eggs” and “fish and chips”. Moists’ Restaurant Delicatessen was in place only for one year in 1975, after which the Big Ben Dining Lounge took over the space.

By the late 1970s the neighbourhood had become a bit (actually a lot) downtrodden, so when the Gimlet’s strip bar opened in the Comstock building in 1979, they fit right in. Gimlet’s was “a close, low ceilinged room with dark trim and white styrofoamed murals depicting mythological scenes”. The owner, Nick Georgas, insisted that his girls were not strippers, they were dancers! And while, you might be tempted to laugh at that claim, the Gimlet’s dancers are purportedly the origins of the Flashdance movie and jazz dance craze of the mid-1980s.

Tom Hedley, the screen play writer of the film, came out of the Toronto magazine industry (he was former editor of Toronto Life and worked at Macleans). Flashdance was his third movie script. By the late 1970s, disco dancing had fallen out of fashion, but “then came the fascination with physical fitness”. Hedley and a buddy would hang out at Zanzibar on Yonge Street and at Gimlet’s. He credits a dancer at Gimlet’s for embodying this new style of dancing.

Poster for Gimlets
Source: The Globe & Mail, Jan 14, 1984

Paramount Pictures seemed a bit reluctant to back the project; they sold 28% of the movie at the last minute. They also came up to Toronto and did a “survey” at Gimlet’s for about 3 days. A surprising mega box office hit, several people have claimed to be the creators of Flashdance, but Hedley is emphatic that the idea was his and the Writers Guild agreed in an arbitration that 75% of the movie was his original work. We’ll take it! Flashdance was first “discovered” at Gimlet’s in the Comstock building!

In 1989 Denison’s Brewing Co. & Restaurants moved in, starting the string of beer pubs that continues today. It was made up of three restaurants, a casual pub in the basement called Growler’s and a slightly more upscale Crazy Louie’s Brasserie and Conchy Joe’s upstairs. Subsequent beer pubs were The Strand Restaurant and Brasserie (Amsterdam Brewery Company) and Duggan’s Brewery, run by Toronto-based brewmaster Mike Duggan (he was co-founder of Mill Street Brewery). In 2012, The Beer Academy, a result of a merger between two Molson-owned brands, took over the location. The restaurant extends northwards into the neighbouring heritage building (81 Victoria Street). Recently, they rebranded, naming a new craft brew and the restaurant Batch. Molson-Coors’ division called Six Pints Specialty Beer Co. have their offices upstairs.

Today, the front corner room of Batch gives us a good indication of what the footprint would have been for the first couple of restaurants in the Comstock building (above top left). It’s hard to know when the space started to expand behind the retail units that front Lombard Street and then northward into the building at 81 Victoria Street. The fireplace in the back room does not seem like it’s original; likely a later modification.

When it was first built in 1890, the three-storey Comstock building was a prominent business location. By the 1910s it was joined by a new generation of five and six-storey buildings along King Street East and Victoria Street. Most of these buildings were demolished to make way for the William Lyon Mackenzie (Canada Revenue) building (1960) which is now State Street. Soon, the Comstock building is going to have two residential towers that envelop it on the north (22 storeys) and east side (45 storeys). Will this defeat the little Victorian on Victoria or help amplify its heritage features against a backdrop of glass?

 

Sources Consulted: Architecture Conservancy Ontario (ACO) TOBuilt database; The Bar Towel website, Pub Profile: Denison’s; Chris Bateman, “A brief history of the first shopping mall in Toronto”, blogTO, June 15, 2013; Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada; Canada Census 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, The Chef and Restaurant database, chefDB.com; Digital Toronto City Directories online via Toronto Public Library website and in library directories; The Globe via ProQuest: Jul 6, 1895; Sep 22, 1900; Jan 22, 1907; Jun 14, 1909; Oct 21, 1920; Aug 11, 1951; Dec 31, 1955; Mar 1, 1980; Jan 14, 1984; Sep 14, 1984; Ben Johnson, restaurant reviews in blogTO, Jan 3, 2010 and July 31, 2012; Marta O’Brien, class notes Commercial Architecture, University of Toronto, 2015, Sidewalk Labs Old Toronto Sidewalk Labs database and Toronto City Archives photos as captioned; Toronto City Staff Report, 20-26 Lombard Street and 25 Richmond Street East, July 16, 2014, Toronto Public Library, online gallery as captioned; Toronto Star via ProQuest: Aug 21, 1901; May 7, 1904; May 3, 1908; Apr 14, 1914; Mar 12, 1915; Oct 20, 1920; Aug 13, 1983; Aug 16, 1988.

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