Monday, July 2, 2018

The Story of the Hotel Cavell

Suzy and I didn't know the story of the Hotel Cavell when we bought it fifteen years ago. We just knew we loved it. I remember how delighted I felt when I first saw the original wood trim and back yard shaded by a giant maple. Suzy was at work and I called right away to say she needed to come and see it. She came with her father the next day and they agreed. This was the one. Admittedly our hopes weren't high. Our budget was limited. This was well before the insane bidding wars common in Toronto today, but there were still seven bids on the house, and ours wasn't the highest offer. When our realtor asked if we wanted to offer more I said, "That's as high as we can  go." The expression on her face told me we'd already lost. We left for work the next morning sad, but resigned.

We won!

1890 Fire Map of St. Matthew's Ward
showing the proposed plan for the neighbourhood
Imagine our surprise when she called us back the next day and said, "You've won!" While our bid wasn't the highest offer, it was the only one without any conditions. That was the deal maker for the owners who just wanted shut of it after their divorce. The seeds of the story were planted the day we did our first preparatory visit. I took the bait when the tenant mentioned that everyone called the house the Hotel Cavell. Our friend Sarah Watt, daughter of the Robinson family that had originally been granted the land in Riverdale at the beginning of the 19th century, helped us move in. Sarah set the hook when she opined that the house might be the original farmhouse on the plot. This launched an investigation that would take 15 years to untangle. Fortunately the last link in the chain was forged this weekend, and I can now tell the whole story of the house and the people who lived in it.

St. Matthew's Ward in the 1880s.

St. Matthew's Ward - formerly Riverside, Riverdale,
and Leslieville beforethey were annexed in 1884
St Matthew's Ward, was the original name for what is now Riverdale and Leslieville. On the far side of the Don River Valley from the city, it was destined to be the first suburb in what is today a city of millions. Annexed into the city proper in 1884, there was virtually nothing in the area north of the railway line that cuts diagonally across the area except a few market gardens and Bain's Georgian country house on what is now Dingwall Ave.

The House is Built - 1890

Thomas Haining was a Scottish immigrant who moved to Canada in the 1880's to make a new life for his family. He came alone, and spent several years in a clapboard rooming house in what is now Leslieville. Thomas had found good work as a clerk at Carroll and Dunspaugh, the largest building supply company in the east end of the city. This gave him access to everything he needed - good bricks and sturdy cedar timber; true 8" x 8" posts, 4"x 8" joists, and 2" x 4" studs for the walls. All he needed was a plot of land, which he found in the wilds of what is now Riverdale on a dirt track named Maplewood Avenue in the dreams of Toronto's earliest planners. As he laboured over the books his dream house went up. It was a generous house with a big kitchen, a parlour and dining room, a master and three bedrooms on the second floor, and stairs up to a roomy, unfinished attic, all built on a sturdy brick foundation. A honeysuckle was planted in the front and lilacs in the back. It was a big house because Thomas and his wife, Mary McMurdo Haining, needed a lot of room. They had seven children. Francea (b. 1871), Fanny (1872), Dorothea (1876, and called Dora), Elijah (1878), Jennet (1885), and Mary (1882) waited for their father's word to come back in Scotland. 

1893 lithograph of the City of Toronto

If you look to the east end of town in this 1893 lithograph of the city you can see see Thomas Haining's house standing all alone with an inviting curlicue of smoke wafting from its chimney. X marks the spot! 

The Hotel comes to Life 1890 - 1905

Detail of the 1893 lithograph
Thomas Haining's house was ready in the summer of 1890, so he sent for Mary and the children. It was time to move in. With typical Scottish industry their eldest daughters went to work immediately: Dora as a saleslady and Fanny as a stenographer at Ames, Holden, and Co, a Montreal shoe company.  Thomas continued at Carroll and Dunspaugh even after they were bought by Wm McGuire and Co. The family enjoyed over a decade in the house before Thomas' death in 1901, and Mary and the children continued to live there until disaster struck in 1905. 

Fire and a New Family 1905-1906

Fire damage on the original wall boards
uncovered during the kitchen renovation
Sometime late in the winter of 1905 a chimney fire broke out in the kitchen in the back of the house. Mary and the children were able to put it out, but not before it damaged the walls and beams in the kitchen and spread to the second floor. The damage was too much, and Mary was faced with the hard decision to sell the house her husband had built her. It was purchased by two speculators, Thomas Beck and Charles Mead. Despite the fire the beams were still sturdy. Over the next year Beck and Mead put up new plaster and lathe and wallpaper over the damaged walls. In 1906 they sold the house 
1905 wallpaper uncovered during the
kitchen renovations
to Edward G. Evans, a concreter and his wife, Elizabeth (Bessie) Pengelly Evans. Evans provided well for his family, his wife, and his sister Ada. Their eldest daughter, Anne was born there, and they had two sons who would go on to become policemen. Anne was the girl next door to her childhood sweetheart, George Russell, from the brick house at 47 Cavell. George was a dashing man who had been a signalman in the Canadian Corps in WW1, and they married and moved into the Evans home during the roaring twenties. The entire family did very well despite Edward's death, and the future looked bright.

The Depression and WW2 1931 - 1939

Hazelwood Avenue is two streets up and shows what the neighbourhood
looked like at the time. Notice there isn't a tree in sight! 
George and Anne's daughter Elizabeth (Betty) Russell was born in the house in 1931 just after the stock market crash. She recounted to me the the Depression and WW2. George lost his job, and had to give back his new car because he couldn’t afford the payments.  He grew vegetables in the back. During the Depression Betty’s grandmother insisted the family get together weekly, and there were always lots of kids in the house.  She recalls it being a happy time. Two of her uncles were on the police force, and kept their jobs, and she remembers them always arriving with bags of groceries.  When the war started he signed up for the air force to train radiomen in Morse code.  Betty recalls her mother never swore until then.  One night at dinner he said, “What would you think if I signed up for the air force?”  Anne replied, “You’d be a damn fool!”  He said, “I’ve signed up, and I leave for Brandon, Manitoba in three days.”  Her mother went upstairs and wept.  

The War Years 1939 - 1945

Most homes in Toronto put in a Victory Garden during the war.
Ann took hers out.
While George was away Betty' mother took up the vegetable garden and planted flowers. It was difficult with him being away with the four children in it, but they managed, and it remained a happy house. They had a dog which couldn’t go into the house because of their mother’s asthma, so he lived in a insulbrick dog house all year round.  He was a nice dog, and her brothers loved him. Her grandmother, Aunt Ada, and her family all lived in the house.  Her brothers slept in the freezing unfinished attic in one bed to stay warm, and Betty remembers one of them falling through the roof into the room below. Her aunt Ada and grandmother lived in the same room at the top of the stairs and had a small kitchen in it where they used to bake cookies.  Her grandmother would say to her Aunt Ada, “You didn’t make enough,” because they could go so quickly with all the kids in the house. 

Betty's grandmother passed away during the war, but the family stayed on. Finally, in 1945 her father came home. The first thing he did was take out the flower garden and replant vegetables.

After the War 1945 - 1980

You can just see the Hotel Cavell on the right edge of
this picture from the post war period.
After Betty moved out with her new husband it was just her parents and Aunt Ada in the house.  Her mother developed Alzheimers, and became forgetful.  She recalls her father complaining, “First she made breakfast, then an hour later we would have lunch, and then an hour later dinner.”  It was a difficult time for Betty as her parents fought often, and Anne used to complain that her husband was stealing her money, though she was hiding it all around the house.  They had to be very careful when they were cleaning the house not to miss any. George died first, and then Ada died in 1977, and they had to take her mother in, and then put her in a home. The house was in rough shape. When they were emptying it out one of her brothers pulled the cabinet in the mudroom in the back right off the wall. It sat vacant for two years before they finally broke down and sold the house in 1980.

Renaissance 1980 - 1982

The house was bought by John T. Morgan, an engineering student,
The stairs today thanks to the 1980 restoration
 in 1980. He spent the next two years restoring the house. The Arts and Crafts interior doors, stairwell, banister and stiles, all the trim, and the window frames were all refinished to their original pine splendour. The kitchen was updated, the front porch was redone and the whole building was clad in new aluminum siding, and the roof re-shingled. John's work was so good that much of it has lasted untouched to this day. It was also a start of a career, and John now lives in the Maritimes where he runs a business restoring historical homes!

The Hotel is Born 1982 - 2003

John Morgan sold the house to another John, John Zaritsky, and his wife Virgina Storring. John and Virgina were film-makers, and frequently away. In their absence the house became a home away from home for many of their friends in the Toronto film community. There were so many people coming and going that their neighbours began to refer to the house as the Hotel Cavell. The name stuck.

It was while they lived here that Zaritsky won the Oscar for his documentary The Fifth Estate: Just Another Missing Kid and would have the inspiration for other award-winning documentaries, such as Tears are Not Enough, Broken Promises, and Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo. His successes paid for an updated the kitchen, put in a proper basement under the sagging back end, finished the attic, and they also made an alcove in the dining room that would host the Oscar until they moved out after their divorce.

The Hotel Lives On 2003 - Present

It's hard to believe we've lived here for 15 years, and in that time we've done our share of upkeep and updating to the house. The carpet installed on the second floor and attic was replaced with hardwood (though there is still a soft spot where Betty Evans Russell's brother, Lorne, fell through the floor). The original 1890 windows finally had to go, though we kept the original wood trim around them. The roof and eaves have been redone, a new furnace and air conditioner installed, and various coats of paint have been splashed about. Most recently we completely opened up the original kitchen, and removed the last of the fire damaged beams to give us a whole new kitchen.

More importantly, in keeping with tradition our doors have always been open, there has always been plenty to eat, and we've hosted friends, family, and even strangers from around the world. Students from Mexico, Columbia, Spain and Canada lived with us after we moved in. It has been the only home our children, Aija and Nyls, have ever known. Mary Jane Magat moved in to help us with baby Aija in 2009 and is still here almost every day. Her sons have joined her and were indispensable during the renovations.

The Heart of the Hotel Cavell

The Chruszcz family (well, some of them...) gathered
in the new kitchen for Christmas 2017
Last, and not least, we have finally realized a  dream Suzy had the day we moved in. Her grandmother, Stella Chruszcz, gathered her family every night around her kitchen table. That table finally fits in our kitchen. Today we bring people together around it just as three generations of her family did; to share a meal, to talk about their day, and build the bonds that keep a family and friends together. These traditions bridge our families and all of those that have lived here with the most important things we have to offer, our hospitality and generosity. 

We hope to see you again soon!


  1. What an amazing chronology of your home. And history of the area, so much research and love. A great read!

  2. A wonderful telling of a very interesting story. Thanks for sharing...

  3. Me and Ashley had a great time staying with you guys while we pursued our life dream! That wouldn't have been possible without you guys opening your doors to us, a pair of strangers.