Toronto Through My Lens

“Meet Me Under The Clock”

While running errands last weekend, I passed through the construction hoarding of the massive conversion/construction project in which the historic St. Charles Tavern building, on Yonge Street above College, is being integrated into a new highrise residence. On the hoarding were historic pictures of the Tavern’s events from years past, accompanied by relevant text. I was suddenly struck by the thought, Hey, this would make for a great blog post… so that’s what I did. Being that it’s currently Halloween also injected a shot of inspiration.

Early Days

Ah, the St. Charles building and clock tower… what a history.

The clock tower, located at 488 Yonge Street above College Street, was built in 1870, and was Toronto Fire Hall No. 3 for many years. I read somewhere that the tower was purpose-built so that the fire department could store the fire hoses in the height of the tower.

Starting in the 1920s the tower/building was turned into retail spaces. Apparently there was everything from bicycle shops and car dealerships to an art gallery, which was damaged by fire during the Second World War. With its new identity as a restaurant/club/lounge, the St. Charles Tavern opened in 1951, serving Chinese-Canadian fare. The old Fire Hall’s surviving brass rail and tower were a central component of its marketing campaign: “Meet me under the clock!”.

The St. Charles’ gay roots start to show… “Call Me Miss-ter”, indeed.

Gay History Begins

By the early 1960s, the St. Charles Tavern became known as a gay bar – and this is where the real interesting history starts! Any Torontonian knowing even a small bit of our city’s gay history has heard about the infamous St. Charles Tavern and what used to transpire there.

For many years the St. Charles Tavern was the starting point for the drag queen promenade. The Halloween drag shows that happened there during the 1960s and 1970s are stuff of legend. Unfortunately, so much violence accompanied it.

At that point in history it was illegal to wear clothes of the opposite sex in public; potential harassment and arrest would frequently follow. The only day of the year that opposite-sex clothing was permitted to be worn in public was Halloween, hence the massive crowds at the St. Charles Tavern on that special night of the year.

But, oh the violence of the time…

The gay-haters lined up by the hundreds (and later, the thousands) to jeer and heckle the drag queens (some deposited from limousines) as they arrived at the St. Charles. Rotten eggs, hatred, taunts and threats of physical violence flew in abundance.

A Toronto Star article from November 1, 1971 reported that an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 onlookers, many of them hostile, had turned out Halloween night to participate in the spectacle that year. Police blocked off the street, and “only admitted and obvious homosexuals were allowed through police lines.”

“Hey, eggs don’t hurt as much as bricks do”

Local police officer

In 1977, Toronto mayor David Crombie ordered police to intervene and provide protection to the gay community accessing the tavern on Halloween. That year, the crowd was estimated at 8,000 strong. As the crowd threw eggs, one police officer remarked to a reporter, “Hey, eggs don’t hurt as much as bricks do”. Local businesses participated in keeping the gay community safe. The Westbury Hotel, across the street from the St. Charles, closed 120 rooms facing Yonge Street to prevent attacks from above.

“On October 31, 1979, despite promises to control and disperse the crowd, police failed to prevent a violent, homophobic mob from gathering on Halloween evening on Yonge Street in front of the St. Charles Tavern. Almost 2,000 people gathered on the street, throwing eggs and chanting “Kill the queers.” The Yonge Street entrance to the bar was actually closed; patrons entered by the back alley door, which was heavily guarded by police. At least 103 people in the mob were arrested, most of whom were charged with breach of the peace. A volunteer gay defence patrol, Operation Jack O’Lantern, spent the evening escorting gays and lesbians through the neighbourhood, and became involved in at least one altercation.”1

Photos From Back In The Day

As a gay man living happily in the 2020s enjoying the current full rights and privileges I take for granted in our Canadian society, the photos below enrage and disgust me. WHY was this allowed to happen?!! HOW could this happen?!! It’s utterly mind-blowing to me. Had this been any other marginalized racial or religious group, you know damn well this blatant hatred and hostility would never have been allowed to occur. “Kill the queers!!” seemed to be the mantra of the time. Shameful… utterly shameful.

OK, rant finished now… on to the photos.

The haters and gawkers wait for more drag queens to arrive. At least there’s police presence.
Crowds gather outside the St. Charles to jeer and taunt the arriving patrons
And yes, this was the intellectual level of the haters and bashers who cruised Yonge Street. yelling “Kill the queers!!”
A brave drag queen fights back after being pelted head to toe with eggs
Nice welcoming Committee
At least she’s getting police protection!
The haters wait for the drag queens to arrive
One against many

Halloween at the St. Charles Tavern: A Video

Moving On…

In the 1970s, the St. Charles became outdated. The tower was designated a heritage property in 1974, however, and given a restoration treatment in the mid-1990s.

The St. Charles would gradually evolve into less of a draw for the gay community. Compared to the friendlier, gay-owned establishments popping up a few blocks over (i.e. Church & Wellesley), the bar became notorious for petty crimes, drug deals and the sex trade. The Tavern’s notoriety hit its peak after the disappearance and murders of a few patrons — brutal attacks that remain unsolved and from which the bar never fully recovered. It closed in 1987.

The final decades of the St. Charles were unceremonious. Various retail shops filled the ground floor, with dance clubs like Empire and Circus occupying the upper level until the late ’90s. The space would eventually be converted to rental apartments, but the building was emptied in late 2018 when demolition began in earnest for the new highrise that was to come.

Fast Forward…

The St. Charles is now being integrated into a building called Immix, which will be a luxury apartment (rentals) complex.

I took these shots on June 23, 2018. The entirety of the 19th-century Fire Hall tower that once stretched above the St. Charles Tavern will be incorporated into the new structure.

A Few Years Later…

I took these shots on October 14, 2022. The tower looks like it’s being consumed by the high-rise behind it. Completion can’t be far away. I do like the nod to its gay past, though, with the rainbow spire at the top of the clock tower.

What a building, what a history…


References:

Historic photos courtesy of The Arquives (Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives)
Parts of historic text courtesy of The Toronto Star
1LGLC (Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada) website

3 Comments

  1. David

    A real look into the past. It boggles the mind how hateful people can be. And this hate still exists today. On a lighter note. it was always fun to have a beer at the St. Charles after having a few at the Parkside up the street.

  2. Bob K

    This was a fantastic post. It has taken me a while to comment as I wanted Yvon to see it all, too, he developed a bit of a fascination with the clock tower when it was refurbished some years ago. Thanks for this, Marvin.

    • Marvin Job

      Thank you Bob, and so glad you both enjoyed! This one was really fun to put together. It was fascinating reading the material I found on the history of the tower and, later, the Tavern.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

© 2024 TO Cityscapes

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑

Subscribe to TO Cityscapes

Subscribe to TO Cityscapes

Join my mailing list to receive an email alert when I publish a new post.

You have successfully subscribed! Check your email for further info.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share this post with your friends!