Everyone does it. Whether weaving through busy sidewalks or hurriedly hailing their Uber, locals and tourists alike often race throughout Toronto’s Entertainment District with no regard for the little things. There’s The Porch’s popular rooftop view or the changing marquee at Princess of Wales Theatre, however, countless details in the district are unfortunately under the radar. In an area housing the hottest restaurants, entertainment venues and new businesses, its history remains intertwined among the excitement. By stopping to smell the roses appreciate unique street art and hidden stained-glass windows or anticipating each new phase of a construction project, the intricacies of Toronto will surprise you, shining a new light on the mundane buildings integrated within your everyday routine. The Toronto Entertainment District is known to be ever-changing in order to reflect the needs among those living and working here. With more gastronomic options than ever before and contemporary art popping up on every street corner, it’s still easy to find glimmers of the district’s past in hidden places. Luckily, we’re uncovering these hidden gems spotted around the district you’ve likely missed along the way. If you’re new to Toronto or just passing through, these are the ones you’ll want for the ‘gram or to remember for your next Toronto trivia night!
Balfour Building 119 Spadina Ave.
At first glance, you may not recognize this property as being a part of Toronto’s garment industry’s history. This awesome building crosses district borders and has been accepted as one of our own. Bordering the Fashion District, the northeast corner of Spadina and Adelaide has been taken up by the Balfour Building since 1930. Architect Benjamin Brown designed the 12-storey building for the Shiffer-Hillman Clothing Company, a prominent business tailoring men’s suits and coats until 1981.
Upon inspection, an Art Deco design style is seen throughout the building and up to the roof’s trim and tower overlooking Spadina Avenue – including a spectacular rooftop terrace! Prevalent during the 1920-30s, defining Art Deco elements include sleek and sophisticated cut stone, clean shapes, and symmetry. Next time you pass by, look out for geometric motifs carved into the limestone, and Gothic-inspired details around its entrances.
This high-rise retains its original design elements imparted onto it by Brown and is occupied today by commercial offices including the Toronto Entertainment District BIA, Canada Post, and Tim Hortons!
Strange Love Mural 101 Spadina Ave.
If you’re looking for something a little more personal – a little more Toronto – you must try Strange Love Coffee for its array of specialty beverages and fresh-baked pastries! After you’ve ordered, step outside and around the corner to see one of the district’s coolest murals.
Street art has a way of easily capturing the attention of pedestrians compared to finer architectural features in a building’s design and this mural does just this! The Strange Love mural prompts many double takes with its optical illusion. Artists Ben Johnston of Toronto and Annica Lyndenberg of Brooklyn created this piece of work in 2017 on the south side of the building as a way of adding a relatable sentiment in an area full of creative minds. Snap some pics and tag @strangelovecoffee for a chance at a shout out on Instagram!
John St. Row Houses 109-129 John St.
Moving east, we arrive on John St. where a row of modest red brick homes line the street between Richmond and Adelaide St. W. With a range of modern eateries and offices like Ross Barristers, Darkhorse Espresso Bar and Touchwood PR now inhabiting the spaces, it’s easy to forget these buildings are 19th century relics. Though not currently occupied as living quarters, there is an undoubtful homey charm throughout the properties.
Built in 1889, these homes have retained its Romanesque arches, stone windowsills and large dormers. Each exterior slightly differs in design but overall appear in unison with one another, creating an illusion of being one unit. Two balconies protruding from each corner unit act as bookends for the row, with stained glass incorporated in and around larger bay windows.
From John St., it’s hard to gauge just how deep these dwellings are or how many homes make up the row. In reality, there are 10 narrow homes with the largest on the corner of Adelaide St – the basement used for Pizzaiolo and first floor recently opened as Melrose on Adelaide. Next time you walk by the row or sit on The Office Pub’s patio, take a moment to appreciate the upheld brickwork and terracotta details!
Gelber Bros Ghost Sign 225 Richmond St. W
Heading east on Richmond St., the juxtaposition of new and old continues with this ghost sign atop some of the district’s busiest bars – Fifth Pubhouse and Fifth Social Club – as well as High5 Café & Curated Convenience! Though faded over the century, this vintage advertisement has maintained its ability to bring onlookers back to a time where Gelber Bros. Limited thrived among the Canadian woollen industry. Do you notice a similar composition to The Balfour Building? It’s because the Gelber Bros. warehouse was designed by Benjamin Brown, complementing the building with those recognizable curved windows. Next time you’re on your way to catch a flick at the Scotiabank Theatre, look up and try to make out the stonewashed lettering splashed across the side of 225 Richmond St. W.
Union Building 212 King St. W
Continuing east, a classic Beaux-Arts style structure may catch your eye on the corner of King St. W and Simcoe St. Not to be confused with Union Station, the Union Building was built as the head office for the Canadian General Electric Company in 1908. Architectural firm Darling and Pearson was responsible for the design of this Toronto Entertainment District treasure, using the prestige of King St. as inspiration for its rich ornaments and regal entrance.
Glazed terracotta tiles border the windows and are accessorized with metal ornamentation and remains in pristine condition today. Though only six-storeys, the building has a grandeur presence with the help of its copper Mansard roof and two Doric columns supporting the stone portico entrance.
Before relocating to Avenue Road, Upper Canada College once owned the area occupying the building. Today, the Union Building houses Elephant & Castle, known for its British-inspired pub classics and range of imported beer. Whether taking a stroll down King St. to grab a bite to eat or rushing towards Union Station, stop to take a quick look at these beautiful details tucked away in our district.
St. Andrew’s Church 73 Simcoe St.
Kitty-corner to the Union Building, you can’t miss the striking St. Andrew’s Church, naming the nearby subway station. Beginning construction in 1874, the Presbyterian church wasn’t complete until 1876. In the two years, architect William George Storm intended for each detail to replicate a Romanesque Revival style first found in Europe.
Nestled along one of the busiest streets in the Toronto Entertainment District, the church’s picturesque and medieval-like design upholds a strong presence, even with the glimmering Roy Thomson Hall to the west. Of the three towers, the largest faces Simcoe St. along with its decorative turrets and parapets. Facing King St. are two towers guarding the symmetrical front façade made up of Romanesque archways, stone ornamentation and a large rose window. Today, St. Andrew’s Church continues to hold service as one of the city’s most prevalent Presbyterian congregations.
If you’re on your way to see a Jays game at the Rogers Centre, visiting your aquatic buddies at Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada or spending the afternoon at Roundhouse Park, you’re obligated to admire the exceptionally special Simcoe mural. Take a walk through the Lower Simcoe underpass between Station St. and Bremner Blvd. to find Tannis Nielsen’s artwork representing the voices of Indigenous communities.
Transforming the underpass into a beautiful space full of Indigenous perspectives, Nielsen’s intention is to teach visitors the history of the Elders in commemoration of their impact on the land and artistically tell their stories. The mural includes both an Elder/Teacher Wall and Water Wall along the passageway sides, incorporating portraits of Rose Logan, Duke Redbird, Lee Maracle, and Alex Jacobs to name a few. Check out the hashtag #simcoemural to see its progress over the year.
John Street Roundhouse 255 Bremner Blvd.
Although not as new and colourful, the John Street Roundhouse offers visitors a hands-on throwback experience. Spend your day wandering throughout the 9,300 sqm. roundhouse built between 1929 and 1931 by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. The now Toronto Railway Museum allows visitors to examine where locomotives were hauled in and out on a rotating turntable for servicing and includes a railway simulator and artifact display. Built up of 32 stalls, the semi-circle brick Roundhouse accommodated over 40 CPR trains a day and was the first of its kind to use a direct steaming facility.
For all you history buffs, this is a great venue to learn about the “John Street polish” and what made the John Street Roundhouse unique in its day. Although retired in 1960, this service station continued servicing CPR and VIA locomotives until 1986 but has since shut down and become the popular museum destination it is today. Keep your eyes open for plenty of hidden details and tag us on social media @entertainmentdistrictto and use #DetailsInTheDistrict. We’d love to see what you discover in our beautiful district!