The Canary Restaurant was once located at 425/441 Cherry St (at Front St E on the southeast corner) in the Canary District of Toronto’s West Don Lands neighbourhood.
The iconic greasy spoon was in operation from 1965 to 2007; however, the red brick building has quite a long history with four phases of construction – the school in 1859, the second-storey school addition in 1869, the hotel extension in 1890 and the warehouse addition in the early 1920s.
The Palace Street School
In 1857, land at the corner of Cherry St and Front St E (then known as Palace St) was purchased for £800 to build a public school. The area was residential at the time, and according to the assessment, the former St Lawrence Ward ward had the largest number of children, but it did not have its own public school. The nearest one was a privately funded school established by local brewer Enoch Turner in 1848.
So in 1859, the one-storey Palace Street School was built. It was designed by architect Joseph Sheard, cost approximately $2,000 to construct and had one room for boys and another for girls. The original school structure is located on the ground floor, at the southwest corner of the building. A newspaper of the day said it was “built of white brick with red brick dressings.”
Attendance at the school increased, and soon became overcrowded. In 1869, Mr Sheard’s son-in-law, architect William Irving, designed the second-storey addition, which included two classrooms, two galleries, furniture, and drawings for just over $3,000.
By the 1880s, school enrollment decreased as the area became more industrial. Later that decade, the schoolhouse closed.
The Hotel & Manufacturing Years
In 1890, Robert Irvine purchased the property. He hired architect David Roberts Jr to design a three-storey addition on the north side of the building for a hotel and to convert and incorporate the former school into the extension. The Irvine House opened later that year and was designed in the Queen Anne Revival style. What we know as The Canary was once the entrance to the hotel.
In 1892, Mr J.J. Darcy took over the 40-room property and renamed it the Cherry Street Hotel. Advertising from 1893 mentions “the best $1.00 a day house in Toronto.” Until 1910, the historic landmark operated as a hotel under a few different names, including the D’Arcy Hotel and the Eastern Star Hotel.
The building was left vacant until 1922, when it became home to Thomas Davidson Manufacturing, a producer of enamelware. A three-storey warehouse was added on the building’s east side. It still bears their name, “Thos Davidson Mfg,” a ghost sign on the north wall. Other occupants included Tippet-Richardson Moving & Storage and Canada Felt Co.
The Iconic Canary Restaurant
In the mid-1960s, the Canary Restaurant relocated to the ground floor of the historic building. The land their restaurant had previously occupied at University Ave and Dundas St W had been expropriated. The Vlahos family brought the original Canary sign with them.
With its row of stools, Formica® tables and chrome-backed chairs, the destination diner welcomed everyone from office staff and truck drivers to construction workers and hockey players. There were autographed photos of celebrities, Christmas lights, and artificial hanging plants. The restaurant was also used for movies because of its preserved décor.
The family-owned restaurant remained in business until 2007.
The Canary House
The building is part of the upcoming mixed-use development called the Canary House in the Toronto Indigenous Hub. The structure will incorporate the heritage-designated building that once housed the Palace Street School, The Irvine House, Cherry Street Hotel, Thomas Davidson Manufacturing and the Canary Restaurant.
Did You Know?
The southwest portion of the building, constructed in 1859 and 1869, is the oldest surviving public school structure in Toronto. It features Jacobean-style architectural elements, including a front-facing, shaped gable.
In the mid-1800s, public schools in the city were called “common” schools.
Front St E from Jarvis St to the Don River was previously known as Palace St. It was named so since, at the time, it led to the Palace of Government or the Parliament Buildings, once located at the southwest corner of Parliament St and Front St E.
The city gave the building heritage status in 1976.
Some movies filmed at The Canary include The Long Kiss Goodnight and Three to Tango. Also, the restaurant’s exterior is shown at the end of the Kids in the Hall episode “Hoopla.”
Mr Sheard, the architect of the 1859-built school portion of the building, has a street and parkette named after him. They’re located, along with a heritage plaque, between McGill St and Granby St in the Downtown Yonge area, on the site of his family’s homestead. Mr Sheard was a carpenter and later became an architect and politician. He designed many buildings in Toronto and assisted in creating the country’s first Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. In Toronto, Mr Sheard was the head of public works, an alderman and, from 1871 to 1872, was the city’s 19th mayor. He was a leading advocate for the August Civic Holiday.
Mr Roberts Jr, the architect of the 1890-built hotel portion, designed many buildings in the Distillery District (the main building, malt house, rectifying house, cooper shop, barrel shed and storehouse) and the Toronto landmark, the Gooderham “Flatiron” Building.