Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

Simcoe House started as a hotel across the Don River from Toronto in 1887, and through many iterations, it is now a block of 8 freehold townhomes with a fascinating history

History of the Simcoe House

Eastern Avenue used to be a wasteland of forgotten industry… rusting relics and half-empty buildings. Before that, it was the bottom of Leslieville, a thriving hub of blue collar work, workers, and their homes. But, before that, there was a lot of nothing. The city started in the east end, but not much crossed the river until around 1900.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

The industrial wasteland east of the Don River in the 1980s

A few years earlier, things started, slowly at first. Eastern Avenue was known as South Park Street at some point, but in 1883, when Morse was first laid out, it was Eastern Ave. Not long after Morse Street was born, Charles Ayre decided to build a hotel, and in 1887 the Ayre Hotel was constructed at the corner of Eastern and Morse.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

This fire map from 1884 shows just how empty the area was in the years before Ayre decided to build his hotel

Before the soap factories, tanneries and other heavy industries moved in on Eastern Avenue, Morse Street was a desirable middle class location. And Ayre’s small hotel figured to serve this working class neighbourhood, becoming known as Riverside. The building is architecturally notable, a good example of a neighbourhood hotel that is distinguished by its pattern of brickwork, bay windows and a corner entrance.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

Even now, the building retains so much of its charm and blends so well into the streetscape

Looking back at old maps, you can see that the hotel had an irregular shape in 1890 – but the 1910 map has different shape, seems an addition was built. The 1913 map finally has it marked as a hotel, as well as the 1924 map. It is only by looking at maps like those that you get a true understanding of just how out in the middle of nowhere it was when it was built. It took around 30 years for the area to start building up, but once it did, it never looked back.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

Looking at maps from 1890 and 1910, you can really see how empty the area once was – and how much growth there was in 20 years

History does not tell us much about what happened to Mr. Ayre over the years. There is a note in the Toronto Star from June of 1901 that mentions “Miss and Master Arthur Ayre, of Morse street, will return from Hawkstone to-morrow.” Judging by the use of “master”, I assume that Arthur is but a boy. Maybe he was Charles’ son?

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

The house next door, which is 112 Morse Street, looking a bit rough back in 1938

Unfortunately, there is not much more to be found about the place for decades. At some point the name was changed to the Hotel Simcoe and it was owned by several different groups over the years as a destination for food, lodging and drink.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

The building in 1945, just before the Waxmans bought it, now called the Hotel Simcoe

Then famous Toronto actor and director Al Waxman’s family bought the building in 1947, and changed the name to Simcoe House. The Waxman family owned the place for almost forty years. During this time, the Simcoe House fostered a dark and infamous reputation. Al recounts some of the past of the Simcoe House in his autobiography. He describes the days when a mesh screen encased the bar, to protect the staff from the patrons (reminiscent of the one bar visited by the Blues Brothers). Once the drink was poured, a little slot was opened in the mesh to serve the beer and collect the money.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

Al Waxman, of course, being best known for his CBC sitcom King of Kensington

The Waxmans (Waxmen?) knew the restaurant business, having previously operated Melinda Lunch, across from the old Toronto Telegram building. Al’s father had passed away in the 1940s, so it was his mother who ran the Simcoe House. But, when Tobie passed in 1964, Al and his brother become owners of the building.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

The inside today is a long way from Ayre’s 1887 hotel

The Simcoe House was sold by the brothers in 1984 and Al Waxman used some of the proceeds to finance a film that he produced, titled “My Pleasure is My Business” – a biography of Xaviera Hollander, better known as “The Happy Hooker”. And you thought he only did King of Kensington… Seems sex surrounds the place!

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

No, before I started writing this, I never expected to find a photo of Al Waxman and Xaviera Hollander together!

Waxman and his brother sold the bar to three gay entrepreneurs – Bob Saunders, Matt Shields and Jack Mackness – who took over the old hotel at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Morse Street.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

Their old club was in this building at 18 Eastern Avenue, way further into the city

This trio started at a club called 18 East, at 18 Eastern Avenue. 18 East began in the 1960s, rather a crazily brave time to open a gay club in repressed Toronto. Saunders took over the business in 1983 with partner Matt Shields. In 1984, Saunders and Shields left 18 Eastern Avenue, due to landlord issues. They joined up with Mackness to buy the Simcoe Hotel. Many wondered how they would survive in the new location, so far from usual Church Street gaybourhood… and what kind of homophobia they would face.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

An ad for the Toolbox, with the old address of 508 Eastern Avenue

Newly named The Toolbox, they did have a number of incidents in the early years. People just weren’t very accepting of their presence. There were a few fights with a local teenage gang and some Molotov cocktails were thrown at the building’s windows.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

The infamous Hells Angels clubhouse just down the street at 500 Eastern Avenue, now long gone

Many people likely remember the Hells Angels clubhouse, right on Eastern Avenue. There were only 3 buildings between the bikers and the Simcoe House… I find it fascinating that they were almost next door to a very infamous biker gang, yet never was there ever a mention of any issues. Rumour has it that the bikers went there for beers, seeing as it was their local bar. And the club would let the bikers use their parking lot when they needed extra space. I can see the leather-clad and bearded bikers fitting right in, and it could be that their presence stopped a lot of further hostilities.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

What it would have looked like inside the Toolbox back in the day

The Toolbox evolved into an old-school leather bar, one that did not cater to shiny leather fashion statements. Their clientele became a mix of retirees, businessmen, closet cases, fat guys, fetishists and the curious. As well as the odd biker. Beyond booze and sex, there was a lot more to the place. Many men found a home and social network at the bar, which hosted mid-week billiards and card nights. Community groups and charities also found a home at the bar. In many ways, the Toolbox became a community centre that the ‘official’ gay village didn’t seem to want to acknowledge.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

Certainly a different look inside the old Simcoe House these days

Despite all the goodwill, the Toolbox started to experienced a lull. Financial difficulties arose, particularly in the early 1990s with the recession and downturn in the real estate market. The owners resorted to a glass jar on the bar where patrons could donate to help cover the mortgage.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

The windows of the current units look out over a neighbourhood that is vastly different than it was back in the 1990s

But it couldn’t run on hope and donations forever. In 2003, after years of stale beer and sluggish sales, the owners of the Toolbox decided to pack it in and retire. The neighbours were pleasantly surprised to find that the patrons of the new Toolbox were leaving the building quietly. The residents of the co-op next door were not always fans of what they could see going on in the backyard “maze” behind the club.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

The Mainstay Housing co-op at 502 Eastern Avenue, with construction materials for the reno/conversion in the backyard of the Simcoe House

The Toolbox, one of Toronto’s pioneering gay leather bars, was gone. But the history and notoriety of the building remains in Toronto’s history. And that history, to me at least, is fascinating. From an industrial wasteland to Al Waxman to Hells Angels and leathermen. You certainly wouldn’t imagine any of it as you sit in traffic on Eastern Avenue.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

The building sat forlorn and abandoned in the early 2000s

One year later, in 2004, developer Frank Merigliano, fresh from two other infill projects in Leslieville, became interested in the residential potential of the site. It had been for sale on and off since 2001, but he finally jumped and bought it for only $950,000. At the time, vines and other plant life had taken it over, almost totally obscuring the building. How he saw past that to envision a new life for the property is beyond me.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

The image from the 2004 MLS listing, showing the building almost completely overgrown with vegetation

Merigliano, was a partner in Manorbrook Homes with his 79-year-old father, a developer since the 1960s. They built 2 semi-detached homes in the old backyard space, with the addresses 506 & 508 Eastern. The converted Simcoe House now runs north up Morse Street, with the addresses now running from 112A to 112H Morse Street. Oddly enough, the semi just to the north is 112 Morse Street.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

The semis at 506 and 508 Eastern Avenue, built in the backyard of the Simcoe House, where the infamous Toolbox “maze” used to be

The new townhouses range in size from 1,764 to 2,758 square feet. They are not condo, but freehold with common fee. Yes, I know, that sounds like condo, but MPAC has them as freehold. Unfortunately only 4 of the units are in the original building. 112A is my favourite, as it has the original corner entrance. Another 4 new units running north along Morse complete the complex.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

The development ad on the from of the Simcoe House back in 2005

I am amazed at the amount of work Manorbrook put into this project. Since the original corner building was in such disrepair, new concrete-block walls had to be erected between all units, new foundations were poured and floor joists and studs were all replaced. While the old frame structure that ties into the existing double-brick exterior walls remains, it was stabilized and reinforced with a new structure. They replaced almost everything but the exterior brick. It was in REALLY bad shape.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

A pre-sales drawing from 2008, showing a very different version of the townhouses than we see today

A mansard-roofed third-storey addition caps the once flat-roofed building and, on Morse Street, a new wing containing four units has been attached. Were it not for the lack of yellow-brick banding and window detailing, it would be difficult to pick out where the new addition begins. It closely mimics the original architecture, complete with an accurate two-storey bay window. Another congratulations in order for making the addition so closely match the original building.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

Love the entrance of 112A Morse Street, using the old main entrance of the hotel

Not only was the condition of the building very rough, but it was listed as heritage – and the constraints that designation imposed created interesting architectural solutions. While main-floor ceiling heights are a respectable 9 feet, second-floor ceilings are a foot taller and some rooms have a quirky jog in the wall because they had to retain the window openings and the sizes. Other rooms have 12-foot ceilings.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

Rooftop patio on Morse Street, facing west for maximum sun – as well as city views

New garages extend from the rear of the homes, with patios above, in lieu of backyards. And they also have rooftop terraces with sunny west-facing views. In the original building, deep windowsills will be a hit with cats. The owners will like the marble foyers, granite countertops and hardwood floors. Stairs to the basement level have been positioned to create a light well, and all homes come with three bedrooms and three full bathrooms.

Simcoe House – 112A-H Morse Street

You wouldn’t believe that this is what the interior looked like when renovations began in 2005

All of this in a great location, just minutes to the Gardiner Expressway, Don Valley Parkway and various downtown points. Area highlights include the St. Lawrence Market and the trendy, eclectic mix of stores and eateries in Leslieville along Queen Street East.

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