STREETS OF CANADA JAMES
Hamilton pays top wages and the money is stacked along a single block of the main drag. And where else can you see a view of a spurious Mountain through stained-glass office windows?
Among the hundreds of monuments to Queen Victoria, the one in Gore Park in the centre of Hamilton, is probably unique. Victoria the monarch receives token commemoration; the heart of the inscription honors her as "a model wife and mother." It is appropriate that this bronze and granite embodiment of solid respectability should look down upon a street whose character is dignified. businesslike, and, at first glance, dull.
A closer look reveals elements of beauty and interest.
James Street is the street of trade, commerce, and civic administration. Throughout its mile and a half James Street has but two movie houses. None of the city’s half dozen night clubs is there, and eating places don't rise above the bakelitetable-and-paper-napkin variety.
It is not the longest street in Hamilton nor, as
far as land values are concerned, the richest. But it is, and always has been, the most important. In one stretch of three hundred feet most of the city’s daily reserves of folding money (about 12 million dollars’ worth) repose in the vaults of half a dozen banks and trust companies. In this same block you can buy a diamond pendant for $50.000 or a pair of earrings for fifty cents, order a fortymillion-dollar bridge or a forty-dollar suit, buy as many stocks as you dare and as many tranquilizers as you need. This block is the solar plexus of the street and the heart of the city.
From it. James Street climbs gradually south to that part of the Niagara escarpment which becomes sanctified by the title “Hamilton Mountain,” as it cuts through the city on its way from the Niagara River to Georgian Bay. This part of the street passes between rows of buildings, sombre by
day, dark and deserted by night. The pavement ends at the foot of the Mountain and a flight of steps scales the slope; James Street continues on top, bright in its post-war newness.
Below the central block, running north, the street glitters with plate glass and neon lights, the incandescence of the North American bazaar. The lights become scattered and dim where the street ends as a semi-slum at the harbor, the western extremity of Lake Ontario.
The James Street axis is at Gore Park, about midway between the harbor and the mountain. The Gore, as it is called, is a mere hundred feet across at its James Street end. It is the only part of the street where business grudgingly yields to a patch of greenery, an oasis with a plashing fountain, flower beds, and benches for the weary. Norman Weir, manager of continued on page 95
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In century-old stone houses, sténos have replaced gracious hostesses
James Street continued from page 24
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One Hamilton mayor astounded the Prince of Wales by calling him “Princie” all day long
the Hamilton branch. Canadian Bank of Commerce, just across the road, finds it comforting. A senior executive from head office noticed that the manager’s windows were not very high above the floor. “A person passing along the street could look in here,” he exclaimed.
“And it’s easy for me to look out,” Weir countered. “After reading the mail from head office each day it’s soothing to be able to turn and look out on the Gore there.”
The Gore is a soothing spot all right, a pleasant break in the blocks of closely packed buildings. But some of these buildings have a character and form which helps to give James Street its preeminence in Hamilton, and a certain importance among the streets of the nation. St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church is a masterpiece. In the opinion of Harry Knowles, a famous New York architect, the nave is one of the best examples of late-middle Gothic on this side of the ocean. The spire, according to Knowles, is worth the trip from New York to behold.
The congregation obviously agrees, for when the top ten feet of the original spire was so damaged by an earthquake in 1944 that it had to be replaced, the unused stones were rebuilt in their original form as a monument to the church s builders.
The Birks building, which started out as the head office of the Canada Life Assurance Company, is the finest example of Romanesque architecture on the continent. At least, that’s what Oscar Wilde said when he saw the city in 1883. Wilde was not an architect, but he was not noted for fulsome remarks either. A clock, added to the building when it was bought by Birks thirty years ago, gives it a decided English accent. The clock is fashioned after the famous 14th-century clock on Wells Cathedral. Its charging horsemen come out and tilt at each other on every quarter hour. T he clock is a great favorite with children. On Saturdays when shopping mothers take over the street, shuttling from Eaton s to Robinson’s to Birks’, they are often pulled up in their tracks by youngsters when the clock shows that the knights are about to sally forth.
Christ’s Church Anglican Cathedral hides its chief beauties within. The hammer-beam roof of the chancel is the most impressive example of this type of thirteenth-century roofing in Canada, and the reredos, hand carved from Caen stone by Wippell of Exeter is, in the opinion of William R. Souter, a Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, “absolutely out of this world. ’
Even the city’s tallest office building is architecturally unique. The Pigott Building is built in the style known as “collegiate-Gothic.” In the lobby the sun is filtered through stained-glass windows. One would expect them to depict episodes from the lives of the saints. Instead, they show various activities of the building trade. Hustling businessmen tread a red carpet to reach the elevators. The building’s four - story superstructure, floodlit at night, floats above the street like a hovering ark of the prophets, not quite certain that this is a suitable place to land.
Joseph M. Pigott, chairman of the board of Pigott Construction Company Limited, put up the building in 1926.
When asked why the Gothic style was used for an office building, he replies, “I don’t know. It seemed like a good idea at the time.” The classical influence doesn’t conceal the purpose of the building; it is still a monument to a company which has become one of Canada’s big four among construction and engineering firms.
From there to the foot of the mountain, fine old homes are giving way to commerce and change. Marshall Lounsbury, a real-estate man, says, "The Medical Arts building started the big move.” The Medical Arts building was started thirty years ago by an ambitious group of doctors who were battling creditors before the roof was on. But before the depression was over the building’s hundred and forty-eight suites were leased to doctors and dentists and all debts had been paid.
The success of the Medical Arts building attracted other businesses. Many old mansions of stone and brick still stand on James Street South giving a first impression of gracious living. But their front doors bear the names of insurance companies and real-estate firms. Their interiors have been gutted of oak paneling, Axminster carpets and crystal chandeliers. Now, polished blond wood and tile floors glisten under fluorescent lights. The gardens are parking lots.
Most of these changes have been made with taste, but a few serious sins have been committed. The “Castle," as it is known in Hamilton, is a grey stone house built a century ago by a bachelor lawyer, Colin Reid, who recreated the baronial beauty of his ancestral home in Scotland. For nearly a hundred years, Reid’s home stood in spacious grounds behind a high stone wall. Today the wall and the wrought-iron gates are gone. A service station squats between the Castle and the street. The building itself has become a frowzy conglomerate of flats and offices; an ill-proportioned wing has been added. Huge letters across the top proclaim that the Dale Carnegie Institute, purveyors of charm, is a tenant.
On the other hand, no one who reveres
the past would quarrel with Lee Hing. For sixty years, Lee has had a laundry on James Street. He is a dedicated royalist. More than two generations of passers-by have paused to look at the dozens of portraits of the British royal family which crowd his shop window and doorway. Royalty doesn’t hog it all; but one can study the faces of the House of Windsor for nearly a minute before noticing that granddaughter Lee Mei is peeping over Queen Mary’s shoulder or that nephew Lee Chung is cheek by jowl with Prince Philip. Lee Hing rearranges his window frequently, with as much care as a professional window dresser.
This part of the street is an echo of Montreal with its terraces of old stone houses, two or three of them a block long, and with railed-in areaways. “Just like Sherbrooke Street — that is, like parts of Sherbrooke Street twenty years ago,” says Clare Amy, who came from Montreal a few years ago to manage the main Hamilton office of the Royal Bank.
Across from the terraces, the Cutaia brothers—Angelo, Nicholas and Richard —opened a grocery store nine years ago. From corner grocery to prestige skyscraper is one of the recent success stories of the street. The Cutaias tired of the grocery line after four years and became hardware merchants. Three years later they sold out their hardware stock and turned the premises into a furniture shop. Then they decided to get into the big time. A year ago astonished residents nearby saw the wreckers clawing at the furniture store even as the brothers were putting up a large sign, the advent of an office building on the site, for lawyers, architects and doctors. What’s more, the building was sixty-five percent rented before all the steel was erected.
The Cutaias’ building went up a lot faster than Queen Victoria’s monument. At the beginning of the century, the women of Hamilton raised $10,000, mostly in nickels and dimes, to honor Queen Victoria with a monument. Philippe Hebert, the Montreal sculptor, was commissioned. He found out what it was to deal w'ith women shoppers. Four succes-
sive models depicting four different poses were sent from his Montreal studios, and each was placed on view in the Board of Trade rooms for the women of Hamilton to view — and reject. The fifth was accepted. The monument was unveiled on Victoria Day, 1908, almost three years after the subscription lists were opened.
The stones of the city hall, a block north of the Gore, were still fresh looking when the Queen Victoria monument was put up. The building was then twenty-one years old. But the old Queen will watch its demise next year when civic administration will leave James Street, after a tenure of more than a hundred years, for the new nine-milliondollar city hall, by Pigott. farther south and west. When that happens the street will lose one of its more important focal points, but it will always have the traditions, serious and otherwise, which a century of city government provides.
There was Mayor Charlie Booker, a free and easy type, who startled the Prince of Wales during his visit to Hamilton in 1919 by addressing him in comradely fashion as "Princie” throughout the day. And there was Mayor Sam Lawrence, a staunch progressive who interrupted his career in city politics in 1934 to contest a seat in the provincial legislature. He won, as a CCF candidate.
Noith of the city hall, James Street is bustling and noisy; much of its life is lived right on the sidewalks.
In recent years Italian immigrants have swarmed into the tributary streets which empty into James' northern reaches and they are taking over more and more of the retail shops on the street itself. On summer evenings they gather for curbside chatter sessions, often blocking foot traffic, but filling the air with conversation and seeming to mock the staid sections to the south. And they have brought espresso coffee to the few small restaurants in the north end for the delectation of older residents as well as themselves.
Norman Leon, short, balding, with a sunny smile, is a furrier in the early
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Canadian and European tradition. Except that he doesn't actually trap the animals himself, the coats, stoles, and wraps in his shop are entirely the work of his hands. Leon buys his pelts at the big Montreal and New York auctions, sorts, cuts, and trims them himself, then patterns and tailors the finished garment. Finally, he’s the salesman.
Leon came straight to James Street from Russia in 1927, a fourth-generation fur cutter and tailor. “Knowing by the feel of a pelt how long it will wear, and which part of the garment it should fill is the trick,” Leon says. “It takes about twenty years to learn.” He is something of a philosopher. “Once you’ve sold a woman a fur coat, you’ve married her,” he says. “She always stays with you, for repairs, alterations, replacements.”
A second - generation East Prussian candy maker, Heinz Boehmfeld and his wife, Freidel, titillate the older Hamiltonians on the street with European candy shaped like vegetables and fruits, hand painted with vegetable dyes to an amazing likeness of form and color. Their window contains trays filled with such strange sweets as white chocolate (ordinary chocolate without the cocoa) and marzipan, a traditional Christmas treat in Germany. Boehmfeld would not divulge his recipe for anything. “Not for five thousand dollars,” he says. “It’s a secret family process. It must stay that way.”
This part of the street was never attractive, even in its better days half a
century ago, but it has always been interesting because of the people who lived there. Billy Carroll was Hamilton's bestknown bookmaker, but he was never convicted. He operated a cigar stoi. as a front, never welshed on a bet, never tried to make a layoff, and was never known to remove his hat. This last characteristic bothered his friends and clients who frequently devised ruses to make Carroll uncover, such as bringing a gramophone into the shop w'ith a record of the national anthem or offering a free haircut. Billy's black derby remained on his head.
There is a story of two friends who broke into his rooms above the cigar store at two o’clock one morning to see if he slept with his hat on. They reported that Carroll was sitting up in bed, wide awake, with the derby still in perfect balance.
Tommy Gould was a well-to-do man who owned about a block of this part of the street, and chose to live there instead of in the south end. But Gould, like any gentleman in the jungle, never let the sun set without getting into correct evening attire, even when he was staying in his home or just taking a walk up and down the street. Early in the century Gould bought a complete movie outfit—camera and projector—and, in a shack behind one of his stores, showed friends his own home-made movies. He was probably the first home-movie bug in the country.
The armories take up about a block of the north end; red brick, turreted, squat, the James Street armories is the home of
two proud regiments, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, which with the Essex Scottish was first to hit the beaches at Dieppe, and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, Princess Louise’s, which salutes the Queen as its Colonelin-chief.
Across from the armories is a hall which presents two large wooden doors to the street, about the size of barn doors and, like many barn doors, painted a drab brown. At the beginning of the century, this hall was an indoor swimming pool. Then it became a roller rink and dance hall. A few years later it was a wrestling and boxing arena, where Charlie Conkle won his Canadian middleweight wrestling championship. By 1950 it was a meeting hall. That year the Red Dean of Canterbury was chased off the platform, only to seek safety, having fled through a rear exit, in the Hungarian Communist Hall across the street, where he managed to finish his speech. The building now seems to have ended the turbulent part of its career. For more than a year it has been St. Michael’s Hungarian Greek Catholic Church.
The extreme north end of James Street is solidly anchored by the Harbor Commissioners Building, a few steps from the harbor itself. Not long ago this section had a reputation for toughness. Police patrolled it in pairs, and on Friday and Saturday nights the patrol wagon was driven to the foot of the street as a matter of course. Today, one can walk this part of James Street at any hour with no
greater inconvenience than having to brush off a few drunks.
Down near the waterfront, “Smack” Allen runs a drugstore which offers a lesson in merchandising to many of the neighboring shops, which are ill - kept, sparsely stocked places. When Allen, a former amateur hockey star, opened up twelve years ago, he took a deep breath and stocked up with fifteen thousand different items, from the complete pharmaceutical list to the latest in bail-point pens and sunglasses. “I figured that the people at this end of the street deserved as much choice and service as anyone,” he explains. He figures right. Money, which used to be carried farther along the street to the better shops, now comes right in his door.
The qualities of originality and initiative shown by Allen, Leon and the Cutaias, abound on James Street, and not without ample precedent. In 1839, John Street, two blocks east, was shaping up as the city's main north-south thoroughfare. This was not to be borne by the merchants and residents of James Street. They took up a thirty-one-pound collection and built a boardwalk on the east side of the street. John Street was dead.
Today the inrushing tide of seaway business is lapping at the foot of James Street, where the Harbor Commissioners Building is to be matched by a triplewing office building directly across the street for shippers, export-import firms, and similar marine businesses. James Street hasn't time to look back,