A Thousand Cranes

THE HOUSE THAT WAS EATEN ALIVE

840 st clair with hoardingsWhen the “For Sale” sign went up last year at 840 St. Clair West, aka the Hungarian House, local interest was piqued and speculation began as to what would happen to the building once it sold. Urbancorp, a local downtown developer bought the property for $5.5 million and proceeded to tear it down saying it had provisional plans to build a mixed-use residential condominium combining retail and commercial ground-level space.

The Hungarian House opened in 1966 and became the largest Hungarian community centre outside of Hungary and hosted many “mixed-uses” including: cultural and social events, dancing, singing, concerts, debutant balls, theatrical events, language instruction and skills training, political meetings and victory parties, live boxing matches and poetry readings.

synagogue staircase

The original building began life as a house of worship. The Shaarei Shomayim synagogue bought the land for $5,525 and hired Kaplan and Sprachman, the noted theatre architects who designed between 70 and 80 percent of all movie theatres in Canada in the first half of the 20th century. Construction began in 1934 but was stopped during WWII and eventually completed in 1947.

It took less than six months to knock the building down.
demolition workers on roof

“What do you mean they took down the old Shaarei Shomayim? I had my bar mitzvah there!”

Larry Swartz grew up in the neighbourhood where the synagogue was a special gathering place for friends and family. Larry shared some of his memories of the schul and neighbourhood:

window vulnerable“My family lived on a street that was a six-minute walk from there on St. Clair. We belonged to the shul, and going to services was a ritual for my mother and father and brother and me. It was a gathering place for family – Auntie Ann and Uncle David, my cousins. I would sit beside my dad, playing with his tallis and staring at the bright stained glass windows that adorned the northern and southern walls of the sanctuary.”  

“I didn’t stay by my father’s side for 100 percent of the time – heck, I was a young boy. I spent more time ‘socializing’ in the halls with other kids my age, playing outside of the shul and going into our favourite stores on St. Clair – the barbershop at the top of the street and Lorraine’s bakery – best challah in the city – 23 cents!demolition crane

“Shaarei Shomayim is a milestone in the timeline of my life. My Bar Mitzvah was on September 2, 1962. Rabbi Wurtzburger officiated. He was a well-respected man, and at 13 years old, I was a bit intimidated by him. He did come to my Bar Mitzvah party and he and his wife sat at the head table. I remember her saying that she always felt like the challah sitting on the table, because really she didn’t know people.

truck“We had already moved out of the neighbourhood to North York in the early sixties about the same time Shaarei Shomayim was moving north. My mother, Mary, was president of the shul’s sisterhood in the early sixties and was given the honour of being one of the people to dig a shovelful of earth in the ground-breaking ceremony for the new building. She was given the shovel to commemorate the event. It stayed in the garage for another 50 years.

I can still see her wearing a splendid black and white tweed cape that my father bought for her in New York. He was in the shmatah business.empty lot

“In July, 1967 my brother Stan married his wife Janie at the new Shaarei Shomayim. I continued to go to High Holiday services there on Glencairn every year until my mother died in 2007.”

-Debbie Nyman and Larry Swartz
– Photos by Elizabeth Cinello

Bite by Bite

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You could say that  Jack Riley gave 840 St. Clair W the spark of life. The 91-year-old local electrician…    Read more...

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