From stately hotel to strip club—the Empringham story

Do you remember those good old days of fine dining or drinking at the Empringham Hotel at Danforth Avenue and Dawes Road?

Not likely, unless you’re, um, of a certain advanced age.

But maybe you recall enjoying the hospitality of the Danforth Hotel, say in the 1950s or 1960s?

Sadly, it’s more likely the Play Pen on Danforth rings a bell. Though that may not be something to boast about, the place being a strip club.

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But Empringham, Danforth or Play Pen — they’re all the same building, more or less, standing at one of the east end’s more storied intersections from the late 1800s into the 1980s.

It was first called the Empringham Hotel because it was operated by the Empringham family, headed by patriarch George Empringham (the man with the long, grey beard in some of those early photographs) and matriarch Mary (Omerod) Empringham..

Born in 1838 or 1839 (different sources give different dates) in the village of Scotter in Lincolnshire, England, George Empringham built his namesake hotel in what was called East Toronto then at the southwest corner of Danforth and Dawes — both muddy tracts — in the 1890s. The stables were behind the hotel, accessible from Dawes.

Men and women of the Empringham
THE WOMEN AND THE MEN: Above left, left, the cook and two waitresses make their way to the icebox outback. Above right, males sit out front of the hotel. Hotel keeper George Empringham is the man with a long white beard, and his son George Francis Empringham is standing at the right end. We don’t know who the Dickensian child at front is. Both images are portions of 1900 archival photographs.

According to some accounts, George managed the business, while Mary ran the housekeeping and food services. At least at one time the family home, known to their descendants as the Grandparents’ Cottage, was on Dawes south of the hotel.

The first box-like hotel structure stood at the southwest corner of Danforth and Dawes when the land to the east was mainly countryside.

George Francis in buggy
EDGE OF TOWN: Photo of young George Francis Empringham riding in buggy on Dawes Road shows undeveloped land to the east in 1900.

For many travellers  from Toronto, this was their last stop to park their horses and carriages and have a fine meal before heading east — perhaps even to stay overnight in the three-storey hotel.

It must have been a prestigious destination — the 1903 image at the top of this article was taken from a postcard.

The Empringham Hotel was also an appreciated institution in the local area.

Empringham bar
POPULAR SPOT: The bar at the Empringham Hotel in 1900. G.F. Empringham is shown at right.

Over 1913 and 1914, it underwent its first major change.

The wrap-around verandah was removed and the whole hotel was actually pushed back from Danforth to allow the building of  streetcar tracks. Then a new, more rounded facade was created in front of it.

Hotel being moved
MOVING: Photo shows workmen who moved the Empringham Hotel back to accommodate the installation of tracks on Danforth Avenue.

But George Empringham lived not much longer, dying in June 1915 at the age of 76 or 77. Mary outlived him, dying in 1920.

George’s popularity in the community and further afield was shown by the long funeral procession along Danforth leading to the hotel and the crowds of mourners gathered around the Empringham.

A couple of streets in Scarborough and Markham are named Empringham, though it is unknown whether they reference George or other members of his large clan.

New Empringham Hotel
NEW LOOK: The hotel got a makeover in 1914, about a year before founder George Empringham died.

Among their 10 children, the Empringhams had two son, but one of the boys predeceased them. The remaining male heir, George Francis Empringham, appears to have taken over the hotel for the next several decades. Born in 1880, George Francis lived until 1952.

We’re not sure exactly when, but by 1954 the establishment’s name was changed to the Danforth Hotel.

The carriage crowd was long gone, replaced by drivers, taxi patrons and local inhabitants in the area that  was growingly residential.

Danforth Hotel in 1954
IN THE AGE OF THE CAR: Now called the Danforth Hotel, the establishment has a parking lot alongside it in 1954.

For a long time the Empringham or Danforth Hotel benefited from strict rules against serving alcohol in East York. East York residents would come to Danforth Avenue, which lay inside Toronto with its laxer rules, to do their drinking. It also drew patrons from the Beaches to the south, which had few watering holes of its own at the time.

Several bars, restaurants and hotels that offered alcohol thrived on Danforth serving parched east enders. You may also recall the place variously called the Eastbourne House or Noah’s Ark, one of the area’s oldest bars stood across from the Empringham/Danforth/Play Pen on the southeast corner of Dawes until it closed in 2012.

That last name for the hotel came sometime before the 1970s, along with advertising across its front befitting a strip club and entertainment lounge. The sign out front read “Play Pen” with “New Danforth Hotel” in smaller letters.

In the photo we have, many of the hotel’s windows on the second and third storeys are boarded up.

Play Pen
NEARING THE END: The last manifestation of the Empringham Hotel as the Play Pen.

The place survived until the early 1980s when it burnt down or was torn down or both, depending on who you talk to. (That should be well within many readers’ memory. Do you know what happened? Let us know in comments below or by email.)

Since then it’s been replaced by a commercial strip (of a different kind), small shops stretching from a Pizza Nova at the corner to a Popeye’s at the west end of what used to be the hotel property.

the block as it today
THIS IS NOW: Mainly one-storey businesses line the street where the Empringham Hotel and its successors once stood.

No doubt, holding the storied property for the inevitable condo development.