Looking back at Mary Johns, an artists’ haven in mid-century Toronto

Mary Johns, Gerrard St.
Mary Johns, Gerrard St.

By John Lorinc

In the early 1950s, an artist named Albert Franck rented a cramped row house at 94 Gerrard St. W., at Elizabeth St. Born in Holland in 1899, Franck had immigrated to Canada in 1926. He cycled restlessly through a series of manufacturing jobs after the Second World War. While working in the framing department at Simpson’s, he finally decided to quit and set up a small gallery in his house.

Gerrard West, then dubbed “the Village,” sat in the middle of a quirky working-class area populated by immigrant families, artists, antique dealers and eccentrics — “the only real bohemia Toronto has ever known,” as the acclaimed painter Harold Town observed wistfully in his 1974 biography of Franck, whose moody urban esthetic is still very much in evidence in contemporary representations of Toronto.

Franck began painting in earnest, finding his muse first in the tumbledown cottages and laneways of the Village, and later in other older downtown neighbourhoods. One building in particular caught his eye: a homey restaurant across from his gallery, known as Mary Johns Village Inn. To earn some money, he created a series of Christmas cards from lithographs and paintings of the eatery’s exterior, including the cluttered yard behind the kitchen.

As Town wrote, “Albert painted Mary Johns several times; on one occasion he asked Albert Holm, the proprietor, if he would like to look at a sketch of the restaurant. Holm did and said, in disbelief, ‘You did the back and I just painted the front.’” Despite his dismay, Holm asked Franck if he would hang some of his paintings in the restaurant itself, adding another adornment beside the lacquered art deco travel posters, teal walls and bright orange tables that distinguished Mary Johns from Toronto’s workaday diners.

Today, of course, there’s nothing unusual about seeing the work of local artists displayed on the walls of a local café. Indeed, Toronto’s booming restaurant sector and its lively arts scene often seem joined at the hip. But if one wanted to locate the headwaters of these linked cultural forces, Mary Johns — which operated for more than 40 years before closing in the late 1960s — is a good place to start.

The inn opened in the 1920s across from Hester How Public School and the Elizabeth St. playground, which sat on the site of the new wing of the Hospital for Sick Children. The original owners of the restaurant, which encompassed three wood-frame buildings that dated to the 1870s, often hired a fortune teller to entertain the patrons, many of whom worked in the area.

Hilma Holm, ca. 1948 courtesy of Lynda Franklin
Hilma Holm, ca. 1948
courtesy of Lynda Franklin

In the mid-1930s, Hilma and Eero (Albert) Holm, a young Finnish-Canadian couple, bought Mary Johns with two other partners. Albert wanted to be a draftsman but couldn’t find work during the Depression, says his daughter Lynda Franklin. He met Hilma, a young Finnish immigrant, at one of the three eateries his mother owned in downtown Toronto.

The restaurant, which had adjoining dining rooms and tables packed closely together, catered to hospital and office workers, as well as local residents. Franklin, now a 71-year-old retired high school teacher, recalls typing out the menus on carbon paper. Her parents served hearty dishes like Salisbury steak, shepherd’s pie and charcoal blackened chicken, as well as salad, mashed potatoes and that staple of Anglo-Saxon cuisine, peas and carrots. Desserts included pie, ice cream and homemade butter tarts that, Franklin says with a chuckle, “were known throughout the land.”

The Holms employed a team of long-serving waitresses and kitchen staff. If one of the cooks didn’t show up for work, Albert or Hilma’s brother would step in.

Mary Johns, Town observed, was “the quintessential restaurant of a certain period of Toronto.” There were then a “handful” of interesting eateries, he said — including Angelo’s, Toronto’s first Italian trattoria, at Edward and Chestnut Sts., and “11A,” a Chinese place a few blocks south — that “helped us get through the WASP, work-ethic-dominated days of Toronto before the influx of immigrants after the Second World War shoved us in to the twentieth century.”

The Holms kept their prices low, which suited the artists and self-described bohemians who settled in the Village in the 1950s. “(A) body could stay alive for 60 cents a day and get fat for a dollar,” wrote Town. “The salad cost a nickel more if you had hard-boiled egg slices on top.” Franklin recalls her parents “agonizing” over whether they should charge an extra nickel for a cup of coffee.

The Holms and their two daughters lived in one of the apartments above the restaurant, but they also had a tenant. A Swedish masseuse set up shop in the building next door. The waitresses also had access to one spare bedroom for changing into their starched white uniforms, while patrons had to use an upstairs bathroom for years before Albert built toilets in the basement.

Over the years, the restaurant didn’t just serve meals to locals; it came to be woven tightly into the fabric of a close-knit immigrant neighbourhood.

When she was growing up, Franklin’s friends included the children of some of the Village artists (and Mary Johns regulars), such as Judy Pocock, whose mother, Nancy Meek Pocock, was a well-known metal artist and peace activist.

Franklin also recalls that Eugenia Berlin, a Russian-born painter who lived across the street, would pick up plates of ham for dinner guests at her apartment because she herself was vegetarian. Pauline Redsell-Fediow, an artist who lived in the same house, made sculptures that became lamp stands in the restaurant.“

“Dinners were delivered on a tray from Mary Johns during the hectic days of Christmas when the Francks printed and sold the Christmas cards that made them enough money for a down payment on their first house,” wrote Town, who died in 1990. (Franck and his wife eventually bought a house in Yorkville with the earnings.)

By the mid-1960s, many of the Village artists and boutique owners began decamping for Yorkville amid insistent rumours that the area would be razed and redeveloped. With Albert unwell, the Holms closed Mary Johns in 1969 and sold the property to a local furrier who was assembling land along Gerrard and Walton Streets.

While the business is long gone, its considerable cultural legacy is very much in evidence on the walls of Toronto’s bistros and cafés. As for Franklin, she keeps its memory flickering in her North Toronto home, which contains several paintings of the restaurant, including a moody interior from the 1930s.

But she feels the city could do more to remember an establishment that, according to Town, “should have been declared a national monument.”

“I think there should be a lane named after Mary Johns,” Franklin offers. “It’s one of the names of the old Gerrard Street Village that people will recognize.”

(Originally published in The Toronto Star, July 17, 2015)

 

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