Downtown Memories: The Missing Buildings of Historic Elm Street

Bruce Bell is back and continuing his tour of Elm Street and the historic buildings and businesses that populated it, plus the moment Bruce’s four-year-old brother forgot him at the movies.

On the northeast corner of Elm and Lorne streets was the famous Gardner Motors.

When I was in 2nd grade, my dad took me to see an experimental 1962 Chrysler turbine concept car that was in the windows of Gardner Motors. The engineers would start the engine every hour just to show everyone that yes, this may be experimental, but the vehicle works.

Buying cars back then was an event and I remember the windows of the Gardner Motors showroom being covered with newspaper until new models were introduced, sometimes with the mayor in attendance.

Really a big deal.

I also remember huge Doric columns that supported a covered walkway attached to the dealership.

The ground floor also had the gas stations (Rosa Branca, I think), sales, service and administration with the mechanic shop in the basement and the body shop and paint shop on the top floor.

Opposite the old Gardner Motors in Lorne and Elm was the President Hotel.

Before the hotel opened in 1966, there was a furniture store on site, but it burned down.

I remember we used to walk past the site and see the remains covered in dirty black ice all winter.

The President was the first post-war hotel to open in downtown Sudbury, an opening that caused quite a stir in the local press.

The president had the lobby on the main floor and a winding staircase that led to the cafe and taverns.

I mean the two bars downstairs were some of the first in town to no longer have separate entrances for ladies and gentlemen, which was the norm until the 1960s. That said, there seemed to be an understanding back then as to which bars would suit single women.

Opposite the hotel was one of the most historic buildings in Sudbury, our first purpose-built hospital. Although I’ve probably passed it a hundred times, I’ve never known its heritage.

When I started exploring downtown, the old hospital was a boarding house that had a convenience store on the ground floor, which I think was called Ramsey’s.

Even without ever knowing the building’s past as a hospital, I was enchanted by its architecture, made in the French Empire style with the prominent Mansard windows in the attic, widely used in Paris, France.

I always thought how lucky Sudbury was to have such a unique looking building, but sadly it is gone too and another vast parking lot is there today.

Down Elm, toward the railroad tracks that cut the street in half, were the grain silos at Edwards Grain, with a grain and chicken feed store at its base.

On the south side tracks stood for many years the Swift Jewel Shortening building, with its neon icon. Across the street on the north side was a fantastic little takeout restaurant (whose name escapes me), but it was the first time I heard the term ‘greasy spoon’ to describe a quick lunch counter restaurant.

On the corner of Frood and Elm stood – and still is – one of Sudbury’s most distinctive buildings, the former Board of Trade with its rounded corner facade. Levert’s offices are there today. I will always remember the giant earth globe slowly turning in the window.

Across the Frood was the old Sudbury Star building.

The Sudbury Star began as a diary in January 1909 called the Northern Daily Star and later, with the acquisition of the North Bay Nugget, moved to its new building in Elm and Frood.

In 1935, the owners of the Star founded CKSO, Sudbury’s first radio station, and the newspaper building in Elm became a bustling place for people coming and going.

When I was four years old in 1958, my older brother John took me to the Empire Theater to see a Jerry Lewis movie, “Rock-A-Bye Baby”.

After the movie we split up and when he got home our mom said to him, “Where’s Bruce?” Seems like John came home thinking I was after him the whole time.

I was lost in the big and busy city, but I had the means to go to the Sudbury Star office because I was familiar with it when we got the paper.

I remember opening the big wooden doors and climbing the few steps into the lively newsroom full of people, typewriters, and lots of cigarette smoke.

I sat on a wooden bench until a kind lady came to me and asked what I was doing here.

I told her I was lost and she immediately took action and called the police, who in turn called my worried mother. It was all very emotional and I was never afraid, as I loved being the center of attention.

The former Star building in Elm was demolished to build the Odeon Theatre, which unfortunately only lasted less than 25 years.

I remember when the two Odeon theaters opened in 1969 with ‘Anne of a Thousand Days’ starring Richard Burton and Canadian actress Geneviève Bujold.

That night was a big deal with full-page ads and a glittering ball on opening night.

Next to the Sudbury Star was a thin, white four-story building that housed the American Raw Fur Company. The building always reminded me of one of those buildings you see on Amsterdam canals.

In the ’60s, I remember this building as a sort of squatter’s paradise filled with rude teenagers, the smell of cannabis wafting through the rooms and the occasional naked hippie running up and down the hallways.

There was a lot of that going on in Sudbury in the 1960s.

Next to that place and its peccadilloes was the famous Nickel Range Hotel, the only building I wish was still standing in Sudbury.

This magnificent hotel was the cornerstone of downtown Sudbury and defined our city in its name alone.

In the 1960s, newer and more flashy hotels were being built in the suburbs and with this move came the death knell for our beloved Nickel Range and ultimately the once vibrant downtown.

Since 2020, former Sudbury resident Bruce Bell has written a series of columns for Sudbury.com, sharing his memories of downtown Sudbury in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In April, he began a virtual walking tour of the Elm Street in its heyday. You can read it here. In June, he continued his tour. You can read it here. For more of his tales, type “Bruce Bell” into the search bar at Sudbury.com.

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