A lesson in heritage restoration at Queen & Bathurst
The new face of a very old building has finally been revealed at the southeast corner of Queen and Bathurst streets — and it looks spectacular, assuming you keep your eyes trained mostly above street level. I knew the facade of the building that used to house the Big Bop was going to be impressive when I caught a glimpse of it through the green mesh netting a few weeks ago, but even then I didn't think it would be quite this stunning. When the first tarp came off on Friday afternoon, more than a few people walking along Queen did a double take. Wow... so that's what was underneath all that purple paint, their faces seemed to say.
Now that the rest of the building has been revealed, it's worth having a look back at what exactly has been restored here. Despite being lodged in Toronto's collective unconscious as the Big Bop, the history of 651 Queen Street West extends well beyond its years as a lovable eyesore. Built as a Masonic lodge between 1876 and 1878, the Occident Hall, as it was then called, was one of the first buildings designed by architect E. J. Lennox, the man behind such iconic structures as Old City Hall and Casa Loma.
Marilyn M. Litvak has the lowdown in her book Edward James Lennox: Builder of Toronto: "The first known record of E.J. Lennox as a practicing architect is an advertisement in the Globe, 15 May 1876. At the time he was in a partnership with William Frederick McCaw, and their firm asked for contractors to bid on the erection of Occident Hall, at the southeast corner of Queen and Bathurst streets... Only a few of the buildings McCaw & Lennox contracted for have been documented. Occident Hall was a major commission and no mean building in its time. C.P. Mulvany, in his Toronto, Past and Present until 1882 (published 1884) praised the building as handsome and 'unique in its design and furniture.'"
The provenance of the building makes it all the more tragic that its original mansard roof was removed 70 years later when the Holiday Tavern opened in 1948. I've yet to track down photos that indicate exactly when the brick facade was first painted over, but in 1984 painter Bart Schoales was commissioned to do interior and exterior murals at the site. As Rick McGinnis wrote when the Big Bop first announced it was closing, that would have been around the time that the Ballinger Brothers bought the Holiday Tavern, which they would eventually rename the Big Bop.
The caked on purple paint would come in the mid-1990s and stick around until the closure of the live music complex in 2010. There was something of a collective sigh when it was revealed that Crate and Barrel was planning on opening one of its CB2 subsidiaries at the corner, but news that the landlord would plunk down $3 million to restore the building was hard to be upset about.
And there it is, the double edge of the corporate ownership of heritage structures. While a putatively trendy furniture store is probably not the tenant of a heritage enthusiast's dreams, it takes deep pockets to do the type of restoration work on display at Queen and Bathurst, and that means a certain type of business will inevitably take residence at these types of buildings (think Loblaws at MLG).
Can we really complain?
We'll share more photos of the building, inside and out, when we get inside prior to CB2's public opening on Saturday.
Photos by Derek Flack, Erin Jones, Rick McGinnins, Patrick Cummins, Goad's Fire Atlas 1892 (via the Toronto Public Library) and the Toronto Archives. And thanks to Colby Bayne for the help in tracking down a pre-purple photo of the Big Bop.
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