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A brief history of The Great Hall

Posted by Benjamin Boles / July 20, 2014

Great Hall TorontoAccording to a petition being circulated by the owners of The Great Hall, the fate of the historic venue will be decided this summer by whether or not they are granted a significant capacity increase by the AGCO. As anyone who has attended an event there recently knows, the current official capacity for the main hall is so small that it feels empty even when it's legally full.

great hall torontoHowever, if the application for the increase fails, it's still unlikely that the space could be easily turned into yet another condo tower, as the building received its heritage designation way back in 1973, which would be a major roadblock for developers.

The hall's current focus on music was a relatively recent development, although it did host a concert by local musicians the very first night after it officially opened in 1890. Originally it was constructed to house Toronto's West End YMCA, and was bankrolled by Samuel J. Moore, a businessman who'd made his name making books of carbon paper sales slips. His name also provided the name for the short-lived restaurant on the first floor that has now become the Bristol.

great hall torontoThe ornate building was designed by architecture firm Gordon and Helliwell, who were also responsible for building many churches throughout Toronto and surrounding areas. Originally it featured a swimming pool in the basement (some traces of the deep end still remain), a gymnasium, a bowling alley, a library, and a raised running track.

First Nations marathon runner Tom Longboat worked out there, and would go on to win the Boston Marathon in 1907. It was also the site of some of the earliest basketball games ever played. In 1912, the YMCA moved to College and Dovercourt, where it continues to operate today.

great hall torontoAnti-alcohol fraternal organization the Royal Templars of Temperance took over the space after the YMCA moved, and renamed it the Royal Templar Hall. During this period it was used for a wide variety of purposes, including political speeches, entertainment, and even a seance conducted by a psychic. The Royal Templars' battle against booze would not be successful.

Great Hall TorontoThe Polish National Union purchased the hall in the 1940s, and set up printing presses to produce the Polish Voice newspaper. During wartime, Polish refugees were housed on the upper floors, and the building continued to be central to Toronto's Polish community until the mid-80s, when it turned into a hub for the city's artistic scene.

great hall torontoTenants over the next decade included avant-garde music organization the Music Gallery, visual art gallery YYZ, the Theatre Centre, the Toronto School of Art. It also hosted afterhours parties, early house music events, and even an early Toronto appearance by Sonic Youth.

By the end of the 90s, it was more well known as a rental hall for private events than a cultural space, although mixed in with the weddings and corporate functions there were still some quirky offerings, like the OCAD Sumo Robot Challenge. Time was taking its toll on the building though, and the main hall was not really set up to be a proper concert venue.

great hall torontoThe Great Hall has experienced a revival in recent years, after Wrongbar owner Nav Sangha took over the space in 2011 with help from The Lakeview Restaurant's Alex Sengupta and Fadi Hakim. The basement space was renamed the Blk Box Theatre, but currently gets very little use due to the lack of a proper liquor license. The restaurant on the main floor recently became a pub called the Bristol, and the main hall continues to host a diverse variety of events, from multi-media concert series like Long Winter to offbeat events like Art Battle.

If the Great Hall doesn't manage to get the capacity increase they're looking for, it's unclear what the future will hold for the space. Will the ghosts that are said to haunt the hall want to stick around if it becomes a fancy furniture store?



Robert / July 20, 2014 at 08:13 am
What makes you think it it will be torn down for a condo? Things kike that do not happen anymore. That was way in the past.
Bob replying to a comment from Robert / July 20, 2014 at 01:00 pm
I believe the author said it's unlikely it'll be condos.
Johnny Rock / July 20, 2014 at 06:12 pm
Just because a building is heritage it doesn't mean it can't be gutted and turned into condos on the inside. If the venue is not making money as a venue due to it not being booked by promoters (because of a ridiculously low capacity) than how long can it sustain itself? Someone has to pay the taxes and mortgage on the building. Every condo developer in Toronto is waiting for this prime bit of real estate to open up.
StellsBells / July 20, 2014 at 07:56 pm
It's been on the brink of financial ruin for decades, yet continues to pull a phoenix-like rebirth every time things get really bad. Very fond memories of it from the 80s. Crazy times.
gregg / July 20, 2014 at 11:02 pm
Bye bye Great Hall. We'll move our events to other venues if you can't survive.
bugeyedbrit / July 21, 2014 at 12:30 am
The Bristol is closed at the moment, for exceeding its capacity......
Nick replying to a comment from Johnny Rock / July 21, 2014 at 10:44 am
As part of designation under the Ontario Heritage Act, the building will have had a statement explaining the heritage attributes of the property (s. 29.4b of the OHA). Among the attributes listed for the Great Hall are the former gymnasium and assembly hall with balcony.

Would a developer be able to develop the GH into viable condos while preserving those features? Perhaps, but maintaining the integrity of the interior features would make it significantly more difficult than if they just had to maintain the facade. Similarly, would a developer be able to build over/on the GH as it is now and maintain the external features? Maybe, but there are significant challenges with that too.

That said, designation could be withdrawn by municipal council (31.1/32.1 of the OHA) or the owner of the property could apply to council to alter attributes listed as part of its designation (33.1), and we all know how much sense this council's decisions can sometimes be.

Best of luck with this liquor licence increase -- it certainly should be maintained as a viable event space as opposed to having any of these significant "getting around the Heritage Act" actions be attempted.
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