parkdale theatre toronto

Someone is transforming an old and forgotten theatre into Toronto's newest event venue

Alex Chan did not exactly intend to stumble upon a 1oo-year-old piece of Toronto history when he was sussing out real estate options for a new cannabis store earlier this year, but in accidentally doing so, he's completely changed the course of his plans for the foreseeable future — and those of a lot of other residents, too.

While examining a storefront in a divvied-up building near Queen and Roncesvalles, Chan, who has a background in real estate, noticed something out of the ordinary that immediately caught his eye.

"As I was looking at the space in one unit, I went into a closet and looked up, and the closet revealed a bit of this amazing old ceiling. So I started wondering 'why is this ceiling here and how far does it go?'" Chan says.

After doing a bit of research, he found out that 1605 Queen St. W. had actually been an old theatre build in 1920, and the ornate hidden ceiling he had happened upon was of the original design from its glory days, later covered by drywall drop ceilings.

"I learned how amazing this building was and decided it was a tragedy that this ceiling was hidden. Someone should reveal it, and why shouldn't that person be me?"

Chan spent the next few months acquiring and then carefully renovating the vast space that was formerly the Parkdale Theatre, removing drywall and restoring the plaster ceiling with the help of his dad and a number of contractors with the hope of turning it into a multi-use event venue that properly celebrates the heritage structure.

Though the labour of love isn't quite finished yet, he's already kicked off a weekly antique market on Sundays, which has helped out local vendors that have been struggling due to COVID closures while also carrying on the block's reputation as a must-visit spot for collectors and thrifters.

He is also building in a bar and full kitchen space, and would like to eventually install speakers, lighting and other features for live performances, weddings and conferences in what has now been dubbed Parkdale Hall. The venue's grand opening is tentatively slated for Nov. 8.

During his work, he's learned a lot about the theatre, which was constructed by the Allen brothers — who were also behind Toronto's Tivoli Theatre, opened at Adelaide and Victoria Streets in 1917 — and designed by renowned U.S. architect C. Howard Crane.

The 1500-seat venue was shuttered in 1970 as television grew in popularity and accessibility, and has since been used for a variety of retail purposes, its original history somewhat forgotten by younger generations and covered in haphazard renos over the years.

"No one had really seen the ceiling. Most of the young people I've talked to in Parkdale are really surprised and never knew this was here," he says.

But Chan has been able to uncover a number of little heritage tidbits through his work, such as the orchestra pit where musicians would perform accompaniments to silent films, and a long-lost basement.

"We were trying to learn more about the space and trying to figure out which side the screen was on, which way the seats sloped up," he said of how they discovered the filled-in pit near the west wall.

"And historical blogs had mentioned a basement, so we were scratching our heads like, 'where is this basement?' Then when I was doing some repairs to the loading dock, in one hit, a whole part of the floor caved in. And we were like, 'oh, there's the basement,'" he says, adding that the below-ground floor will take some time to eventually render usable, if at all.

The whole project has been a somewhat serendipitous journey, especially seeing as Chan first caught that glimpse of the ceiling back in April, almost 100 years to the day of the theatre's opening.

"I'm still working on it, but I hope it becomes one of the premier event spaces in Toronto. It's very unique and being able to reveal this little gem in Parkdale has been a really great experience for me."

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