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culture

The Great Hall Warns It’s in Danger of Shutting Down

The nearly 125-year-old building at Queen and Dovercourt is looking for the public's help to keep its doors open.

A building that’s served as a gathering space since 1890 needs your help.

In a petition currently posted on change.org, The Great Hall is asking for public support for the application it’s made to the Gaming Commission of Ontario to raise its liquor capacity for arts performances, banquets, and other events from 303 to 1,553. “Due to low capacity,” the petition declares, playing on fears regarding the common fate of the city’s old buildings, “The Great Hall is in danger of going the route of the condo … We have a bad habit in Toronto of allowing all our landmarks to go the way of development, commerce & condos.” The appeal highlights the venue’s flexibility—it’s a venue for local music nights, international touring acts, the Summerworks theatre festival, and charity events.

The building opened as the second permanent home of the West End branch of the YMCA. Originally established a few doors east along Queen Street in 1883, the YMCA quickly found the space insufficient for its growing membership. Several sites were scouted while a fundraising campaign was undertaken. West End YMCA chairman Samuel J. Moore, a businessman who built a fortune by developing the carbon paper receipt form and later served as president and chairman of the Bank of Nova Scotia, laid the cornerstone at Queen and Dovercourt on November 13, 1899. The building was designed by the firm of Gordon and Helliwell, whose other surviving works include the Bathurst Street Methodist Church (now the Randolph Theatre) and the Avenue Road Presbyterian Church (now the Hare Krishna temple). The main assembly hall was located on the upper level, while amenities on lower levels included a library, a bowling alley, and a running track.

Postcard of Toronto West End YMCA, issued between 1908 and 1912. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 70, Series 330, File 345.

The new West End YMCA opened on October 9, 1890. During the dedication service, Moore discussed the history of the organization, while lawyer and social reformer Samuel Hume Blake praised the organization’s efforts to keep youth on the straight and narrow. No doubt Blake approved of the YMCA’s “rescue brigade,” which brought men into the fold to impress upon them the importance of becoming a Christian.

The following evening, a concert featuring local talent was held. The Mail praised this decision, as “the result makes kindred effort in this section of the city no longer tentative. That so much real ability in these the opening days of the new building was proffered is in itself a matter of profound congratulation.”

The spotlight on local musical talent long outlived the YMCA, which moved to its present West End branch at College Street and Dovercourt Road in 1912. The building was purchased by the Royal Templars of Temperance, a fraternal organization dedicated to combating liquor and its evils. Renamed Royal Templar Hall, the venue was used for political speeches, lectures, and entertainment. The hall was one of the battlegrounds in the fight between Sam McBride and Bert Wemp for the mayoralty in December 1929, when Wemp refused to dignify with a response McBride’s charges during a debate that he was a stooge for the Telegram.

The hall’s offerings also reflected period fads. In 1920, author A.D. Watson promoted his book on spiritualism, The Twentieth Plane, with a Boxing Day “psychic meeting” featuring a “trance address” on the topic of “What and Where Is Heaven?” One author not impressed by Watson’s work was Lucy Maud Montgomery, who noted that all of the spirits contacted in the book were famous in life: “There don’t seem to be any grocers or butchers or carpenters on the Twentieth Plane.”

Well-baby clinic, 1089 Queen Street West, March 26, 1918. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 563.

By the Second World War, the building was owned by the Polish National Union, which used it as a community hall, and as a headquarters for its weekly Polish Voice newspaper. During the war, it presented a “New Canadians’ Bazaar,” a cultural showcase for the local Polish and Slavic communities that raised money for the Canadian Aid to Russia Fund. During the 1970s, it hosted the Polish pavilion for the Caravan multicultural festival. Its 1972 entry, “Gdynia,” offered a seaport setting for cabaret shows and culinary specialties like pickled herrings and beef a la Polonaise. In 1973, the City bestowed a heritage designation on the site.

Since the mid-1980s the site has housed numerous artistic organizations. The building itself was known as the Ceilidh Arts Centre for a time in the 1990s before becoming the Great Hall. Tenants with long residencies offered experimental music (Music Gallery), staged works (Theatre Centre) and visual arts (YYZ Gallery). A 1993 Globe and Mail guide to local galleries declared the site the western limit of the city’s art scene as the paper waited for trendy boutiques and restaurants to push out to Parkdale.

Those fears regarding potential condo conversion? Well, such a transformation might be tricky. As the Globe and Mail observed when the building was up for sale in 2006, the building’s longstanding heritage designation and the positioning of its assembly room would make converting the Great Hall a challenge. As for roadblocks in gaining its liquor license expansion, a recent Now article suggests that councillor Mike Layton wants potential noise concerns addressed, which could be achieved through additional sound-proofing.

The Great Hall’s application will be heard on July 30.

Additional material from the December 13, 1890 and December 20, 1929 editions of the Globe; the February 26, 1943, April 24, 1993, and January 21, 2006 editions of the Globe and Mail; the October 10, 1890 and October 11, 1890 editions of the Mail; and the December 24, 1920 and June 23, 1972 editions of the Toronto Star.

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