How the Great Hall Was Saved
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How the Great Hall Was Saved

The iconic west-end building gets a complete makeover.

The Great Hall before restoration. Image courtesy of The Great Hall.

The Great Hall before restoration. Image courtesy of The Great Hall.

Standing opulently at the corner of Queen Street West and Dovercourt, the Great Hall has watched Toronto grow up around it since its construction was completed in 1889. But in 2014, the Victorian emblem had fallen on hard times, and the future of the space came into question. The building looked in need of a serious touch-up. The paint was chipping off the walls, the roof needed repair, and the place looked tired—not surprising after more than 50 years without any major structural restoration.

The Great Hall was originally opened as a YMCA location where the famous Indigenous runner and Boston Marathon winner Tom Longboat once trained and where some of the world’s first basketball games were played. During its tenure as a West Queen West icon, the Great Hall saw guests like Lucy Maud Montgomery and Justin Trudeau and was also used as a venue for political speeches, a baby clinic, a shelter for World War II refugees, and the headquarters of the Polish National Union (as well as their publishing house). By the time the 90s rolled around, it had housed the Toronto Art School, Music Gallery, and Theatre Centre, cementing Queen West as an artistic and cultural centre in the city. Recently, the Great Hall also hosted company events for massive firms like Twitter and Google.

Even though the building received heritage designation in 1973, there were fears two years ago that it would be turned into a condo or commercial space. When a building is declared a heritage site, the façade must remain untouched, but the inside of the building can be gutted. There are many heritage buildings around Toronto that are preserved on the outside but have been completely transformed on the inside. Take, for example, Anthropologie on Queen Street West, which was once a church and a bank and now houses the global retailer, or the Household Sciences building at Bloor and Queen’s Park, which has experienced the same fate with Club Monaco.

“Anyone could have come in and turned this building into whatever they wanted on the inside,” says Lina Beaudin, the co-founder of Nordest Studio and the director of business development and partnerships and programming at the Great Hall.

Beaudin says that while the building may have been repainted throughout its lengthy history, no one had seriously invested much time and effort into maintaining its structural integrity.

“These are buildings that are made to last; if they’re maintained, they’ll never fall apart,” she says. “You don’t see that any more.”

The Great Hall was on the verge of closing due to disrepair and doubts about whether it could expand its liquor licence capacity from 303 people to more than 1,000. But then came Triangle Development, which took on the massive challenge of entirely restoring the space.

The project, headed by Steve Metlitski, took two years and cost between $3 million and $4 million.

The Great Hall after restoration. Image courtesy of The Great Hall

The Great Hall after restoration. Image courtesy of The Great Hall.

“Every decision [Metlitski] made was about respecting and honouring the heritage,” Beaudin says. “Everything he did was to restore or enhance the beauty that was already there.”

The newly restored Drawing Room. Image courtesy of The Great Hall.

The newly restored Drawing Room. Image courtesy of The Great Hall.

The restoration process was massive. Outside, all of the 19th century decorations were replaced, and the windows were restored. The original mullion windows are still there, but, to help with soundproofing the building, extra panes and insulation were added. All the eavestroughs and downspouts were replaced. The peaked roof was entirely restored; it was a challenge to work around the turret and tower. Parts of the roof that couldn’t be used were salvaged and used as bar decorations. The same went for beams that were removed from the building, which were then used to build the bar itself.

Inside, the renovations were just as trying. The Triangle Development team added an elevator, making the building accessible and more functional when it comes to moving equipment between floors. The bathrooms were rebuilt to reflect the Victorian era. The hardwood floors were also entirely redone but were cut on the spot and made to look exactly like the originals. The team even uncovered a hidden ceiling with beautiful crown moulding, which they restored to its original splendour.

Waterford crystal chandeliers were installed in the Main Hall to complement the ceilings, and high-tech sound systems were installed throughout the building. In the Lower Hall, the hand-built track used by Tom Longboat was uncovered and is now being used as a balcony space. In the Conversation Room and the Drawing Room, floors and trims were restored, and radiators were replaced to restore the space’s original charm.

The newly restored Conversation room. Image courtesy of Charming Media.

The newly restored Conversation room. Image courtesy of Charming Media.

There was a great emphasis on preserving the historic essence of the space. Being one of the most iconic buildings in the West Queen West neighbourhood, a serious consideration to community impact was given, which is fitting considering that the Great Hall housed the first YMCA—an organization with a focus on community engagement—in Toronto’s west end.

By restoring the space and working to preserve its historic nuances, we can now contribute to the building as well by continuing to make history there, Beaudin says.

“Heritage is like history. At the end of the day, it’s the past where we all come from and where everything derives from,” says Beaudin.

The Great Hall was also cleared to upgrade its liquor licence to 1,243 people by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario. It will open to the public on September 21.