The Grand Old Lady is not only getting a facelift, but a makeover.
Massey Hall, originally built in 1894 by Canadian industrialist and philanthropist Hart Massey at a cost of $152,000, is in the midst of a $139 million revitalization that will see the iconic, downtown-Toronto, 2,765-seat music venue shutter for a little over two years, starting July 30, 2018.
When it re-opens in September 2020, not only will the building emerge as a technically upgraded hybrid of history and modernization, but its restoration will also bring an expansion that will include two additional venues, one of which can run concurrently with any booked main hall performances. Massey Hall will also be home to the Eastern extension of Calgary’s National Music Centre, lodging a music museum to celebrate Toronto’s rich musical heritage.
Deane Cameron, President and CEO of The Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall Corporation, says five years of meticulous planning will hopefully pay off in increased activity, traffic, and business that will secure its future. “We feel a great sense of responsibility to revitalize it the right way, build it back to its former glory,” says Cameron, the former, longtime President and CEO of EMI Music Canada, who came out of retirement to assume the position two years ago. “Our ambition is to return to the original vision of Hart Massey, which is to make it a civic engagement venue as much as it is entertainment.”
While there’s still much money to be raised – Cameron is hoping for an additional $70 million from the federal and Ontario provincial governments, and another $40 million from private funding (of which 25%-30% has been procured) – the first of Massey Hall’s two-phase revitalization has been completed. In 2014, the adjacent Albert Hall, initially constructed as a janitorial residence, was purchased from some condo developers and was razed last year – in order to build a much-needed loading dock for gear. The lack of a loading dock means that acts are forced to wheel their equipment through the front entrance, which takes as much as two days.
The new seven-storey replacement building for the Albert allows not only for the dock, but several other crucial “missing” components: an expanded backstage area, proper dressing and “green” rooms for visiting acts, and a new, flexible, 500-capacity, 260-seat performance space with a separate entrance, that can host events simultaneously with the main hall. The basement bar Centuries will also be expanded to a 500-capacity venue, likely for shows after the ones in the main hall are finished. The renovations and expansion will double number of shows held at Massey, and lead to Canadian artist development, education and outreach.
“We feel a great sense of responsibility to revitalize it the right way, build it back to its former glory.” – Deane Cameron, President and CEO of The Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall Corporation
In terms of cosmetics, the outer hull of Massey, a heritage building, will be restored to its former 1894 glory, albeit with a modern twist: aside from the re-instatement of its original stone sign, and 104 original stained-glass windows, each wing will be covered by a glass passarelle revealing the second-and-third story expansions, including bars, lounges and washrooms. The fourth storey will include the newly constructed venue and also be home to National Music Centre East – the museum extension of Calgary’s music institution.
“Level 5,” which Cameron describes as a mezzanine, will be “our recording studio for content capture. We’ll be able to record right off the fourth-floor location of the new venue and directly from the hall.”
For the interior, the 1933 art deco lobby will be fully refurnished and supplemented with additional lighting. In the main auditorium, all the seating is being replaced – with each seat upgraded in width ranging from an inch-and-a-half to upwards of two inches “due to code.” Additional seats will be added to the balcony. More than 50 of the 80 currently obstructed seats will disappear once the new chairs are installed. Accessible seating – currently confined to the orchestra level – will be provided on all three auditorium levels. A retractable floor will allow seats to be stored under the stage for general admission events, increasing the venue’s capacity to 2,900.
Although Massey Hall is celebrated for its musical pedigree (everyone from opera legend Enrico Caruso, to jazz innovator Charlie Parker, to Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young and Rush have graced its stage,) it’s also served as a lecture podium for the likes of activist Nellie McClung and future British PM Winston Churchill. “We want to be able to be known for our lunchtime lectures,” says Cameron. “There’s a return to being a big-picture venue. It’s become a little too niched as a popular music venue.” He also says that in order to accommodate Toronto International Film Festival screenings, Massey Hall will be film-ready.
Mark Garner, Executive Director and COO of the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Association, says the importance of Massey Hall in generating local business can’t be overstated. “All those restaurants around show times are booming,” he says. “The Senator Café, Jazz Bistro, all the restaurants along Victoria Street… We’re going to see about 70,000 people move onto Yonge Street in the next three-to-five years… All those people moving into those condos will want to go to a live performance show. You don’t want to drive and get onto public transit – you want to be able to walk that eight-block radius, and Massey is in that location… We’ll miss Massey during its downtime, but when it opens back up again, that’s when we’ll do the key economics, and we’ll see it just blossom.”
Gordon Lightfoot will close the venue on June 29 and 30, 2018, but not before Massey’s 124th birthday is celebrated on June 14. He also promises that during the venue’s closure, Massey Hall will continue to program other shows at such neighbourhood venues as the Elgin Theatre and the Winter Garden Theatre. Roy Thomson Hall is also going to try to take up some of the slack.
Although Massey’s closure may hurt downtown Toronto economically for the months that it is closed, Nordicity – a Toronto strategic, policy and economic consulting firm – predicts in a study that the venue will contribute $348.1 million to the GDP, create 3,950 full-time jobs, and generate $108.1 million in federal and provincial taxes between 2016 and 2025.
“We’re going to increase activity,” says Cameron. “We’re going to increase business. We’re going to be good for the neighbourhood. We’ve done estimates showing the provincial and federal governments that if they give us the $34M we’ve asked from each, one government will get their money back in eight years and the other in 12, just through taxation, and that’s conservative.”
Of course, once the Massey Hall doors re-open, the big winners are going to be arts lovers, culture enthusiasts and musicians – as well as the surrounding restaurants, bars, hotels and retailers.