If walls could talk, what captivating stories would be told? What if those stories are told by the walls of a 122-year-old building in one of Canada’s oldest cities?
Massey Hall, in Toronto’s downtown core, has hosted to an assemblage of sights and sounds throughout its rich history. King George V, Winston Churchill, Wilfrid Laurier, the Dalai Lama, Enrico Caruso and Gordon Lightfoot are just a few of countless personalities that have graced Massey Hall with their presence.
Toronto’s Mendelssohn Choir and Symphony Orchestra along with opera, ballet, theatrical performances and even boxing matches have also entertained audiences in Massey’s auditorium. The Grand Old Lady of Shuter, as Massey Hall is affectionately named, continues to entertain, captivate and encourage aspiring artists.
Massey Hall has repeatedly been voted the country’s best live music venue of over 1500 seats by Canada’s music industry associations. The city would not be the same without this architectural, cultural and iconic presence of the Grand Old Lady, but the time has come for a facelift. A seven-year revitalization project will carry Massey Hall into the next century as a cultural venue for the next generation to enjoy – all without losing the essence of its former self.
Massey Hall is Canada’s oldest concert hall. Hart Massey, who inherited his father Daniel’s agricultural business in Ontario in 1856 and turned the business into one of the world’s largest equipment manufacturers – Massey-Ferguson, provided the funds to build Massey Music Hall in 1894. After renovations in 1933, in which seating capacity was reduced from 3500 to over 2700, the official name of Massey Hall was adopted. It was later, in 1981, that Massey Hall was designated a National Historic Site of Canada.
Massey Hall was built in memory of Hart’s eldest son Charles, a gifted musician, who died of typhoid in 1884. In honour of his son’s memory, Hart gave the city of Toronto $100,000 for the construction of a community concert hall.
The Massey family sought the services of Toronto-born architect Sidney Badgley, for the design of the hall. The architect was heavily influenced by ecclesiastical architecture, particularly the Moorish Revival style which is evidenced in its interior. The exterior of the building is Palladian architecture which was popular in early twentieth-century Europe.
Approval from city council was announced for additional construction and revitalization of Massey Hall in 2013, and in 2015, the first phase of a two-phase, $135-million project began. The first phase, during which the hall will remain open, will cost $32 million with an investment of $8 million each from federal and provincial governments and additional funding from private donors.
This phase entails construction for expansion including a two-storey basement foundation upon which an addition will rest to accommodate the hall’s first loading dock. This phase will provide backstage, technical and production facilities.
Phase two, scheduled to begin in 2019, will cost an estimated $100 million and will see the revitalization of the hall’s interior and exterior. At this time, the hall will fall silent for eighteen to twenty-four months, reopening in 2021.
Speaking about phase two’s revitalization process, the associated heritage component and possible challenges, Sharon Vattay Ph.D. CAHP with Goldsmith Borgal & Company Architects (GBCA), a Toronto-based heritage architect and consulting firm involved with the project, states that, “We don’t look at heritage as so much a challenge, as an opportunity. There’s more detailed investigation that we have to do when we have existing buildings.”
She explains that a great deal of research is involved in the history of Massey Hall considering that there were previous renovations to the building in the 1930s and 1940s. Every bit of previous work has to be considered when examining the building’s long history. “We use that to direct where we will make recommendations for how the building can change to meet current needs.”
Approvals are an essential part of the process Sharon affirms. Part of GBCA’s role is to, “navigate through the approvals that are required when you do renovations to a heritage building.” The focus then becomes one of ensuring that they meet, “all of the standards and guidelines and are able to get approvals to move forward and do what needs to be done to revitalize the building. There’s a lot of work behind the scenes before the renovations will actually start.”
Issues of accessibility or the installation of elevators, for example, will be major considerations because “that has an impact on the heritage. We have to figure out the best place to put it where it does the least amount of damage to the heritage.” For this reason, elevators will be installed in the new addition rather than the original building.
Sharon says that GBCA’s involvement with Massey Hall is the maintaining of its present-day use. “What we’ve called this is revitalization, and it’s a renovation because there are going to be changes to the building.” Restoration will also be applied to certain components of the building, such as the over fifty stained glass windows – some as high as sixteen feet – that have been covered for decades.
“The hope and the desire by the corporation [Massey Hall & Roy Thomson Hall] is to restore those. So restoration will be part of our scope of work. The goal is to re-illuminate those windows so that you can see them from inside the auditorium.”
Massey Hall’s vaulted, elaborately-decorated, plaster ceiling is in varying states of disrepair and is another concern for the firm.
Additionally, the hall’s original wooden seats and upholstered seats from the 1940s will be replaced, while improving sightlines to the stage. The signature exterior fire escape, added to the front of the hall in 1911 to address safety concerns, will be removed. Exterior masonry such as the stone carved signage at the entrance will also be restored.
When asked how she determines what is and what isn’t of historical significance, Sharon explains that the first step is an in-depth research analysis of Massey Hall including the site, history, cultural and architectural significance. “The idea is to come up with an objective description of what’s important. Here in Canada – and it’s similar in the United States – there’s a set standard for writing a Statement of Significance.”
When Massey Hall was designated, there was a brief Statement of Significance already written. “Through this process that we’ve been working on for many years, we also wrote a more extensive Statement of Significance. So it’s a very objective statement saying what is important and why it’s important. From that, you could get a list of key heritage defining features or elements.”
These key defining features are those that are important to preserve and conserve when determining the heritage significance of the building. “It’s not about a subjective analysis,” says Sharon. “It’s more about trying to maintain as much of the original character so that the site and the building still has what made it so important in the first place.”
GBCA will be working closely with Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg (KPMB), another Toronto-based architectural firm responsible for phase one’s planning and design. “Our work is all with KPMB. We’re not doing anything separate from them. Anything that is involved in the theatre aspect is what KPMB is doing and then they turn to us for advice on the heritage features.”
Many who have had the pleasure of attending a performance at Massey Hall will agree that the defining characteristics of the building – aside from the intricate architecture – are the intimate setting of the auditorium and its rich acoustics. During the 1948 renovations, the ground floor of the auditorium was removed and replaced with concrete and concrete columns were added in the basement.
Since then, acoustics have changed. Understandably, when Massey Hall first opened, performances were not amplified, while in the second half of the twentieth century, after the floor change, all performances were. “The acoustics has changed over time because of modernization of music and because of the changes in the building,” says Sharon. “It’s a very complex building in terms of acoustics.”
What makes Massey Hall unique from an architectural significance perspective is its shallow auditorium space and horseshoe-shaped balconies that, in part, “create a very intimate space inside. That intimate space is architecturally engaging. It’s very interesting. Anywhere you’re in that space you can see the stage … physically, that’s what I think is unique about it,” Sharon reflects. “You just get this great feeling that this is part of Toronto’s music history. It’s a fabulous place to listen and watch music being performed.”