If you travel along Queen Street West approaching Dovercourt you’d never know that behind a set of doors on the south east corner is a grand staircase that leads into a building filled with rich history. The Great Hall is a gathering place that has reincarnated several times over. Today it’s one of Toronto’s most sought after entertainment and meeting venues.
Originally built in 1889 it was home to Toronto’s YMCA West End chapter. The land was purchased for $10,000 and the architectural design firm Gordon & Helliwell erected a Victorian style three-storey building with signature details from the Queen Anne Revival style that was popular at the time.
In 1912, the YMCA relocated and The Great Hall soon found a new tenant with the Royal Templars of Temperance, a fraternal organization that was active in the prohibition of alcohol, renamed the building to the Royal Templar Hall. It was the “place to be” as a venue for lectures, entertainment, and a “well-baby” clinic that was established during the post WWI flu epidemic. It was also host to a gathering of psychic and spiritualists in 1920 and later home to the Independent Order of Foresters. In the 1940s, it became the home to the Polish National Union where it held offices and printing presses for the local Polish newspaper. During the second world war, the building welcomed immigrants from Europe and served as temporary housing.
In 1973, the City of Toronto designated The Great Hall is a heritage site. Then in the 1980s, the building became a hub for artists in performance, music, visual arts and experimental arts. It continues today to be a venue for community, arts & culture, and creative minds.
On the exterior, restorations have included the peaked roof, 19th century decoration around the window frames, as well as the original mullion windows — a unique Victorian design where the rounded upper portion drops down to open.
The interior has also seen plenty of restoration over recent years of original detailing including a hidden second floor staircase corridor coffered ceiling that was damaged and covered up for decades. In addition to the restorations, a new elevator installation is making the building more accessible which must have been a challenge in the 1800’s structure.
Much of the footprint remains today. The main entrance from the stairs led to the Main Hall – an elegant auditorium concert-hall style space that had a second level gallery overlooking the stage. The gymnasium accessible from inside or the side street entrance has been restored and updated but remains nostalgic in feel. Designers have cleverly left a few original markings on the walls of the YMCA days that were discovered during the restoration. Some of the earliest basketball games were played here and several world famous athletes have come through these doors. The gymnasium is now named after Tom Longboat, a famous long distance runner who set a new record here in 1907. It has had restorations of its original, hand-built, curved wooden running track and now serves as a balcony with its own bar overlooking the basketball court. The venue’s walls have also been restored back to its original red and yellow brickwork. We were told that the cavity of the swimming pool still exists on the premises but not currently accessible to the public (darn!) and no restoration has been slated for that to date.
The top floors of the building have also been restored and ideal for hosting events. The “Conversation Room” and the “Drawing Room” are bright contrasts to the deep set spaces in the building. Cheery bay windows overlook the city streets and bring in beams of natural light. The detailing of these nooks are so inviting and breathtakingly beautiful.
The Great Hall is located at 1087 Queen Street West, Toronto. Visit their website for more info.