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FEATURE | Toronto’s Massey Hall Celebrates 130 Years

By Anya Wassenberg on June 14, 2024

Massey Hall (Photo: Simon Tanenbaum)
Massey Hall (Photo: Simon Tanenbaum)

Toronto’s Massey Hall is 130 years old. Canada’s oldest concert hall presented its first show in 1894, a concert by The Grand Festival Orchestra led by conductor Frederick Torrington. On the bill was Handel’s iconic Messiah, including a 500-member chorus along with the 70-member orchestra.

In the past, the Massey Hall stage has seen Canadian and international stars from Enrico Caruso to Oscar Petersen, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and The Tragically Hip. Today, Massey Hall still plays host to crowd favourites like Jon Batiste, Janelle Monáe, Herbie Hancock, and Olivia Rodrigo, among many others.

Massey Hall: A Gift To The City

The late 19th century was a time of dramatic growth for the city of Toronto. Union Station had been built in 1858, opening up the city to a rapid influx of immigrants as well as a meteoric uptick in business and commerce. Toronto swallowed up smaller towns like Parkdale and Brockton Village, and its population grew from about 30,000 in 1851 to 56,000 by 1871, and had swollen to 181,000 by 1891.

It was a time when vast fortunes could be made, including many in the rapidly growing rail and electricity sector. The Massey family was building their fortunes in farm equipment, and attained an early reputation for supporting the arts through a number of actions and initiatives. Son Charles was a talented organist, while another son, Frederick Victor, was a flutist.

Hart Massey, his father, and son of company founder Daniel Massey, built the concert hall in Charles’ memory, and as a gift to the city. In constructing the edifice, still noted for its acoustics, Hart stated he wished to cultivate, “an interest in music, education, temperance, industry, good citizenship, patriotism, philanthropy, and religion.”

Massey Hall: Architecture

Canadian-born architect Sidney Rose Badgley had a successful career throughout North America. He left his mark notably on the city of Cleveland, along with Toronto. Based in Cleveland at the time, the work designed by Badgely, and its construction supervised by Toronto architect George M. Miller. The three-storey red brick structure was built at a cost of just under $150,000 CAD.

The relatively plain brick exterior, designed in the late Palladian-revival style of architecture, was critisized in its day for its unadorned street face. Inside, however, it features motifs and other design elements such as the horseshoe shaped box arches and scalloped ceiling details in a Neo-Moorish style. That opulent edge extends to the materials and coverings the were originally used on the seats, and lighting fixtures, all considered also for their acoustic properties. It was state of the art for its time, and the hall’s acoustics continue to have a good reputation with audiences.

Massey Hall has been designated as a National Historic Site, and as a heritage site by the City of Toronto.

More than just a building, however, Massey Hall provided a professional venue and centre for Toronto’s then budding music scene. Until 1982, it was the home venue for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as well as the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

Interior modifications were made in 1933 and 1948, and the structure recently underwent a massive $184 million renovation that closed the venue from 2018 until late 2021.

Happy birthday, Massey Hall, and here’s to 130 more.

NOTE: This article was amended to correct facts regarding the late Charles Albert Massey, and we regret any misunderstanding that may have occurred due to the original error.

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