Massey Hall reopens after massive modernization that preserves iconic music venue's magic

·5 min read
Construction workers raise a new sign on Massey Hall in Toronto on Nov. 5. After a comprehensive, years-long overhaul, the famed music venue reopened Nov. 25 with a concert featuring Gordon Lightfoot. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Construction workers raise a new sign on Massey Hall in Toronto on Nov. 5. After a comprehensive, years-long overhaul, the famed music venue reopened Nov. 25 with a concert featuring Gordon Lightfoot. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

Jim Cuddy couldn't hide his enthusiasm when he got his first look at the newly renovated Massey Hall this week.

"It's so amazing. It's beautiful," he said as he walked out on stage.

The songwriter, singer and guitarist for Blue Rodeo was on a private tour of the iconic Toronto music venue with Massey Hall CEO Jesse Kumagai and the CBC's Eli Glasner. It was three days away from the Nov. 25 reopening, and construction workers and sound engineers were still installing seats and setting up equipment to get the hall ready for the first audience since it closed for renovations in June 2018.

"I can't wait to play here," said Cuddy, whose band has performed at the legendary hall dozens of times. "I can't wait to see somebody here. It feels like it got an incredible shine, but it doesn't feel that different."

WATCH | Jim Cuddy gets his first look at the results of the Massey Hall renovation as the project nears completion:

From the stage, the feel may be familiar to Cuddy — but much has changed.

The brand new floor seats are now retractable, allowing for general admission at some shows. Stained glass windows that had been covered up with plywood since the early 1900s have been carefully restored. And the plaster ceiling, once covered in dusty chicken wire to protect audiences from falling debris, has been precisely repaired.

The stage has also been completely rebuilt and the entire ground level has been raised, bringing the stage closer to the balcony and gallery seats. All this had to be done without affecting what many refer to as the magic of Massey Hall.

"We wanted to make sure we weren't doing anything that was going to change that for the audience," Kumagai said.

The goal of restoring a 127-year-old building, preserving its character while also updating it to suit today's needs, was a monumental task — one that was not only done under the scrutiny of heritage departments and building inspectors, but also many of Canada's top musicians and music historians.

Jag Gundu/Massey Hall
Jag Gundu/Massey Hall

Industrialist Hart Massey commissioned the hall in 1894, as a gift to the city of Toronto. The world-famous building is steeped in history and lore.

It was constructed primarily for musical performances and has held some great and varied ones, from Enrico Caruso to AC/DC to Tanya Tagaq.

It's also known for historically significant live recordings, including The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever, Neil Young: Live at Massey Hall and Rush's All the World's a Stage.

It was home to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for 60 years. Massey Hall also hosted political rallies, and even sporting events such as wrestling and boxing.

Greg Hobbs/CBC
Greg Hobbs/CBC

There were periods when the hall was seen as outdated and narrowly escaped the chopping block.

However, Massey Hall was designated a National historic site in 1981, protecting its legacy.

The revitalization project's chief architect Marianne McKenna was keen to build on all this history.

Greg Hobbs/CBC
Greg Hobbs/CBC

"We began with clear instructions from the musicians who love this place: Fix everything. Change nothing," said McKenna.

"That quickly went by the wayside. We had to improve everything about the place."

Anyone who has ever been to Massey Hall knows that one of the worst parts of the experience was the limited number of bathrooms and their location in the basement. This was remedied by building a tower on the back of the original structure, made accessible by outdoor hallways known as passerelles that now jutt from the side of the building.

Greg Hobbs/CBC
Greg Hobbs/CBC

"It was something that was floated in the '60s," McKenna said. "I don't know where they thought they were going then because there was nowhere to go."

Now with the seven-storey tower attached to the South side of the building, the passerelles lead to brand new bathrooms, a (nearly finished) bar, and elevators that make the hall accessible to many who were never previously able to sit in the balcony or gallery levels.

The tower also contains another yet-to-be-completed performance venue, rehearsal spaces and the Deane Cameron Recording Studio named after the previous Massey Hall CEO, who passed away suddenly in 2019.

The bar in the basement of the original structure has been completely refurbished, and will soon also be used as a small performance space.

Greg Hobbs/CBC
Greg Hobbs/CBC

The ongoing revitalization project has a price tag of $184 million. It is being funded by all three levels of government, as well as corporate and private donors.

When asked what the biggest personal challenge of Massey Hall's revitalization project was, McKenna essentially said all of it.

"I'm a contemporary architect," said McKenna. "You know, we do things in very contemporary ways, but to acknowledge and respect the history, to try not to change it but to augment the feeling of being here. To make it better. It's a big challenge for an architect."

Greg Hobbs/CBC
Greg Hobbs/CBC

The renovated Massey Hall opened its doors to the public on Nov. 25, with veteran performer Gordon Lightfoot hitting the stage. Lightfoot has played the venue more than 165 times.

Over the coming months it will be up to audience members and musicians to decide whether the crew at Massey has achieved its goals. But for Cuddy, the verdict is already in.

"I was prepared to accept it as something new, and just bundle my memories of what it was," he said. "But I think this marries beautifully with what I loved about it."

Photos from Massey Hall's opening night:

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