Massey Hall (Past, Present & Future)

By Toronto Historian Bruce Bell

In 1890 a symbolic cornerstone was laid on Shuter Street by Charles Vincent Massey, grandson of industrialist Hart Massey who gave the city $100,000 to build a grand new concert hall to honour the death of his son Charles. Planned by architect Sidney Badgley, Massey Hall eventually would cost $152,390.75 in a time when a six-bedroom house in the Toronto Annex area would set you back $1,200.

Massey Hall was designed with a neoclassical facade with over a hundred stain glass windows adoring its exterior.

As legend goes, Hart Massey’s 12-year-old daughter Lillian wrote out ‘Massey Music Hall’ on a piece of paper, gave it to her father who then handed it to stone carvers who then carved the lettering above the main entrance doors. This lettering is still evident today; however, some letters were covered up when the exterior fire escape was installed at a later date.

The Alhambra Palace in Spain inspired the main concert hall interior with fantastic Moorish arches that spanned the width of the auditorium, then all the rage in architectural design.  In 1894, the 3,500 seat Massey Hall opened with a performance of Handel’s Messiah. For the next 124 years, Massey Hall would be the focal point of great music making.

In the beginning, however, it was one performer who would put Massey Hall on the map of becoming one of the world’s greatest concert halls, the most famous tenor of his generation: Enrico Caruso.  

Caruso played the Hall twice, 1908 and 1920. By then Massey Hall was quickly earning a reputation as an auditorium with outstanding acoustics. Not everyone could afford a ticket so following the completion of his concert, Caruso went out onto the fire-escape to sing to the crowd gathered on Shuter Street who could not get a ticket.

Over the years Massey Hall became Toronto’s pre-emanate concert venue with some of the 20th century’s most famous people appearing on its stage including Winston Churchill, George Gershwin, Glenn Gould, Maria Callas, Vladimir Horowitz, Dalai Lama, Luciano Pavarotti, Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, Maureen Forrester, Cream, Neil Young, Oscar Peterson, and of course Gordon Lightfoot.

In 1967 a 29-year-old Gordon Lightfoot began a series of annual concerts that eventually would become the most solo appearances at the Hall of any performer and a defining signature of Massey Hall. Gordon Lightfoot now 79 was given the honour of being the last performer to play the legendary hall on July 1, 2018, for the final show before the 124-year-old venue closes for two years of renovations.

The architectural renderings created by KPMB Architects, the team behind the Massey Hall Revitalization Project, also include the restoration of the 100 original stained glass windows after been boarded up and concealed from view for over a century. 

Plans revealed for the renovation of Massey Hall show not only new offices and a larger backstage area for performers but also a pair of exterior glass walkways that embrace the sides of the hall improving access for all.