Seeing the mid-renovation state of Toronto’s Massey Hall can be a shock, particularly for someone like Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy who has a long history with the legendary music venue.
“This is a bit sickening,” admits Cuddy, who has played from the historic stage more than 40 times, as he surveys the now seatless hall filled with scaffolding.
“But I also recognize that the grand old hall was under siege, and if this preserves it for another 100 years, then it will have been worth it.”
Massey Hall turns 125 on June 14, which would normally be a milestone fit for a celebration. But it’s in the middle of a two-and-a-half-year, $135 million renovation, and won’t re-open to the public until the Fall of 2020.
While the venue isn’t in any shape to host a show yet, Cuddy was offered an opportunity to tour the restoration site with The National’s Ian Hanomansing and Massey’s director of operations, Grant Troop, to see how the project is progressing.
And the work is extensive.
Scaffolding currently fills the hall, supporting a temporary platform near the ceiling to give workers easy access to ornamental plaster arches that are being painstakingly restored.
Standing up there gives a unique perspective of a key element of the building’s original beauty.
“It’s an incredible experience to be up here,” says Troop, “and to see the incredible detail and workmanship — much of which has been obscured for the last 50 years, because it’s all been covered in this chicken wire.”
The chicken wire was put in place in the 1960s as a safety precaution because of crumbling pieces of plaster. It was cost-effective at the time, but was never meant as a long-term solution.
Now, decades later, the mesh is filled with dust and grime.
“That’s 50-year-old gunk,” notes Cuddy, watching Troop pull back a layer of wire uncrusted with blackened lint.
Revealed underneath are stalactite-like shapes lining the arches, each one originally formed in a mould and nailed in place by two quarter-inch nails. Much of the work is still in good shape, but 900 of the forms need to be re-cast, and the entire surface will need to be scraped and repainted.
As Cuddy tours the site, he observes it from a musician’s perspective.
He notes the lack of reverb in certain areas and remarks on the sonic effect of architectural details.
“There’s something about every irregular shape that is good for an acoustic building,” says Cuddy. “Even the irregular shape of all those arches keeps deflecting the sound instead of [reflecting it] evenly, so it’s all part of the reason it sounded good and ambient.”
Beyond the acoustics, Cuddy has an insatiable curiosity about the architecture of the building where he’s played so many shows.
He has questions about the historic heating systems, structural steel and the skills available from workers today, as compared to those who crafted the original structure.
“Do people still know how to do all those things?,” he asks.
Troop assures him that workers who are well-schooled in methods of the past are working on all aspects of this project, from those refurbishing the plaster to the stained glass restorers working offsite.
“Anywhere we’ve got true restoration work, we’ve got the best of the best on this crew,” says Troop.
Cuddy is keen to explore all the nooks and crannies of the building, pushing Troop at every turn.
“I want to take a closer look at that,” he says, pointing up to a crane that protrudes through a hole in the roof of Massey Hall. This is where Troop draws the line.
Cuddy and Hanomansing were able to explore the top reaches of the attic, however, where the original steel and wood beams are visible.
Troop points out that Massey Hall was one of the first buildings in Toronto to use steel in its structure.
“These beams were brought here using horse and cart,” he says. “This building was built on horsepower and manpower.”
For much of its early existence, Massey Hall was heated with coal and lit by open gas flames. With the dry timber of the structure exposed, it becomes clear that it’s a minor miracle the building didn’t burn down years ago.
“No fires in its history,” says Troop. “Touch wood.”
The main hall that Cuddy and Hanomansing are touring is only one aspect of a massive rebuilding project, which includes a new basement bar, external second floor hallways, and (mercifully for those who have ever endured intermission lineups) new bathrooms.
A modern forced-air heating system is going to be in a new seven-storey extension being built onto the back of the hall. This addition will also house new dressing rooms, concession stands, and another performance venue.
“Right now we are on schedule with the restoration piece,” says Troop. “We are a little behind with the [addition], but we’re going to catch up on that.”
Massey Hall is expected to reopen in the Fall of 2020.
“Obviously it’s going to be new, it’s going to be different for people,” Cuddy says. “I don’t know how I’m going to feel about that, because obviously I liked what it was. But I also remember a time when it was on the chopping block. And I don’t want that to ever happen.”
He adds that it’s comforting to see the enormous amount of painstaking attention being paid to trying to keep what was great about the original design of Massey Hall, for both the audience and the performers.
“I’m hoping it will be a great place to play for people long after I’m gone,” says Cuddy. “So I’m trusting in the process.”
Watch The National’s story on what Jim Cuddy and Ian Hanomansing saw inside Massey Hall during their tour of the renovations: