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The Brass Rail Tavern, a strip club in Toronto, on Aug. 14.

Yader Guzman/The Globe and Mail

Perhaps the tower that eventually rises from the strip club site should be called Brass, or maybe The Rail.

The family that has long owned the Brass Rail Tavern in downtown Toronto has stuck it out through crusading moralizers, a lap-dancing ban that went to the Supreme Court and a wave of bad press last August, after hundreds of patrons were potentially exposed to COVID-19. But the lure of high real estate prices is proving too attractive for the owners, who are calling time on a Toronto institution.

The Cooper family recently began shopping around three properties under and beside the Brass Rail. They are not selling the actual Yonge Street strip club – which is currently closed because of pandemic restrictions – but plan to wind up operations as the site is redeveloped.

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Daniel Ross, a history professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal whose dissertation was on Yonge Street from the 1950s through the 1970s, called the club one of the last remnants of Toronto’s old vice district. While he won’t mourn it, he noted its connection with an era when Yonge was the most vital street in the city.

“The idea of having a single entertainment strip full of taverns, cinemas, restaurants, cocktail bars … I think there’s a lot of nostalgia in Toronto for that,” he said.

The Brass Rail, just south of Bloor Street, began as a tavern. It gradually added nudity to the menu, reflecting the broader shift of Yonge Street into what critics denounced as “Sin strip.”

The club eventually became a favoured haunt for a certain crowd at the Toronto International Film Festival. Other celebrities popped in. It was where then-New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez was spotted with what the tabloids described as a “busty blonde” who was not his wife. But the standard clientele was more prosaic: an earlier generation of Bay Streeters going to what they dubbed “the ballet,” university students scratching a frat-boy itch, sweaty bachelor-party revellers.

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The Cooper family declined to be interviewed. In a statement they said “it has become obvious to us that the neighbourhood is evolving with new retail, condos and offices opening all around us.”

No price has been set for their properties and bids will be accepted likely later in April. Based on comparative land prices provided by their broker, the 0.21-acre site may garner in the range of $32-million.

“We see not only the densification of the Yonge Street strip, but also an increasing quality of the retail tenancies,” said the broker, Nicholas Kendrew, of commercial real estate agency Cushman & Wakefield. “So I think it’s a very interesting time to look at a potential redevelopment or repositioning of this property.”

Briar de Lange, executive director of the Bloor-Yorkville BIA, called the block’s redevelopment “inevitable” given the intensity of construction planned or under way nearby.

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Such density and scale was unthinkable when the Cooper family bought the Brass Rail. In the late 1950s the tallest building in the country was Commerce Court North, standing only 34 storeys in Toronto’s financial district.

It was an era of liberalizing Ontario liquor laws, and bars began to proliferate on the strip, finding an eager market.

“Yonge Street’s always been a place of entertainment,” said Chris Bateman, with Heritage Toronto. “You’ve got more relaxed laws, more relaxed people. At the end of the day, people wanted to go out and have fun.”

In 1969, the Brass Rail promised “five topless Go Go Dancers” in a listing that ran in a local newspaper. By the early 1970s, when David Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer got his start at the club, his friends became unusually interested in his playing once he began performing there.

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“At the end of the night, you know, the friends are still there,” he told NPR on a 2009 book tour for his memoir. “I’m embarrassed and I’m saying please come back and see us, we’re happy to have entertained you this evening and we will be here, and it really felt like it, for the rest of our lives.”

The Brass Rail spent much of the 1970s as a live-music venue, under the name Yonge Station, before relaunching as a full-on strip club, getting a municipal adult entertainment licence in 1982. It began offering lap dances and defied the law when these were banned. The fight went to the Supreme Court, which in 1997 allowed the activity.

Social mores were changing, though. When three city councillors visited another of Toronto’s strip clubs in 2009, they felt compelled to explain that they’d been on an “industry facility tour” and hadn’t looked at the dancers.

A similar bashfulness was evident last summer among Brass Rail customers. After Toronto Public Health warned that 550 patrons might have been exposed to COVID-19, contact tracing was hampered by the high percentage of them who had given false names.

Meanwhile, Toronto’s property market was soaring. The value of the land on which the Brass Rail sits dwarfs its annual revenues, which the data and analytic company Dun & Bradstreet pegs at about $2.4-million.

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In its statement, the Cooper family said it had received numerous unsolicited offers for its properties. Once they sell up and close, the only remaining strip club on downtown Yonge will be the Zanzibar.

“It’s so interesting how [Yonge] changed,” said Heritage Toronto’s Mr. Bateman. “The cleanup, I guess, if you want to call it that, the real change in Yonge Street has come in the last 15-20 years, with development.”

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