Skip to main content

The Northeast corner of Massey Hall at Shuter and Victoria Streets in 2010.Peter MacCallum

During the Nuit Blanche festival of Oct. 3, 2009, I attended a site specific sound and performance event entitled Space Becomes the Instrument by Montreal artist Gordon Monahan. The site was Massey Hall.

Throughout the night, audience members were admitted through the building’s side door on Victoria Street and led out onto the stage. We watched and listened as performers created indistinct amplified sounds by fiddling with piano wires stretched across the seating area.

With the loading ramp in place down the centre aisle, the empty orchestra took on an abstract sculptural appearance.Peter MacCallum

Even though that night’s performance was a disappointment, I had retained vivid memories of concerts at Massey Hall. Viewing it from the stage for the first time that night was a powerful experience for me. Having recently taken some exterior views of this venerable building as part of my Yonge Street project, I realized then that I could make a more useful contribution to Toronto’s social history by photographing its interior systematically from top to bottom.

As a subject, Massey Hall was directly related to my first major project as a documentary photographer. In 1986 and 1987, I photographed the abandoned Massey Ferguson Toronto Plant, including its core of buildings dating from the first years of the Massey Manufacturing Company. The profitable production of this factory paid for the construction of Massey Hall, which opened in 1894.

The desiccated timber framework of the fly loft was a non-fireproof, rough-and-ready form of construction that would be unthinkable today.Peter MacCallum

When I began the interior project in February, 2010, I was already somewhat familiar with the hall’s uppermost reaches. In 1987, I had been hired by the Toronto Architectural Conservancy to document the fly loft above the stage where an ancient rope-and-pulley system was still being used to hoist scenery and backdrops. My photos of the desiccated timber framework of the fly loft showed a non-fireproof, rough-and-ready form of construction that would be unthinkable today.

The Conservancy wanted to record the loft before air-conditioning equipment was installed there in anticipation of a run of the musical Cats. Given the small size and few number of dressing rooms, I still find it remarkable that Massey Hall could have been adapted to host a Broadway production such as Cats for eight months in 1989. However, the Toronto Symphony had previously made do there for decades without the benefit of air conditioning.

The hall’s dressing rooms, along with its offices, were housed in the Albert Building, which fronted on Victoria Street. A two-storey oriel window gave its brick façade architectural merit, but decades of soot made its qualities difficult to appreciate. Patrons will never be able to see the Albert Building cleaned and restored because it was demolished to make way for a new backstage complex.

The hall’s dressing rooms, along with its offices, were housed in the Albert Building, which fronted on Victoria Street.Peter MacCallum

The current renovation will correct one of the major logistical problems touring groups had to deal with when they were booked to play at Massey Hall. The backstage corridors and dressing rooms in the Albert building were on a level several feet higher than the stage. As a result, a portable metal ramp had to be installed between the main entrance on Shuter Street and the stage to load in equipment from the front of house.

With the ramp in place down the centre aisle, the empty orchestra took on an abstract sculptural appearance. No audience ever saw the orchestra that way, and the ramp will be made redundant by the new backstage entrance, so I’m glad I was able to document it as a historical artifact.

Interior architectural photography using available light is a slow process involving a tripod-mounted camera. The geometry of interior space requires making a large number of minute adjustments in camera position, and perhaps changing lenses, to arrive at an acceptable composition. For this project, I used a medium-format Hasselblad whose square negatives seemed perfect for the subject. Exposures of up to several minutes were required in the darker parts of the hall. While the lens was open, I was free to eat a snack or walk around looking for the next view I would take.

Although I took more than 60 views of the hall’s interior between 2010 and 2013, I regret not having the opportunity to do more. One view I was particularly interested in would have shown the aisle between the front row of seats and the front of the stage. I remembered having seen a flash-lit portrait taken on May 15, 1953, of Charlie Parker standing in this transitional space. The equipment ramp, left in place whenever the hall was idle, thwarted my efforts to record this view.

The view from the Massey Hall stage before a performance by the Brad Mehldau Trio in 2010.Peter MacCallum

While it is a cliché to say that the very fabric of the old Massey Hall embodied our collective memories, the restoration mandate of the current project, which involves uncovering its original stained glass windows, boarded up in the early half of the 20th century to muffle street noise, illustrates the often paradoxical nature of period restoration.

No living Torontonian remembers seeing the hall flooded with natural light. I’m happy to have managed to record it as it looked for the greater part of its existence.

Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.