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heritage

If a penny saved is a penny earned, surely it is worth it to save a Dollar.

On Jan. 13, the modest Silver Dollar Room, a cement growth in the shadow of the Hotel Waverly, was deemed by city council as being of cultural heritage value or interest. The preservation status has to do with the musical tradition of a small, dusky room at 486 Spadina Ave. that has seen strippers strip, Bobby Bland do blues and Bob Dylan be Dylan.

Rumour has it that James Earl Ray (the convicted assassin of Martin Luther King) refreshed himself at the lounge while on the lam in 1968. Rumour probably has it wrong, but history's details are up for grabs, and so is commercial real estate.

The Dollar's official designation comes one year after the city turned down a developer's scheme to tear down the saloon (and the attached Hotel Waverly) to make room for a 22-storey mixed-use building, which would house a private student residence on its top 20 floors and a revamped Silver Dollar Room at ground level.

The rejection to that proposal was appealed by the buildings' owners (Wynn Group) to the Ontario Municipal Board. Final statements are to be presented at a hearing on Jan. 30.

There's nothing particularly significant about the architecture of the Dollar or the Hotel Waverly. In fact, the city only designated the Dollar – and not the attached turn-of-the-century flophouse – as a heritage site, a decision that has caused concern among the preservationist crowd.

"In my opinion, the two buildings are peas in a pod," says architect Michael McClelland, a witness for the city's side in the case currently in front of the OMB. "I don't agree with designating just one part."

As for the building's bland appearance, Mr. McClelland believes that the determining factor in a structure's worth and standing should be more than design. "I think it is very important that we don't look at these buildings in isolation, but how they contribute to create a street."

The area of Spadina Avenue at College Street is notable for three storied music venues: Grossman's Tavern, the in-limbo El Mocambo and the Silver Dollar. Of the trio, the latter's history might be the most colourful. "Try to come along Spadina Avenue, see that goddam Silver Dollar sign, hundreds of light bulbs in your face, and not be drawn in there," wrote Elmore Leonard, for the opening of his 1989 novel Killshot.

The Silver Dollar opened in Jan. 5, 1959, with entertainment that night coming from the swing-rock crew Tommy Danton and the Echoes, billed in a newspaper ad as "Canada's Top Variety Group."

An article in The Globe and Mail in 1962 described the venue as raucous – "no place to go for meditation."

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Dollar was the city's top blues venue. Magic Slim and the Teardops were regular visitors, and there was the night of the free lollipops when Chicago's Chico Banks launched his risque Candy Lickin' Man album there.

The Dollar is distinctive for its horizontal layout, which adds intimacy. It has a classic classy-lounge design, but there's a dustiness to the room, with its inside murals (images of B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry) evoking a bygone era.

But if the Dollar was no place for meditation in 1962, it isn't now either. "It's a terrific spot," says Dan Burke, the room's main talent booker for more than three years now. "It's one of the top mid-size venues around in the world of indie rock."

A venue is only as good as its programming, and Mr. Burke keeps the Dollar vibrant. Local indie stars who got their start in the room include Deadly Snakes, Death From Above 1979, Pup, Alvvays and Tokyo Police Club. The Dollar routinely hosts the most buzzed-about showcases during the annual Canadian Music Week and NXNE festivals.

"It's nice to see that city is paying attention to a music venue," says Mr. Burke, "but we'll see what happens."

The decision by the OMB on the fate of venue will likely be made this spring. The loss of the Dollar would be costly to the city's musical lineage if nothing else – we really are talking some serious coin here.