This Week in History


"The Grand Old Lady of Shuter Street"

For the week of Monday September 17, 2007

On September 21, 1893, Hart Massey’s young grandson, Charles Vincent Massey, laid the cornerstone of Massey Hall. Built in memory of Hart’s son, Charles Albert (1849-84), the hall was intended to function as a prestigious community centre, fostering the cultural, political and religious life of Toronto.

Massey family, with a young Charles Vincent in the front row
Massey family, with a young Charles Vincent in the front row
© Hart Massey / Library and Archives Canada / C-056796
The Massey connection to Toronto originated in 1879 when the Massey Manufacturing Company, then among the largest producers of farm implements in the British Empire, relocated to that city. By 1886, the company employed nearly 700 workers in Toronto, making it one of the city’s largest employers. The success of his firm provided Hart with the means to support a variety of charitable projects, ranging from contributions to the Children’s Aid Society to the founding of the Victor Mission, dedicated to Hart’s late son, Fred Victor. Massey Hall was among his final and most generous philanthropic endeavours.

Built at a cost of nearly $150,000, Massey Hall was a thoughtful gift to a city lacking large venues for public cultural events. Designed by the Cleveland architect, Sidney Badgley, the hall featured an austere exterior embellished with a classical frieze adorning the pediment and a spectacular Moorish-inspired interior. Though its aesthetics were rarely praised, Massey Hall quickly achieved a reputation for its remarkable acoustics. On opening night, June 14, 1894, Handel’s Messiah played to a full house. In time, groups such as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir made Massey Hall their home.

Massey Hall
Massey Hall
© Parks Canada / J. Butterill / 1994
The hall has been more than just a music auditorium, serving the many diverse roles planned by its founders. From lectures to rallies, beauty contests to Yiddish productions of Shakespeare, the Dalai Lama to Supertramp, the walls of Massey Hall have heard it all.

Until the 1960s, Massey Hall was Toronto’s premier venue for cultural events. Its dominance was challenged by the opening of the O’Keefe Centre (1960), the MacMillan Theatre (1964), and the renovation of the Royal Alexandra Theatre (1963). On June 4, 1982, the Toronto Symphony bid adieu to its former home by performing Farewell to the Old Lady of Shuter Street. Shortly thereafter, both the Toronto Symphony and the Mendelssohn Choir moved to the newly built Roy Thomson Hall.

Massey Hall stands as a notable National Historic Site for the prominent role it has played in Canada’s cultural life. For their dedication to public works and philanthropy, Hart Almerrin Massey and former Governor General Charles Vincent Massey became persons of national significance.

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