Bank Street Heritage Files: The Halls

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by Robert Smythe, City Editor

Upper floor public assembly halls were once a feature of social and political life on Bank Street. At their peak, around 1900, there were at least half a dozen public halls on top of commercial storefronts. These halls were rented out for entertainments, social functions, public lectures, and political rallies.They were built in this way in order to create large open spaces which wouldn’t be interrupted by support columns for floors above, and were generally lit by large windows. You had to climb several flights of stairs to get to them and, as they declined, their function was replaced by the newer movie-houses.

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Queen’s Hall was located on the northeast corner of Bank and Somerset Streets, with the principal entrance on Somerset. It was built in the mid-1890s and was home to “Dr. F.H. Norman’s Select Class in Dancing and Gymnastics – where no objectionable person is admitted.” They also offered fencing and bicycle-riding lessons. During every election the hall hosted packed all-candidates’ debates. Prof. Stephen Leacock lectured on economics here. As it went downmarket, the hall was briefly converted into a billiards room but continued to be used for public gatherings until the 1930s, when it was remodeled into apartments. The building was demolished in the early 1960s.

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St. George’s was the grandest of Bank Street halls, with a capacity of 500-600 persons. Built for the St. George’s Society (an Anglophile organization) in 1904, it was designed by Edgar Horwood, architect of the Somerset House next door. The hall boasted one of the first electrically illuminated signs in the city. St. George’s was an early venue for motion picture exhibitions, dances, musicales, and public rallies of every kind. The ground floor premises, originally a Bank of Commerce, became an R.A. Beamish Department Store, while the upper floor continued to serve as the Loyal Order of Moose Lodge and scene of radio station CFRA’s remote broadcasts of the country band The Happy Wanderers.

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A relative latecomer to Bank Street’s collection of upstairs halls was the Oak Door Entertainment Centre, which operated here (on the block between McLeod and Argyle, west side) in the 1960s. The Oak Door was a hotspot for dances and band concerts. It was frequently raided for underage drinking and had a bit of a reputation.

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A four-alarm fire on February 14, 1964 pretty much destroyed the Beamish Store and the upstairs hall. Beamish considered rebuilding here but decided to relocate to the former Eaton’s store at Bank and Laurier. A new building was constructed for another discount store that became another Bank Street landmark—Big Bud’s.

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Huckell’s Hall at Bank and Frank has a very colorful history. Higgerty’s Shoes was located on the ground floor for almost 100 years. It’s now Fauna restaurant. As well as regimental dinners, from the nineteen-teens until the 1930s Huckell’s was a location favored by labor union organizational rallies, particularly for building trades and railway workers.

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Towards the end, the hall was used by various Evangelical Christian groups. After John Huckell died in 1935, the upstairs was closed and converted into the Cosy Home Apartments. You can see this transformation in these before (bottom) and after (top) photos when the large windows were filled in for the conversion.