For nearly 50 years it offered Torontonians the chance to hear live performances by some of the finest classical musicians of the day. But since 1977 the 1,000-seat Eaton Auditorium—the onetime showpiece of the Eaton’s College Street store—has been locked and dark. The reason: the owners of the building, now part of an office, retail and condominium complex called College Park, which also houses the Maclean's offices, have beep seeking permission to turn the space into offices. Last June a Supreme Court of Canada decision ensured that the now-decrepit hall will escape demolition. But until the owner, Toronto College Street Centre Ltd., city officials and private lobby groups can arrive at a workable plan for restoring the auditorium, Toronto music lovers must rest content with little more than memories. Said Toronto publisher Eleanor Koldofsky, a fervent supporter of the Eaton Auditorium: “It would be a great and wonderful thing if the owners would contribute it to the city for people to restore and use and enjoy.”
T. Eaton Co. completed its sevenstorey College Street building in 1930. The highlight for then-culturally parched Toronto was the seventh floor, with its elegant art deco concert hall and the Round Room dining room, designed by French architect Jacques Carlu. “This opened the possibility of fine music to a lot of people,” said architectural historian William Dendy. The first Eaton Auditorium perform-
ance in 1931 featured Australian soprano Florence Austral, accompanied by pianist Ernest MacMillan—who later became the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s musical director. And over the years audiences heard such talents as Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia and U.S. bass-baritone Paul Robeson.
The auditorium’s supporters say that the hall is worth saving. Indeed, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, legendary for his exacting acoustic standards, once said that he regarded the auditorium as one of his favorite “studios.” Gould made many of his recordings there, including his interpretations of all of Johann Sebastian Bach’s French and English suites. And even after it was closed, Gould continued to practise at the unheated hall with the new owners’ permission, swaddled in a long overcoat, a portable propane heater burning on the floor during the winter. Professional musicians were not the only ones who benefited from the auditorium. Kiwanis Music Festival spokesmen have estimated that over the years more than 89,000 amateur Canadian finalists performed in the space.
In 1975 Toronto’s city council passed a bylaw designating Eaton’s College Street store of “architectural value.” By that time Eaton’s had sold the building to its current owners, Toronto College Street Centre. The developers made a 1976 presentation to the Toronto Historical Board stating that the auditorium and Round Room would be
restored; they reiterated the commitment in an August, 1976, letter to city council. It was with that understanding that College Street Centre entered into a 1977 agreement with the city to develop the entire complex. But the company soon decided that restoring the auditorium and the Round Room, at an estimated cost of $5 million, was uneconomical and that it might cost organizations who wished to rent the space as much as $1 million a year. “It became apparent that there wasn’t anyone to rent it,” said the corporation’s chief financial officer, Ian Galloway.
College Street Centre then sought permission from the city to convert the seventh floor to offices. But a loosely knit group called Friends of the Eaton Auditorium came together to lobby against the proposal. As a result, the city refused to issue a building permit that would have allowed conversion of the premises. In 1984 the corporation took its case to a divisional court for reviewonly to have its application dismissed. Subsequent appeals by the corporation to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1986 and the Supreme Court of Canada this year were turned down.
But although College Street Centre cannot convert the auditorium, it has declared that it bears no obligation to restore it. “If the courts want it preserved,” said Galloway, “the community will have to pay for it.” But with several Toronto buildings—including the renowned Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres—already using restoration funding at various government levels, money may be in short supply. Toronto Mayor Art Eggleton has established a committee to examine ways of making the auditorium operational, although no concrete proposals have yet been submitted.
Meanwhile, loyal supporters of the auditorium insist that there are several art groups anxious to make use of the space. For one, Music Toronto, an independent arts organization that presents chamber music and recitals, has expressed interest in running the auditorium and making it available to musical groups in the city that have difficulty finding a suitable medium-sized concert hall. Said Music Toronto director Jane Forner: “I’d like to see all of
these homeless groups come together and see that hall become a true music centre.” Such a step would be true to the past spirit of the auditorium— and to the memory of the musical greats who graced its stage.
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