Description of Historic Place
The building at 189 Yonge Street, known as the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre, is situated on the east side of Yonge Street just north of Queen Street in downtown Toronto. The Edwardian double-decker or stacked theatre was designed by architect Thomas Lamb and was constructed between 1912 and 1914.
The site was designated under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act by the City of Toronto (Bylaw 12-79). Both theatres were designated as National Historic Sites in 1982 by the Government of Canada. On December 1, 1981, the Ontario Heritage Foundation purchased the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres and subsequently restored the historic theatres (1987-1989) to their previous grandeur. 65,000 sq. feet of new ancillary space, designed by architect Mandel Sprachman was also added.
The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre is located in downtown Toronto at 189 Yonge Street and contributed to the early commercial district of Toronto along with the Pantages Theatre (1921)which was also designed by Thomas Lamb. Today, the area is in Toronto's tourism district, near the Eaton Centre, multiple restaurants, and Yonge-Dundas Square.
The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre is associated with theatre magnate Marcus Loew, owner of one of the largest vaudeville/movie theatre chains in North America and founder of MGM studios. He brought his theatre chain to Canada with the opening of the Yonge Street location in late 1913, and soon after began building theatres across the country. Vaudeville came into popularity during the 1880s, and provided inexpensive entertainment to the masses. The Elgin (called Loew's Yonge Street Theatre until 1978) opened with much fanfare on December 13, 1913, and the Winter Garden followed on February 16, 1914. Performances consisted of a series of variety acts and silent movies. The theatres saw their share of famous performers including George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Charlie McCarthy.
The more prestigious Winter Garden Theatre had assigned seating, shows on weekends and evenings only, and higher admission prices. Vaudeville declined as “talkies” made their way into Toronto in 1927, resulting in the closure of the Winter Garden in 1928. The Elgin was converted to use as a movie house in 1930. Today, the restored theatres hold performances of all kinds, and stands as the last operating double-decker theatre in the world. The theatre centre is also associated with New York City architect Thomas Lamb, who designed 16 theatres across the continent from 1914-1927.
The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre is significant for its Thomas Lamb double-decker or stacked design, the only one ever built in Canada. The narrow Yonge Street facade connected to less expensive street frontage along Victoria Street, where the majority of the theatre structure was located. The domed ceiling of the Elgin Theatre is suspended from the floor of the Winter Garden, seven stories above, by a series of steel rods. The narrow two storey Yonge Street facade is a traditional Edwardian design with pilasters, engaged columns, and three Roman arched windows. Theatre patrons enter into a long, narrow, richly decorated lobby lined with scagliola columns with a crimson, brass, and gold colour palette. This colour scheme carries into the Elgin Theatre with rows of crimson seats, carpeting, and draperies. The panels and plaster decoration are burnished in patina glaze. The domed ceiling replicates much of the detail of the rest of the theatre, only on a larger scale with garlands, ribbons, and masks. Access to the Winter Garden Theatre is by way of the grand staircase or hand operated passenger elevators which maintain their original signage “Elevators for the Winter Garden”. Decoration of the smaller Winter Garden is completely different from the Elgin, with a whimsical rooftop garden atmosphere. Garden murals of roses, morning glories, and climbing ivy cover the walls, and structural columns are decorated to resemble tree-trunks. The ceiling is adorned with lanterns and over 5,000 beech leaves and branches. The sounding board mural is a scene of blue sky and white clouds with mountains in the foreground.
The Ontario Heritage Trust restored the historic theatres to their previous grandeur. 65,000 sq. feet of new ancillary space, designed by architect Mandel Sprachman was also added.
During construction over 60 ceramic and glass vessels were recovered. As a result, a small archaeological excavation of a nineteenth century foundation well took place. An additional 500 artifacts were recovered providing evidence of occupation of this site prior to the construction of the theatre complex.
Source: Ontario Heritage Trust Property Files
Character defining elements that contribute to the heritage value of the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre include the:
- unique double-decker theatre design and construction
- Yonge Street facade with traditional Edwardian design
- six terra cotta columns framing the three second storey Roman-arched windows
- reconstructed entrance doors on Yonge Street with eight panes of bevelled glass, a wood frame, and decorative art glass transoms
- reproduction wooden bird cage box office with stained glass roof outside of Yonge Street's entrance doors
- reconstructed suspended entrance canopy adorned with 50 rows of hanging lights
- vertical sign reading “Elgin and Winter Garden” based on the original “Loew's” sign
- moderately adorned Victoria Street facade
- long narrow lobby colonnade, restored to its 1930s appearance
- colour scheme of the Elgin Theatre in crimson and gold seen in the seats, draperies and carpeting
- Elgin's panels and plaster decoration burnished in patina glaze
- Elgin's dome that replicates much of the detail in the rest of the theatre with garlands, ribbons, and masks
- original hand operated passenger elevators
- grand staircase with scagliola balustrade leading to the Winter Garden seven stories above
- whimsical rooftop garden of the Winter Garden theatre
- Winter Garden's columns constructed to resemble tree-trunks
- Winter Garden's murals of roses, morning glories, and climbing ivy covering the walls
- Winter Garden's ceiling adorned with lanterns and over 5000 beech leaves and branches
- Winter Garden's sounding board mural of blue sky and white clouds with mountains
- 1930s seats from Chicago's Biograph Theatre in the Winter Garden installed during the 1980s restoration
- 125 pieces of vaudeville scenic flats and backdrops found in the Winter Garden
- 3 scenic flats on display in public spaces throughout the theatre
- original terrazzo flooring in some areas of the lobby
- large quantity of surviving scagliola in the balustrade and columns
- restored historic rope rigging system in the fly-towers
- collection of historic projection equipment
- more than 60 ceramic and glass vessels recovered during construction by the Ontario Heritage Foundation
- nineteenth century foundation well where an additional 500 artifacts were recovered
- location in the heart of downtown Toronto
- proximity to other theatres, most notably the Pantages (now the Canon theatre)
- location on a section of Yonge Street that historically and presently is a major commercial centre