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For Sale: The Masonic Temple

Once home to the strange rituals of the Masons, the Masonic Temple will be exchanging owners again in the near future.  Since March 4th, the building is no longer the base of MTV Canada either, who took ownership of it in 2006 under Bell Media.  If you hadn’t already noticed, the MTV sign at the Masonic Temple has been taken down- since late November 2012, actually.  The company revealed right after that Bell Media would be moving out of the 96-year-old Masonic Temple at Yonge St. and Davenport to a new building at 299 Queen Street West.  The new location is close to Bell’s other major Canadian network, Much Music.

Now that all the cameras and lights have been cleared out, what will become of the heritage building?  On March 4th, Bell Media listed the Masonic Temple at 888 Yonge St. with real-estate company DTZ, but left the sale price up to the bidding process.  Many speculate that the building will be used for residential purposes and, some say, another condo will be popping up on the corner because of its prime location and eager buyers.  Despite this inclination, there are plenty of road blocks that could discourage buyers with residential uses in mind.

For one, several of the building’s features are protected by heritage agreements.  That means if it were sold to developers, any new construction would have to retain large portions of the existing structure. The building’s protection under the Ontario Heritage Act also includes a stringent 30-metre height limit.

City Councilor for Ward 27 Kristyn Wong-Tam said this of the building’s future:

“Any potential buyer would need to respect the applicable municipal or zoning by-laws. We are advising potential owners to consult with the City at an early stage in formulating proposals for future use of the property. Ultimately, we anticipate that the Masonic Temple will retain the elements that led to its designation in the first place. We have plenty of condos,” she said. “But with respect to arts and culture spaces in Toronto, we don’t have enough. And we certainly don’t have enough of these really intimate spaces and music halls.”

“One of the key things we’d be looking for is cultural and community space,” she said. “The Masonic Temple has a very strong, very clear history of being a cultural animation space. . . . The neighborhood is very deficient there.”

Still, there are potential ways for avid condo developers to get around these regulations.  One would be using the building as an entranceway to a condo tower next door. Yet, the building is currently surrounded by two condos, an office building and a Toronto Community Housing Corp. building, making that scenario unlikely.

The current debate reminds us of a similar situation dating back to the early ‘90s.  The Masonic temple, it seems, has a history of fighting against condo builders.

The building has changed hands many times. Its original purpose was as a home to the Masons, a semisecret fraternal organization that performed elaborate rites and rituals in the meeting rooms upstairs. Transformed from the Mason house originally built in 1918 to a ballroom in the 1930s, the building moved on to become a sought-after concert venue named the Rock Pile in the ’60s.

Led Zeppelin even played its first Toronto concert there and other memorable performances have been given by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Black Sabbath, and David Bowie.

Bell Media purchased the building in 1998, originally using it as a studio for the late-night show ‘Open Mike with Mike Bullard.’

But, in the late ’90s, several years after the Masons off-loaded the property, owner Charles Moon proposed a 19-storey condo tower, which would feature 124 units and four levels of above-ground parking. The auditorium and Masonic meeting rooms would be gutted.

Toronto’s historical board and city council fought back, and the building, listed as a heritage property since the early ’70s, received additional protection under the Ontario Heritage Act. Whereas in most cases, designation concerns only building exteriors, the bylaw passed in 1997 lists a number of “important interior features,” including a patterned tile floor and other Masonic carvings and symbols in the auditorium and upper levels. The building received extra protection for its elaborate interior of Masonic carvings and a patterned tile floor.

It’s largely due to the City’s efforts in the late ‘90s that turning the Masonic Temple into a residential building will be so difficult today.

City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam advises prospective buyers to consult the city planning department, neighborhood associations and Heritage Preservation Services before submitting a proposal to purchase to understand just what can — and can’t — be done.

Who knows what the future holds for 888 Yonge St.?  Do you think it should become a condo, or retain its musical history? Only time will tell, but in the mean time we’ll be here along the way to update you, so stay tuned!

Sources (images included):

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