Colonial Tavern – The Historic Venue’s Part in Toronto’s Music Heritage

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July 1973 – Looking northeast towards The Colonial Tavern during the Yonge Street Mall (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1118, Series 377, Item 782)
July 1973 – Looking northeast towards The Colonial Tavern during the Yonge Street Mall (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1118, Series 377, Item 782)

The Colonial Tavern was once located at ‪201-203 Yonge St‬ (between Queen St and Shuter St) in the Downtown Yonge area in Toronto.

Originally the Athlete Hotel

Before the Colonial Tavern, the building was home to Athlete Hotel. John F Scholes opened the hotel in the late 1890s. Tucked between two iconic bank buildings, it was renamed Scholes’ Hotel in 1924. It remained in operation until 1947 when the Scholes family sold the property.

The Colonial Tavern

The Colonial Tavern opened in 1947. It was owned and operated by Mike Lawrence, who later brought in his brothers-in-law, Harvey and Goodwin “Goody” Lichtenberg, to help manage the venue. The Colonial featured live jazz music and had a revolving floor around the stage so everyone had equal views. In a civil rights milestone in the opening year, the tavern broke the colour barrier and featured shows by the all-black dance band Cy McLean and His Rhythm Rompers.

The historic Toronto music venue gained a reputation as one of the leading jazz clubs in the world. Besides booking great Canadian performers, Goody worked with his connections in New York and LA to bring big American names in jazz.

A few of the legendary musicians that performed at the Colonial include Canada’s own Oscar Peterson as well as Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, Sarah Vaughan, Peter Appleyard, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Herb Ellis. There are many more (photos below of the monument etched with some of the famous acts).

A Fire, Rebuild & The Blues

In July of 1960, a fire destroyed the building. It took 120 firefighters from 15 stations to battle the blaze. There was $85,000, 1960 value, in damages. It was thought to be caused by faulty wiring in a refrigeration unit. It took several months to rebuild, and the Colonial reopened in 1961.

The new modern tavern was two-storey in height and had a glitzy Las Vegas vibe. The curved marquee displayed the featured performers while the green “Colonial Tavern” sign glittered on the building’s corner.

The Colonial always featured the music of the times, and in the 1960s, the tavern began booking influential blues greats like BB King, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon.

The 70’s & 80’s

Between 1985 and 87 - The Colonial Tavern was once located at ‪201-203 Yonge St‬, between Queen St E and Shuter St in the Downtown Yonge area in Toronto. In the archive photo, from left to right, notice the Toronto Dominion Bank, The Colonial Tavern, the Canadian Bank of Commerce (today the entrance to Massey Tower), the JF Brown Building/Heintzman Hall and the Elgin Theatre (Cats was playing), which is today known as the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre
Between 1985 and 87 – The Colonial Tavern was once located at ‪201-203 Yonge St‬, between Queen St E and Shuter St in the Downtown Yonge area in Toronto (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 428, Item 26)

In the 1970s, in the cellar of the building, The Colonial Underground was booking rock and punk acts which included Rush, Teenage Head, Rough Trade and Viletones. The main floor became more of a disco.

Things were changing on Yonge St. One of those was The Eaton Centre was being constructed across the street from the Colonial. City bylaws were also evolving, and a $70,000 sprinkler system needed to be installed to keep the building up to code. Mr Lawrence decided to sell the Colonial in the late 1970s. Business at the historic tavern began to dwindle, and it closed in 1987.

Demolition & Parkette

The building that was once a music fan mecca was demolished in 1987, and a year later, the land became a parkette. In 1996, a granite monument was added to the park to commemorate the legacy of the Colonial Tavern. In the shape of a record, the black stone disc is inscribed with the names of over 125 legends who performed at the famous club. The disc was removed from the site a few years after it was installed.

The Site Today

2021 - The property Colonial Tavern once occupied between the Bank of Toronto building and Canadian Bank of Commerce today The Massey Tower on Yonge St just north of Queen St E in the Downtown Yonge area in Toronto
2021 – The property Colonial Tavern once occupied between the Bank of Toronto building and Canadian Bank of Commerce today The Massey Tower on Yonge St just north of Queen St E in the Downtown Yonge area in Toronto

Along with the iconic Canadian Bank of Commerce building, the land that was once the Colonial Tavern is now home to The Massey Tower. Competed by MOD Developments in 2019, the 60-storey tower features both residential and retail space.

MOD Developments CEO Gary Switzer and a friend who worked for the City found the granite disc in a City works yard in Scarborough. Luckily, it was safe and sound. In October 2020, in collaboration with Downtown Yonge BIA and MOD Developments, the rediscovered monument was unveiled. The disc is again on display for all to admire the part the Colonial Tavern played in Toronto’s musical heritage.

Did You Know?

  • The hotel and, later, the Colonial Tavern were flanked by two heritage bank buildings. The Canadian Bank of Commerce at 199 Yonge St was built in 1905. Designed by the talented duo of Darling & Pearson, today, this bank is now the entrance and lobby of The Massey Tower condo. The Bank of Toronto at 205 Yonge St was built in 1906. Designed by EJ Lennox (also the architect of many Toronto landmarks, including Casa Loma and Old City Hall), however, today, the iconic building sits empty.
  • Back in 1948, a year after the Colonial opened, an explosion which was also believed to be from a refrigerator, blew through part of a wall of the tavern, badly damaging it.
  • The blues music performances at the Colonial had a major impact on upcoming musicians like the Downchild Blues Band and Grammy award-winning artist Colin Linden.
  • In 2016, the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area commissioned artist Adrian Hayles to paint two murals celebrating the Yonge Street music scene. The 22-storey murals are located on the north and south sides of the building at 423 Yonge St.
  • A tribute to Toronto’s music history can be found at the Friar’s Music Museum. The free micro-museum is located in what was once the heart of Toronto’s music scene near Sankofa Square (formerly Yonge-Dundas Square). It’s on the second floor of Shoppers Drug Mart at 297 Yonge St. There, you’ll find memorabilia from many of Toronto’s top clubs, including the Colonial Tavern, Le Coq d’Or Tavern, Brown Derby and Friar’s Tavern.

Colonial Tavern Photos

Between 1985 and 1987 - The Colonial Tavern was once located at ‪201-203 Yonge St‬, between Queen St E and Shuter St in the Downtown Yonge area in Toronto. From left to right, notice the Toronto Dominion Bank, The Colonial Tavern, the Canadian Bank of Commerce (today the entrance to Massey Tower), the JF Brown Building/Heintzman Hall and the Elgin Theatre (Cats was playing), which is today known as the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre
Between 1985 and 1987 – The Colonial Tavern was once located at ‪201-203 Yonge St‬, between Queen St E and Shuter St in the Downtown Yonge area in Toronto. From left to right, notice the Toronto Dominion Bank, The Colonial Tavern, the Canadian Bank of Commerce (today the entrance to Massey Tower), the JF Brown Building/Heintzman Hall and the Elgin Theatre (Cats was playing), which is today known as the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 428, Item 26)
2021 - The property Colonial Tavern once occupied between the Bank of Toronto building and Canadian Bank of Commerce today The Massey Tower on Yonge St just north of Queen St E. The Colonial Tavern building was demolished in 1987
2021 – The property Colonial Tavern once occupied between the Bank of Toronto building and Canadian Bank of Commerce today The Massey Tower on Yonge St just north of Queen St E. The Colonial Tavern building was demolished in 1987
July 1973 – Looking northeast towards The Colonial Tavern during the Yonge Street Mall (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1118, Series 377, Item 782)
July 1973 – Looking northeast towards The Colonial Tavern during the Yonge Street Mall (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1118, Series 377, Item 782)
Between 1985 and 1987 – Looking south towards The Colonial Tavern on Yonge St, just north of Queen St E in Toronto. Notice Cats the Musical was playing at the Elgin, which today is known as the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre
Between 1985 and 1987 – Looking south towards The Colonial Tavern on Yonge St, just north of Queen St E in Toronto. Notice Cats the Musical was playing at the Elgin, which today is known as the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 428, Item 21)
Between 1985 and 1987 – Looking southeast from Yonge St just north of Queen St in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. Notice from left to right the domed Toronto Dominion Bank, The Colonial Tavern and the Canadian Bank of Commerce (today the entrance to Massey Tower), the JF Brown Building/Heintzman Hall. On the far right, Cats the Musical was playing at the Elgin, which today is known as the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centrere
Between 1985 and 1987 – Looking southeast from Yonge St just north of Queen St in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. Notice from left to right the domed Toronto Dominion Bank, The Colonial Tavern and the Canadian Bank of Commerce (today the entrance to Massey Tower), the JF Brown Building/Heintzman Hall. On the far right, Cats the Musical was playing at the Elgin, which today is known as the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 428, Item 20)
2022 - Looking southeast from Yonge St just north of Queen St in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto.
2022 – Looking southeast from Yonge St just north of Queen St in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto.
1960 – Looking southeast from Albert St, when it intersected with Yonge St. Notice the Toronto Dominion Bank, built in 1905 and designed by architect Edward James Lennox, next door to The Colonial Tavern
1960 – Looking southeast from Albert St, when it intersected with Yonge St. Notice the Toronto Dominion Bank, built in 1905 and designed by architect Edward James Lennox, next door to The Colonial Tavern (CU110499467, by Panda Associates, Courtesy of Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary)
2021 - The Colonial Tavern disc embedded in the sidewalk at 201-203 Yonge St, where the historic venue once stood. In the shape of a record, the black stone disc is inscribed with the names of over 125 legends who performed at the famous club
2021 – The Colonial Tavern disc embedded in the sidewalk at 201-203 Yonge St, where the historic venue once stood. In the shape of a record, the black stone disc is inscribed with the names of over 125 legends who performed at the famous club
2021 - The centre of the Colonial Tavern disc is embedded in the sidewalk at 201-203 Yonge St, where the historic venue once stood. The monument commemorates the important contribution the Colonial Tavern made to the Toronto and North American jazz scene
2021 – The centre of the Colonial Tavern disc is embedded in the sidewalk at 201-203 Yonge St, where the historic venue once stood. The monument commemorates the important contribution the Colonial Tavern made to the Toronto and North American jazz scene
1980s - The rear of the Colonial Tavern, once located at ‪201-203 Yonge St‬, between Queen St E and Shuter St in the Downtown Yonge area in Toronto
1980s – The rear of the Colonial Tavern, once located at ‪201-203 Yonge St‬, between Queen St E and Shuter St in the Downtown Yonge area in Toronto (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 428, Item 13)‬‬
February 1970 - Looking southeast from Albert St, when it intersected with Yonge St. Notice the Colonial Tavern had a new glitzy Las Vegas vibe
February 1970 – Looking southeast from Albert St, when it intersected with Yonge St. Notice the Colonial Tavern had a new glitzy Las Vegas vibe (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, ID 66)
June 28, 1978 - Looking northeast towards the Canadian Bank of Commerce, the Colonial Tavern and the Bank of Toronto on Yonge St in Toronto
June 28, 1978 – Looking northeast towards the Canadian Bank of Commerce, the Colonial Tavern and the Bank of Toronto on Yonge St in Toronto (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 4, Item 16)
February 1970 – Looking southeast towards the Colonial Tavern, the Canadian Bank of Commerce and Heintzman Pianos on Yonge St just north of Queen St E in the Downtown Yonge area in Toronto
February 1970 – Looking southeast towards the Colonial Tavern, the Canadian Bank of Commerce and Heintzman Pianos on Yonge St just north of Queen St E in the Downtown Yonge area in Toronto (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, ID 67)
May 1984 – Looking northeast up Yonge St just north of Queen St E in the Downtown Yonge area in Toronto
May 1984 – Looking northeast up Yonge St just north of Queen St E in the Downtown Yonge area in Toronto (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3. ID 123)
May 30, 1977 – The Colonial Tavern and the Bank of Toronto Building
May 30, 1977 – The Colonial Tavern and the Bank of Toronto Building (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 4, Item 7)
December 1987 -  The demolition of the Colonial Tavern on Yonge St, once between the Toronto Dominion Bank and the Canadian Bank of Commerce
December 1987 – The demolition of the Colonial Tavern on Yonge St, once between the Toronto Dominion Bank and the Canadian Bank of Commerce (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3, ID 152)
2021 - The property Colonial Tavern once occupied between the Bank of Toronto building and Canadian Bank of Commerce today The Massey Tower on Yonge St just north of Queen St E in the Downtown Yonge area in Toronto
2021 – The property Colonial Tavern once occupied between the Bank of Toronto building and Canadian Bank of Commerce today The Massey Tower on Yonge St just north of Queen St E in the Downtown Yonge area in Toronto
Circa 1945 - Before the Colonial Tavern occupied the first structure once at 201-203 Yonge St, it was home to the Scholes Hotel
Circa 1945 – Before the Colonial Tavern occupied the first structure once at 201-203 Yonge St, it was home to the Scholes Hotel (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 537)
2021 - The Colonial Tavern in a photo dated between 1947 to 1960
2021 – The Colonial Tavern in a photo dated between 1947 to 1960 (photo taken at Friar’s Music Museum)
December 24, 1924 – Looking north up Yonge St from north of Queen St. Before the Colonial Tavern occupied the first structure once at 201-203 Yonge St, it was home to the Scholes Hotel on the right
December 24, 1924 – Looking north up Yonge St from north of Queen St. Before the Colonial Tavern occupied the first structure once at 201-203 Yonge St, it was home to the Scholes Hotel on the right (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 3633)
2021 – A matchbook cover from the Colonial Tavern displayed at the Friar's Music Museum
2021 – A matchbook cover from the Colonial Tavern displayed at the Friar’s Music Museum
2021 – Advertising for Rex Doyle, Bill Hurst, Cy McLean and His Rhythm Rompers at the Colonial Tavern
2021 – Advertising for Rex Doyle, Bill Hurst, Cy McLean and His Rhythm Rompers at the Colonial Tavern (photo taken at Friar’s Music Museum)
2021 - Swizzle sticks from the Colonial Tavern, Mermaid Restaurant, Zanzibar Tavern and a matchbook cover from Bassel's displayed at the Friar's Music Museum
2021 – Swizzle sticks from the Colonial Tavern, Mermaid Restaurant, Zanzibar Tavern and a matchbook cover from Bassel’s displayed at the Friar’s Music Museum
2021 - Matches from the Colonial Tavern displayed at the Friar's Music Museum
2021 – Matches from the Colonial Tavern displayed at the Friar’s Music Museum
2021 - The Yonge Street Strip Music map by J Sherman
2021 – The Yonge Street Strip Music map by J Sherman (photo taken at Friar’s Music Museum)
2021 - Muggsy Spanier and his Dixieland Band advertising for the Colonial Tavern displayed at the Friar's Music Museum
2021 – Muggsy Spanier and his Dixieland Band advertising for the Colonial Tavern displayed at the Friar’s Music Museum
2021 - Colonial Tavern advertising
2021 – Colonial Tavern advertising (photo taken at Friar’s Music Museum)
2021 - Scholes Hotel advertising displayed at the Friar's Music Museum
2021 – Scholes Hotel advertising displayed at the Friar’s Music Museum
2020 - One of the two 22-storey Yonge Street music murals by Adrian Hayles, located on the north side of the building at 423
2020 – One of the two 22-storey Yonge Street music murals by Adrian Hayles, located on the north side of the building at 423
2022 - One of the two 22-storey Yonge Street music murals by Adrian Hayles, located on the south side of the building at 423 Yonge St
2022 – One of the two 22-storey Yonge Street music murals by Adrian Hayles, located on the south side of the building at 423 Yonge St
1988 - Looking east towards the Yonge Theatre Block Park between the Bank of Toronto and Canadian Bank of Commerce (today the entrance to Massey Tower), once on the site of the Colonial Tavern
1988 – Looking east towards the Yonge Theatre Block Park between the Bank of Toronto and Canadian Bank of Commerce (today the entrance to Massey Tower), once on the site of the Colonial Tavern (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 467, Item 27)
1988 - The Colonial Tavern monument when it was on display at the Yonge Theatre Block Park between the Bank of Toronto and Canadian Bank of Commerce
1988 – The Colonial Tavern monument when it was on display at the Yonge Theatre Block Park between the Bank of Toronto and Canadian Bank of Commerce (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 467, Item 33)
1988 - The Yonge Theatre Block Park with the monument on display, once on the site of the Colonial Tavern
1988 – The Yonge Theatre Block Park with the monument on display, once on the site of the Colonial Tavern (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 467, Item 25)
1988 - An aerial view looking northwest toward the Bank of Toronto building and the Yonge Theatre Block Park, once on the site of the Colonial Tavern
1988 – An aerial view looking northwest toward the Bank of Toronto building and the Yonge Theatre Block Park, once on the site of the Colonial Tavern (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 467, Item 22)
1988 - Looking northwest towards the Yonge Theatre Block Park, once the site of the Colonial Tavern
1988 – Looking northwest towards the Yonge Theatre Block Park, once the site of the Colonial Tavern (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 467, Item 23)
1988 - Constructing the Yonge Theatre Block Park, once the site of the Colonial Tavern between the Bank of Toronto and Canadian Bank of Commerce
1988 – Constructing the Yonge Theatre Block Park, once the site of the Colonial Tavern between the Bank of Toronto and Canadian Bank of Commerce (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 612, Item 25)
1948 - The Toronto City Directory showing the address of the Colonial Tavern
1948 – The Toronto City Directory showing the address of the Colonial Tavern (Toronto Public Library)
1925 - The Toronto City Directory showing the address as the Scholes Hotel Ltd
1925 – The Toronto City Directory showing the address as the Scholes Hotel Ltd (Toronto Public Library)
1898 - The Toronto City Directory showing the address as the Athlete Hotel
1898 – The Toronto City Directory showing the address as the Athlete Hotel (Toronto Public Library)

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