The Colonial Tavern was once located at 201-203 Yonge St (between Queen St and Shuter St) in downtown 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 operate the venue. The Colonial featured live jazz music and had a revolving floor around the stage so that 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
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. A few years after it was installed, the disc was removed from the site.
The Site Today
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 was 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 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 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
- Heritage Toronto: Colonial Tavern
- Downtown Yonge BIA: Music Legacy of Yonge Street: The Colonial Tavern
- Nicholas Jennings: Remembering Toronto’s Colonial Tavern
- The Canadian Encyclopedia: Colonial Tavern
- Murals: Yonge Street Music History by artist Adrian Hayles
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives
- Video: Downtown Yonge BIA YouTube Channel