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

1973 - The Colonial Tavern and the Yonge Street Mall
1973 – The Colonial Tavern and 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 and Shuter Sts), in downtown Toronto.

Originally the Athlete Hotel

Prior to 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 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. Along with booking great Canadian performers, Goody worked with his connections in New York and LA to bring in 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, 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

1985/87 - The Colonial Tavern between the iconic Bank of Toronto and Canadian Bank of Commerce buildings on Yonge St, looking southeast
1985/87 – The Colonial Tavern between the iconic Bank of Toronto and Canadian Bank of Commerce buildings on Yonge St, looking southeast (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 changing and to keep the building up to code, a $70,000 sprinkler system needed to be installed. Mr Lawrence decided to sell the Colonial in the late 1970’s. 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

2021 - The property Colonial Tavern once occupied between the Bank of Toronto building and The Massey Tower on Yonge St (notice the monument embeded in the sidewalk)
2021 – The property Colonial Tavern once occupied between the Bank of Toronto building and The Massey Tower on Yonge St (notice the monument embedded in the sidewalk)

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 along with a friend that 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 a collaboration with Downtown Yonge BIA and MOD Developments, the rediscovered was monument unveiled. The disc is once 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

1985/87 - The Colonial Tavern between the iconic Bank of Toronto and Canadian Bank of Commerce buildings on Yonge St, looking southeast
1985/87 – The Colonial Tavern between the iconic Bank of Toronto and Canadian Bank of Commerce buildings on Yonge St, looking southeast (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 428, Item 26)
2021 - The property Colonial Tavern once occupied between the Bank of Toronto building and The Massey Tower on Yonge St (notice the monument embeded in the sidewalk)
2021 – The property Colonial Tavern once occupied between the Bank of Toronto building and The Massey Tower on Yonge St (notice the monument embedded in the sidewalk)
1973 - The Colonial Tavern and the Yonge Street Mall
1973 – The Colonial Tavern and the Yonge Street Mall (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1118, Series 377, Item 782)
1980's - The Colonial Tavern on Yonge St, looking south
1980’s – The Colonial Tavern on Yonge St, looking south (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 428, Item 21)
2021 - The Colonial Tavern disc embeded in the sidewalk at 201-203 Yonge St, where the historic venue once stood
2021 – The Colonial Tavern disc embedded in the sidewalk at 201-203 Yonge St, where the historic venue once stood
2021 - The centre of the Colonial Tavern disc that's embeded in the sidewalk at 201-203 Yonge St, where the historic venue once stood
2021 – The centre of the Colonial Tavern disc that’s embedded in the sidewalk at 201-203 Yonge St, where the historic venue once stood
1970 - The Colonial Tavern and the Bank of Toronto building on Yonge St, looking southeast from then Albert St
1970 – The Colonial Tavern and the Bank of Toronto building on Yonge St, looking southeast from then Albert St (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, ID 66)
1970's - The Canadian Bank of Commerce, Colonial Tavern and Bank of Toronto buildings on Yonge St, looking northeast
1970’s – The Canadian Bank of Commerce, Colonial Tavern and Bank of Toronto buildings on Yonge St, looking northeast (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 4, Item 16)
1970 - Colonial Tavern, Canadian Bank of Commerce and Heintzman Pianos buildings on Yonge St, looking southeast
1970 – Colonial Tavern, Canadian Bank of Commerce and Heintzman Pianos buildings on Yonge St, looking southeast (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, ID 67)
1984 - The Canadian Bank of Commerce, Colonial Tavern and Bank of Toronto buildings on Yonge St, looking northeast
1984 – The Canadian Bank of Commerce, Colonial Tavern and Bank of Toronto buildings on Yonge St, looking northeast (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3. ID 123)
1977 - The Colonial Tavern and the Bank of Toronto building on Yonge St, looking northeast
1977 – The Colonial Tavern and the Bank of Toronto building on Yonge St, looking northeast (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 4, Item 7)
1987 - The demolition of the Colonial Tavern on Yonge St, looking northeast
1987 – The demolition of the Colonial Tavern on Yonge St, looking northeast (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3, ID 152)
2021 - The property the Colonial Tavern once occupied between the Bank of Toronto building and The Massey Tower on Yonge St (notice the monument embeded in the sidewalk)
2021 – The property the Colonial Tavern once occupied between the Bank of Toronto building and The Massey Tower on Yonge St (notice the monument embedded in the sidewalk)
1924 - Prior to the Colonial Tavern occupying the first structure once at 201-203 Yonge St, it was home to the Scholes Hotel
1924 – Prior to the Colonial Tavern occupying 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)
The Colonial Tavern in an photo (dated between 1947 to 1960) displayed at the Friar's Music Museum
The Colonial Tavern in a photo (dated between 1947 to 1960) displayed at the Friar’s Music Museum
1924 - Prior to the Colonial Tavern occupying the first structure once at 201-203 Yonge St, it was home to the Scholes Hotel
1924 – Prior to the Colonial Tavern occupying the first structure once at 201-203 Yonge St, it was home to the Scholes Hotel (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 3633)
An old matchbook cover from the Colonial Tavern displayed at the Friar's Music Museum
An old matchbook cover from the Colonial Tavern displayed at the Friar’s Music Museum
Rex Doyle, Bill Hurst, Cy McLean and His Rhythm Rompers advertising displayed at the Friar's Music Museum
Rex Doyle, Bill Hurst, Cy McLean and His Rhythm Rompers advertising displayed at the Friar’s Music Museum
Swizzle sticks from the Colonial Tavern, Mermaid Restaurant and Zanzibar Tavern displayed at the Friar's Music Museum
Swizzle sticks from the Colonial Tavern, Mermaid Restaurant and Zanzibar Tavern displayed at the Friar’s Music Museum
Matches from the Colonial Tavern displayed at the Friar's Music Museum
Matches from the Colonial Tavern displayed at the Friar’s Music Museum
The Yonge Street Strip map displayed at the Friar's Music Museum
The Yonge Street Strip map displayed at the Friar’s Music Museum
Muggsy Spanier and his Dixieland Band advertising displayed at the Friar's Music Museum
Muggsy Spanier and his Dixieland Band advertising displayed at the Friar’s Music Museum
Colonial Tavern advertising displayed at the Friar's Music Museum
Colonial Tavern advertising displayed at the Friar’s Music Museum
Scholes Hotel advertising displayed at the Friar's Music Museum
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 Yonge St
2020 – One of the two 22-storey Yonge Street music murals by Adrian Hayles, located on the north side of the building at 423 Yonge St
2020 - 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
2020 – 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 - The Yonge Theatre Block Park between Bank of Toronto and Canadian Bank of Commerce buildings looking east, once on the site of the Colonial Tavern
1988 – The Yonge Theatre Block Park between Bank of Toronto and Canadian Bank of Commerce buildings looking east, 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
1988 – The Colonial Tavern monument when it was on display at the Yonge Theatre Block Park (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 - The Yonge Theatre Block Park and Bank of Toronto building, looking northwest, once on the site of the Colonial Tavern
1988 – The Yonge Theatre Block Park and Bank of Toronto building, looking northwest, once on the site of the Colonial Tavern (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 467, Item 22)
1988 - The Yonge Theatre Block Park and Bank of Toronto building from the back and looking northwest, once on the site of the Colonial Tavern
1988 – The Yonge Theatre Block Park and Bank of Toronto building from the back and looking northwest, once on the site of the Colonial Tavern (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 467, Item 23)
1988 - Constructing the Yonge Theatre Block Park, once on the site of the Colonial Tavern
1988 – Constructing the Yonge Theatre Block Park, once on the site of the Colonial Tavern (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 612, Item 25)
1948 - The Toronto City Directory showing the address as the Colonial Tavern hotel (Toronto Public Library)
1948 – The Toronto City Directory showing the address as the Colonial Tavern hotel (Toronto Public Library)
1925 - The Toronto City Directory showing the address as the Scholes Hotel Ltd (Toronto Public Library)
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 (Toronto Public Library)
1898 – The Toronto City Directory showing the address as the Athlete Hotel (Toronto Public Library)

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