Hugh’s Room gets a $2.2-million lifeline from the city

Council approved a loan guarantee of up to $2.2 million on Thursday, paving the way for the non-profit arts organization to buy a new venue.

Hugh’s Room Live, the Toronto music venue that has played host to artists like Pete Seeger, Serena Ryder and Sylvia Tyson, is one step closer to finding a new home.

City council approved a loan guarantee of up to $2.2 million on Thursday, paving the way for the non-profit arts organization that ran the storied Roncesvalles venue to purchase a former church in Toronto’s east end.

The motion by Coun. Paula Fletcher (Ward 14, Toronto-Danforth) will help Hugh’s Room buy and renovate the Broadview Faith Temple Church at 296 Broadview Ave. — turning it into a “music and cultural-oriented community centre,” according to city documents.

“Hugh’s Room is a venerable institution in the city and it promotes so many Canadian musicians,” Fletcher told the Star after council unanimously voted to support the motion. “We’re in a terrible period where we’re losing so many venues, so this is the least we can do to support their efforts to secure a music venue.”

Though dozens of live music venues have shuttered permanently over the last two years, Fletcher said Hugh’s Room received special consideration for a loan guarantee because it’s a registered charity and non-profit — two requisites for any organization to apply for financial backing from the city, according to Fletcher.

Hugh’s Room has been without a permanent venue since March 2020, when it was forced out of its home of 20 years on Dundas Street West after a rent hike. Throughout the pandemic, it’s partnered with venues across the city to mount in-person and digital concerts.

“When you don’t have a home, it’s almost like couch-surfing. You don’t want to do that forever because you do need to put down roots,” said Brian Iler, chair of the Hugh’s Room board of directors. “We need to feel secure. We need to feel we have a future.”

Hugh’s Room is in the “final stages” of negotiation to purchase the former church, according to city documents. The secured loan guarantee is contingent on Hugh’s Room raising all the funds necessary to buy the venue.

So far, it has confirmed more than $2.2 million through donations and vendor take back loans. It also applied for a grant through Canadian Heritage’s cultural spaces fund. A decision is not expected until early March.

If successful, the sale will close by March 31. The property is currently listed for about $4.2 million, according to city staff. Iler expects the venue will open to the public in 2024.

The 19th-century church is listed as a heritage property and was designed by architect E.J. Lennox, who is best known for designing Casa Loma and Old City Hall.

The new venue is a similar size to the old Hugh’s Room and will seat about 200 patrons in cabaret-style seating. The church’s basement will host community and music-oriented activities, such as a possible musical instrument lending library, said Iler.

“I think our communities are happier and healthier if we can share experiences with each other — particularly creative experiences like music,” he said. “And to do so in an intimate environment like Hugh’s is really, really special.”

Hugh’s Room opened as a listening room in 2001 and was run by Richard Carson, who named the venue after his late brother Hugh, an avid musician and music lover. After the venue shut its doors in early 2017 due to financial troubles, a group of supporters, including Iler, rallied to support the venue. It reopened later that year as a registered charity.

Juno Award-winning singer and composer Kellylee Evans has performed at Hugh’s Room numerous times throughout her career and says the organization is “home” — not just for her, but for the wider music community as well.

“As an artist, to develop those relationships with a venue and with its staff, and know that they’re going to be there for the next album and the next time you come through town, it’s important,” she said.

Canadian R & B singer Jully Black says she’s “ecstatic” about the prospect of Hugh’s Room finding a new permanent venue. The venue is a sentimental place for Black, whose parents rekindled their friendship at Hugh’s Room after being divorced for 35 years.

“It’s at that actual venue where my parents became friends again,” she said. “My very last photo of my parents together before my mom passed away was at Hugh’s Room.”

Black has performed at Hugh’s Room three times, most recently in March 2020 — one of the final concerts at its former venue. For her, the place plays an important role in the city’s burgeoning music community.

“Hugh’s has been a bridge — that unshakable, unbreakable, foundational bridge that connects emerging artists, artists from the past and legends,” she reflected. “It helps us all realize that there’s a purpose for talent and it has nothing to do with chart numbers, and streams and likes and views and follows.

“It’s truly there for the love of music.”

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