Construction and Opening

1911 - 1919

Hart House was commissioned on behalf of the Massey family. Vincent Massey intended Hart House not to be a “glorified club, but an educational institution.” The theatre was just one aspect of Massey’s ambitions for Hart House as a cultural, athletic, and intellectual hub that would fill the need for a secular student centre on University of Toronto campus. Vincent Massey started to plan the rooms of Hart House while he was still an undergraduate, wanting there to be a gym, numerous club rooms, and a Gothic Hall were students from all colleges could congregate.1 Originally, the President of UofT suggested that the new structure would be called the Massey Memorial Building which Vincent Massey rejected for two reasons: he disliked the word “memorial” in the name of an institution, and that he did not want his family name to be too obviously associated with the new building. Instead, Vincent Massey suggested the name “Hart House,” taking its name from Vincent’s late grandfather.2

In private, Vincent Massey would admit that the building and all its equipment would cost just short of $2 million. Construction began in 1911, however due to the First World War, it was delayed several years. Indeed, because of the war, Vincent Massey admitted that the building was used almost entirely for “military purposes”: the Great Hall was used as a drill hall, what later became Hart House Theatre was used as a rifle range for a musketry school that was under Vincent Massey’s command, lecture rooms were used for training Canadian officers, and the Royal Flying Corps used the gymnasium.3 During and after the war “a large portion of the building was used by the medical services for the care of war casualties, the swimming pool being used for massage, while the lecture room and others were full of various machinery for ‘occupational therapy.'”4

Hart House opened its doors on November 11th 1919, Remembrance Day, but the addition of Hart House Theatre was something of an “afterthought.”5 According to Vincent Massey, the idea for Hart House Theatre came when he and his wife were “looking about the building one day [and] were seized with the idea that the great vaulted space underneath the quadrangle might be used as a theatre. The present proscenium was in its general outline, already in existence by reason of structural necessity. The architects were brought into consultation on the subject and by a certain amount of readjustment in existing quarters and further excavation, the theatre and its accessory quarters were made possible.”6 Since Hart House Theatre was conceived as an “afterthought,” it was never integrated with the Hart House or university administration, enjoying an independent status. This would cause problems for Hart House Theatre down the road.7


Show 7 footnotes

  1. Vincent Massey, “Letter to the Warden of Hart House” (17 January 1929), 3, University of Toronto Archives (UTA), Office of the President, A1975-21/048(04). Vincent Massey, “Letter From Vincent Massey to the Warden of Hart House,” January 17, 1929, 7, A1975-0021/048, UTA, Massey Fonds.
  2. Massey, “Letter to the Warden,” 3.
  3. Ibid., 4-5.
  4. Ibid., 4-5.
  5. Ibid., 3-5.
  6. Ibid., 4-5.
  7. Richard Partington, “Theatre: A Matter of Direction,” in A Strange Elation: Hart House: The First Eighty Years, ed. David Kilgour (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 98-99.