The story of how a historic but rat-infested fire station was reborn as a Toronto comedy landmark.
Though no engines have raced out its doors in over 40 years, the origins of 110 Lombard St. are imprinted in a roundel above its main entrance: CENTRAL FIRE HALL 1886. During its long existence, the building has balanced coping with tragedy with making the city laugh.
The building was designed by David Roberts Jr. [PDF], whose architectural career was tied to the Gooderham family. Beyond working on many structures in the Distillery District, Roberts designed landmarks like the Flatiron Building and the George Gooderham House at Bloor and St. George streets. The firehall, once touted by the Globe as “the finest building of its kind in the Dominion,” was equipped with sleeping space, a gym, and a state-of-the-art telegraph fire-alarm system. Though the hall was scheduled to open in July 1887, service was delayed by the poor condition of Lombard Street.
After the City rejected a proposal to build a larger firehall elsewhere, the site was expanded with a water tower in 1895. Firefighters based at the station would battle some of the city’s greatest disasters; several sustained eye injuries during the Great Fire of 1904.
By the 1960s, plans were underway to replace the station with a new firehall at Front and Princess streets. “It is so old,” the Star said of the building in February 1966. “Firefighters have to beat the rodents off before they can slide down their polls.” Alderman June Marks added the hall to a list of buildings and residences in her ward to which she handed out free rat poison. (The firehall’s supply came gift-wrapped, topped with a red bow.)
After the firefighters departed, the City hoped, as one advertisement announced, that “some ingenious entrepreneur will grasp the opportunities in leasing these premises.” The site was converted into a dining and entertainment complex—dubbed The Old Firehall—in 1972, with family-style dining in the basement and the Fire Escape disco on the ground floor. Globe and Mail advertorial writer Mary Walpole lured customers with promises of “great platters of golden southern fried chicken, prime, juicy roast beef, bowls of succulent gravy, and that special Fire Hall apple pie.”
Looking for a cabaret-style attraction, the Old Firehall signed a contract with Second City in January 1974; the improv company needed a new space after their first Toronto home was padlocked by the landlord. Moving into a venue that possessed a liquor licence was a critical factor, as the lack of one doomed their six-month stay at Adelaide and Jarvis in 1973. (Provincial liquor officials felt the neighbourhood was already saturated with drinking spots, and didn’t believe Second City’s rented space was a true theatre.) Old Firehall manager Oscar Berceller, who previously ran celebrity-magnet restaurant Winston’s, saw Second City as part of a planned revamp of the building that would have converted the basement to a “gypsy cellar” with violinists. Berceller’s death soon after appears to have curtailed this idea.
From the April 17, 1974 edition of the Toronto Star
With a company featuring John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Rosemary Radcliffe, and Gilda Radner, the Second City made their Old Firehall debut in March 1974 with Hello, Dali! The Toronto Star‘s theatre critic, Urjo Kareda, felt the initial revue showed more bite than previous efforts and worked in Canadian-centric material without being pushy about it. Radner was praised for realizing that “she can be gorgeous and hilarious at the same time, without one distorting the other,” while Levy provided the show’s highlight with a skit about “Ricardo and his trained Amoeba.”
From the March 14, 1974 edition of the Toronto Star
In its early days at the Old Firehall, Second City competed with musical acts playing elsewhere in the building. “The only way we could attract an audience was to offer free draft,” producer Andrew Alexander later noted. “I think the audience thought they were there for the beer and rock ‘n’ roll—and the comedy was interstitial.” Among other short-lived 1970s distractions was The World’s Greatest Hamburger, which Globe and Mail food critic Joanne Kates found “tough and dry.”
When Second City prepared to move to Blue Jays Way in 1997, spirits long-reputed to haunt the Old Firehall didn’t take the news well. The frequency of odd events increased during the troupe’s final month in the building, including a burst pipe that flooded the theatre, flickering lights, and mysterious computer shutdowns. Friendly spirits, however, appeared onstage, as some famed alumni participated in the final shows. After making a surprise appearance at an improv set, Martin Short told the Star that “The Old Firehall is one of those important places for me. We’re always looking back for familiar places, whether it’s granny’s house that still exists, or your mom’s.”
A Second City alum was honoured as the building transitioned into its next incarnation. Following Radner’s death from cancer in 1989, Gilda’s Club was established to provide support and therapy spaces across North America to those living with cancer and their families. The Toronto branch opened in the Old Firehall in October 2001 and remained until it moved to Cecil Street in 2012. It was replaced on Lombard by the Complections College of Makeup Art & Design.
Additional material from The Great Toronto Fire by Nancy Rawson and Richard Tatton (Erin: Boston Mills Press, 1984); the April 7, 1887 edition of the Globe; the March 31, 1973, January 10, 1974, August 25, 1975, and November 15, 1997 editions of the Globe and Mail; the February 2, 1998 edition of Maclean’s; and the September 20, 1895, February 4, 1966, April 23, 1969, November 13, 1971, January 5, 1973, December 11, 1973, March 14, 1974, and November 15, 1997 editions of the Toronto Star.