Restoring history: Ottawa design firm helps rejuvenate Massey Hall and Dominion-Chalmers

This is an artist's rendering of a renovated Massey Hall in Toronto. Courtesy MCLD.

An Ottawa design company is playing a key role in the renovations of two important Canadian music halls.

Massey Hall is probably the best known building in Canadian music. Since 1894 the greats have appeared on its venerable stage from Enrico Caruso, Glenn Gould and Maria Callas, to Neil Young, Cream, Oscar Peterson and Harry Styles after he left One Direction.

In Ottawa, Dominion-Chalmers United Church has been home to a historical congregation since it opened in 1912. But it has also become over recent decades an important house of music featuring all manner of concerts inside its warm sanctuary.

These days, Ottawa designer Martin Conboy and his team are helping to rejuvenate these two great halls.

Conboy is well known in Ottawa’s theatre community. But he was born in Dublin, Ireland and spent his summers in a small town called Lismaha in County Roscommon in the centre-west part of the Republic. His father was a farmer and Conboy says he learned how to milk a cow, pare hooves and scythe a field. But his real interest was (and still is) the theatre and that passion brought him here some 35 years ago where he often worked on productions at the Great Canadian Theatre Company and the National Arts Centre.

Along the way, in 1987, he started Martin Conboy Lighting Design (MCLD), where he works as principal with his colleagues Hugh Martignago, Scott Windsor and Ross Nicholson.

“I had decided to start opening up the business to the architectural world. It was a good move at that time,” he said. There was plenty of work. He started by setting up exhibits for institutions such as the National Gallery and the Museum of Civilization (now History).

“I work in theatre design because I care about the spaces where theatre is experienced and created.  I do Theatre lighting design because I love to paint using light. It is possible to earn a living wage doing the former but sadly the creative side of theatre is significantly underpaid.”

The sanctuary of Dominion-Chalmers United Church will receive a new stage, new lighting and a new sound system. Courtesy of MCLD.

His company has worked in and on some pretty interesting and important buildings such as the Library of Parliament, Notre Dame Cathedral, the exterior of the Centre Block, as well as the National War Memorial and the Vimy Memorial in France. 

“We just finished working in the Arts Court/Ottawa Art Gallery complex where we designed a theatre for the University of Ottawa and a multi-purpose room for the Ottawa Art Gallery.” They are also designing a new multi-purpose room for Cite Collegiale. And they also designed the very popular Algonquin College Commons Theatre.

MCLD also takes on work outside Ottawa. In Toronto, Conboy’s company re-did the lighting inside Roy Thomson Hall. And now “we are part of what is called the Massey Hall Reconstruction Team, led by KPMB Architects. We are lighting designers in that project which is the renovation of Massey Hall, bringing it back to its former glory.”

Massey Hall has been through a lot of changes over the years, not all for the better. But no matter what one thinks of the place before the upgrade finishes in 2020, “it is still the premiere music hall in Canada. Of course everyone wants to make it to Massey Hall or you don’t make it,” Conboy said.

The project will see a six-storey addition at the back of the hall where a new lobby and studio spaces will be situated. And the guts of the old building will be upgraded to 21st standards. 

“It’s very big project,” Conboy said. “People whom I have told I was working on Massey Hall their first reaction is ‘Don’t ‘F’ it up’.

Massey Hall was completed in 1894 and was designed by the architect Sidney Badgley at the direction of Hart Massey, of Massey-Ferguson fame. When it was opened, the hall featured beautiful stained glass windows all the way around the building. Those were covered in the 194os and will once again be revealed. Blinds will be drawn when darkness is needed in the hall. 

In the 1980s, the musical Cats was booked into the hall for a couple of years and the sound began to play havoc with the plaster ceiling. Pieces started falling down on the floor and so chicken wire covered the ceiling to protect the audience.

Today’s restoration is long overdue and will repair those changes, Conboy believes. He thinks the biggest surprise when people walk in for the first time in 2020 will be the stained glass windows. They will be transforming, he said.

Conboy’s team will light the interior and exterior of the building.

“When you doing a (big) hall like that you need theatrical lighting so we are doing that.” They will use $2 million worth of LED architectural  lighting technology, he said.  

Massey Hall and Dominion-Chalmers are both heritage buildings and one must tread carefully in properties such as this. 

“When you walk into these spaces, you have to be able to read the fabric of building that was there before.”

Work begins in earnest this fall on Massey Hall and on Dominion-Chalmers.

Conboy has already laid hands on Dom-Chalm, as it is affectionately known, in 1999 when the sanctuary was restored.

Now that Carleton University has taken over the building and new tenants, such as the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, Chamberfest and Music and Beyond are moving in, the venerable church, built in 1912, will get a makeover.

Conboy’s team will modify the stage so it can accommodate an orchestra the size of the OSO, which can seat up to 100 players.

As well, they will mic the space and establish an area in the basement where a recording studio will sit. This will allow live concerts to be recorded for a CD or perhaps for broadcast.

The sound inside the sanctuary now is uneven, he said. That will change as will the lighting.

“We will change all of the lighting and at same time make sure it is a subtle change. People in Ottawa love that space. The same sort of sentiment is there as it is for Massey Hall.

“Working in Ottawa teaches you very quickly to be sensitive to the heritage nature of buildings. If you are going to survive here as a designer you learn very quickly that you have to be respectful of the existing architecture. You just can’t walk in and cavalierly change it.

“We have so few of these great buildings, they need to be treated with respect.”

Work inside Dom-Chalm begins in the fall with the stage. By December that should be done. New lighting and sound comes in after that.

He will use the existing light positions and upgrade the lighting itself.

“I consider myself a designer. I was always interested in architecture. Theatre forces you into creating imaginary architectural spaces. So my interest in architecture has moved from that imaginary space into the real world.”

“From a practical point of view when we go into a space and you say you want to do a performance in that space, we can apply the knowledge that we have about what you need to satisfy the requirements of performers.”

An interesting example of that happened when Conboy’s team was working on Roy Thomson Hall, which is the home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

“Orchestra people don’t like change; they fear change. I had to convince them that the change was in their best interests. The main thing I told them was that the new lights would not have any fan noise. These guys have bionic ears, they have.”

Then he had to convince them he could shine enough light on their music. That took some doing.

Music is on paper and sometimes that paper is old and darkened by time. The musicians felt they needed more and more light in the project, but he took another tack.

He played with what is known as the contrast ratio. New lighting systems allow such an adjustment to happen easily. He discovered that in fact when dealing with darker paper, you need to be able to increase the contrast ratio. That makes the colour of the light cooler defeating the yellowness of the paper. 

“And the script pops again.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.