3 min

A sneak peek at The 519’s new digs

Long-awaited renovations to Church St's Community Centre

WIDE OPEN. The 519's Helen Rykens, Eric Brandt and Maura Lawless enjoy the renovated room off the main foyer, including the rediscovered pillars and fireplace. Credit: Joshua Meles

In the foyer of the historic 519 Community Centre crews work to repair four Greek-style columns that line the entrance to an adjacent room, which lays empty except for an old fireplace. It’s hard to believe the columns were rediscovered when knocking down a dividing wall and that the fireplace had been hidden behind a photocopier.

“It was in the closet,” jokes Helen Rykens, The 519’s office manager. “Now it’s come out.”

So it went on Jun 3 when Xtra took a tour of the original wing’s ongoing renovations with Rykens and The 519’s executive director Maura Lawless in advance of the open house during the Toronto police chief’s Pride Reception on Fri, Jun 19 from 4pm to 6pm.

With major repairs out of the way workers are turning their attention to an aesthetic redesign of the interior — the kind of alterations people will see when they visit.

Architect John Schnier, who designed the Umbra Concept Store in Queen West, made his mark on The 519 by mixing existing elements with modern style and functionality. A refurbished wooden staircase leads to the third-floor offices, where ducts snake across an exposed ceiling. In the children’s programming area a circular hole has been cut out of the drywall around a vertical support beam. When you look through the hole you can see the old latticework that holds the place together.

“[Schnier] has a thing for circles,” says Rykens. “You’ll see the same sort of design repeated again and again in different ways.”

Rykens says the new space was designed with openness and flexibility in mind. On the ground floor a retractable fire barrier separates the old and new wings (a feature required in all new buildings), as well as sliding doors that allow the space to be divided up into different rooms depending on the need.

“What we’re going to have is this huge space, capacity over 225, but we can use it in different ways depending on the event,” she says. “We see it as a good place for weddings; we see it as a good place for programs…. This is going to be a really lovely multi-use room.”

The need for flexible space is evident given the popularity of The 519 among community organizations. Even with the old wing of the building closed off Lawless estimates that 170 groups continue to use facilities during the construction. She predicts double that number will sign up to book space once the whole building is open. That’s in addition to the more than 160,000 individual visitors who visit the centre annually to take advantage of the centre’s programming.

The long wait has been challenging for the community and staff, acknowledges Lawless, but she says it’s been rewarding to see visible alterations to the interior after so many months of repairing the building’s foundation, wiring and walls — elements that will be invisible to the public.

“It’s taken a little longer but in the end it’s going to end up being better than even we even anticipated when we dreamed of this,” says Lawless.

The renovations have been delayed several months — the building was originally set to reopen in January — by unforeseen problems including the removal of mould and asbestos from the walls.

“When you open up the walls of an old hundred-year-old building, you find some surprises,” says Lawless.

The total cost of constructing the new wing and renovating the old one will approach $7 million, $1 million more than originally anticipated. More than half of that amount was raised by individual donors through The 519’s Capital Campaign, while the remainder was donated by the City of Toronto and corporations.

Lawless credits the cooperative effort of private and public sources with raising the money, singling out Toronto city councilor Kyle Rae and former 519 chair Salah Bachir for their dogged support for the project. 

“It really is for us an example of a true public-private partnership.”

The next stage in the community centre’s makeover, expected to begin in August, will involve laying down hardwood floors fashioned from century-old logs pulled from the waters of Georgian Bay. The floors should be installed in time for the official reopening in the fall. Also to come is a community café in the area that’s currently functioning as the front desk, something Lawless hopes will be ready next spring.