The City of Toronto has been trying to get rid of the gay cowboys mural on the south wall of the old Barn nightclub for years, so the new owner likely had no choice but to remove it, says the club’s former owner.
“The mural was ordered removed back before 2004 when it was owned by Janko [Naglic], but he never did anything about it,” says Russell Palloo. “When we took over [in 2007], the city started getting on our case, ordering us to remove the mural.”
Nothing was ever done about it, however. Palloo says he once considered allowing a company to lease the wall for use as a billboard to generate revenue, but for whatever reason, that never happened. In 2010, he got a summons from the city to appear in court. That was also ignored.
“It was all just a bunch of hot air. We just ignored it,” he says. “So now, with the new owner coming in, there’s no doubt in my mind the city was on his case, too.
“The mural was never legal. I think the new owner is just trying to do business by the book. He had no choice but to remove it. He is only doing what should have been done a long time ago.”
Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam says she wasn’t aware the city was trying to have the mural removed. She doesn’t have any historical record of correspondence between the Barn’s owners and city staff about the mural. “I understand the mural was put up without a permit,” she says. “But it seems to be much more complicated than that. I don’t think it’s a case of the city just not liking the mural and wanting it taken down.”
She says it was essentially an illegal billboard. “I am not aware what permit would have been required, nor if the mural went up before the building was designated a heritage property.”
A 2010 staff report states that the south and west rear walls of the building are not included in the designation. Still, Wong-Tam says, she would have advised the new owner not to cover the mural. A heritage designation provides the highest level of protection to a building, and city staff should have been consulted.
“If a property is designated heritage, before you do anything to that property, you must do your due diligence by picking up the phone and calling the city,” she says. “It’s not for me to interpret the heritage designation.”
Palloo says the only part of the building that must be preserved is the façade. “Anything behind those two walls is free rein. They can do whatever they want,” he says.
He says the history of the mural has not been documented, and he doesn’t know when it was painted.
“There wasn’t a ton of information on it when we took over the building,” he says. “There was never any files or paperwork on it. There wasn’t even any information on the deal cut between Janko and Molson for the advertising . . . All that history died with him.”
Palloo says he never saw a penny of revenue from the mural.
“It was free advertising for Molson,” he says. “It became part of local history. Now that it’s gone, I’m kinda sad to see it go. It’s a part of our gay pop culture.”