Second run: A new life for an Ontario theatre

Magnus Theatre 2002 (Photo: Thunder Bay City Archives)

Photo: Magnus Theatre 2002 (Photo: Thunder Bay City Archives)

Central School Thunder Bay (from the collection of the Thunder Bay Museum)

Photo: Central School Thunder Bay (from the collection of the Thunder Bay Museum)


Pamela Cain

Buildings and architecture, Arts and creativity, Adaptive reuse

Published Date: Sep 06, 2013

Since the early 1970s, Magnus Theatre in Thunder Bay has made a commitment to urban renewal and the reuse and repurposing of community buildings. The theatre has occupied facilities that have ranged from “very thoroughly condemned” to challenging at best. Despite these spaces, Magnus has been able to develop theatre in northwestern Ontario and Thunder Bay specifically.

Burton Lancaster established the theatre company in 1971, sharing “The Spike” – a two-storey, brick-façaded east-end hovel, with the local amateur group – the Cambrian Players. Working from what was described as not much more than a storage and rehearsal room, Magnus Theatre was onstage and on the road – touring with Theatre North-West.

In 1974, Lancaster discovered the Slovensky Dom, an ethnic community hall constructed in the early 1900s in Thunder Bay’s east end. The two-storey brick building was of unremarkable architecture, but the swelling roof in the rear inspired Lancaster, who set out to develop it into a theatre.

The hall was transformed and the flat floor raised to provide seating for 194 people. Even with a small lobby, a challenging stage and a filled basement, Magnus was to become the only professional theatre company between Winnipeg and Sudbury by 1977. By the mid-1980s, however, the shoebox Slovensky Dom was bursting at the seams.

The City of Thunder Bay offered an opportunity to participate in a multimillion-dollar 1,500-seat arts complex – but Magnus chose to remain close to its roots – “for drama needs closeness, the intimacy of the artists and the audience.”

In 1983, the sale of the Central School, a heritage building in the Waverley Park heritage conservation district, presented an opportunity to realize the Magnus in the Park theatre project. The Central School stood for years as a landmark on Algoma Street, sitting atop the hill overseeing the harbour below. Designed by architect Robert J. Edwards, the building was constructed in 1884 as the city’s first permanent school in the community. The landmark featured a brick façade dominated by a central tower with a large wheel window and a 1901 addition that blended into the original structure.

Functioning as a school until 1965, the building was later used by the Board of Education and the city. Municipal heritage designation was secured in May 1983. In 1992, discussions arose concerning the reuse of the building and the fear that age and neglect might lead it to be condemned.

Central School stakeholders considered the proposal by Magnus as well as a condominium proposition. After Magnus’s plan was approved, the theatre undertook a four-year fundraising campaign (1997-2001) to offset a $5.5-million renovation. Magnus opened its 30th anniversary season in 2001-02 in this transformed building. By renovating the original Central School for use as offices and administrative space, and adding a theatre at the back of the 1901 addition, Magnus finally had a state-of-the-art facility – the Dr. S. Penny Petrone Centre for the Performing Arts.