At this magnificent National Historic Site, you can bask in the gilded elegance of the Elgin Theatre, and then go upstairs to gaze in amazement at the leafy ceiling of the Winter Garden Theatre, seven storeys above the Elgin.
Rescued by the Ontario Heritage Trust in 1981 and meticulously restored to its original grandeur, this former vaudeville house is the last operating double-decker theatre in the world. A popular venue for the performing arts, the centre hosts theatre, opera and ballet productions, as well as corporate gatherings and other special events.
Designed by prominent New York architect Thomas W. Lamb and built as the Canadian flagship for Marcus Loew's growing chain of vaudeville houses, the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre contains two large theatres, stacked one above the other. Fewer than a dozen of these double-decker theatres were built, and the Toronto complex – the only one of its kind constructed in Canada – is now the last one operating in the world.
The lower house, the Elgin, originally known as Loew's Yonge Street Theatre, opened in late 1913. Its gilded plaster details, faux marble finishes and damask wall fabrics dazzled patrons. During its 30-month restoration by the Ontario Heritage Trust in the mid-1980s, over 300,000 sheets of wafer-thin aluminum leaf were used in a seven-step process to re-gild the plaster details.
The Winter Garden Theatre opened upstairs in 1914. Decorated to resemble a rooftop garden in full bloom, its walls were hand-painted with garden scenes, its columns disguised as tree trunks and its ceiling and balcony soffit hung with an astonishing combination of real beech leaves, cotton blossoms and garden lanterns. For its restoration, over 5,000 real beech branches were harvested, preserved, painted and painstakingly woven into wire grids suspended from the theatre's ceiling.
One of the Centre's greatest treasures, discovered during the restoration, is the world's largest collection of vaudeville scenery – hand-painted cloth flats and drops dating from 1913 to 1918. Several restored pieces, including the magnificent Butterfly Scenery and Scarab flats, are displayed at the Theatre Centre.