Shaw Street School before renovations
Shaw Street School before renovations, image courtesy Artscape (Gregory Edwards)

A block north of the quickly gentrifying Queen Street West, renovations are well under way at a heritage building that wil become a new cultural hub for the surrounding neighbourhood. Declared surplus and closed by the Toronto District School Board, instead of being torn down for condominium redevelopment, the former Shaw Street School is soon to become Artscape’s newest project to foster creative development in the city: Artscape Youngplace. Set to open this fall, Artscape Youngplace will become a much needed multi-use space supporting the creative endeavours of 30-or-so tenants ranging from youth groups to artists—both emerging and established—and theatre programmes.

A classroom prior to renovations
A classroom prior to renovations, image courtesy Artscape (Gregory Edwards)

The 75,000 square foot property located at Argyle and Shaw was built in 1914 and operated as a school until 2001. The building was purchased by Artscape in 2010 following a donation from The Michael Young Family Foundation and work began in transforming the 99-year-old school into a thriving creative hub. This will be Artscape’s fourth project in the West Queen West neighbourhood, joining over ten creative projects in operation or soon to open across the city.

During Urban Toronto’s tour of the work in progress, we saw remnants of the building’s former scholastic use; chalkboards, children’s art on display, and communal bathroom sinks, alongside renovation efforts such as sectioning old classrooms into artists’ studios and dry walling hallways for exhibition space. With so many elements of the building’s former life as a school still intact, we’re excited to see how the academic fixtures will be adapted in the new space. 

Work in progress in a classroom
Work in progress in a classroom, image by Jack Landau

We can imagine how cubby holes for children would be the perfect storage space for supplies and how chalkboards and cork boards could be used by artists and actors to scribble down thoughts and post ideas. Aesthetic details like beadboard walls, terrazzo hallways and creaky hardwood in classrooms add tremendously to the character and charm of the space.

Cubbyholes offer storage space while chalkboards can be used by new tenantsCubbyholes offer storage space while chalkboards can be used by new tenants, image by Jack Landau

The basement (which is a deceptive term since the space is blessed with plenty of windows and natural light) will be shared by two tenants. SKETCH, a group that encourages homeless or otherwise marginalized youth to explore their creative sides with art, will be the largest tenant of the building. College Montrose, a free early-learning centre for children, parents and caregivers, will also share the basement space with their own entrance.

The basement space boasts great lighting and large windows
The basement offers great natural lighting from large windows, image by Jack Landau

Up on the ground floor, the former library of the school – a truly incredible space with fantastic natural lighting from large windows along with arches and high ceilings – will be occupied by the Koffler Centre of the Arts. A stage at the front of the room leads us to believe that the library might have been used as an assembly hall over the years.

The former library will be occupied by the Koffler Centre of the Arts
The former library will be occupied by the Koffler Centre of the Arts, image by Jack Landau

Four classrooms on the ground floor will become flex studios, a timesharing concept for younger, emerging artists. After purchasing a membership, (registration begins this summer and you can join the mailing list here) artists can use the flex studios by the hour or on a subscription basis. Classrooms on the second and third floor, some of which are split in half, will house studio space for more established artists and designers as well as arts organizations like Paperhouse Studio, the city’s first co-op papermaking studio and the Centre for Indigenous Theatre. With newer, younger artists working alongside seasoned veterans of the industry, we can imagine great opportunities for mentorship and collaboration. 

Some classrooms have been split in half to offer a range of studio sizes
Some classrooms have been split in half to offer a range of studio sizes, image by Jack Landau

Above the main entrance on the mezzanine level is the former principal’s office. A café, operator to be determined, will open here offering patrons a relaxed space overlooking Shaw Street. The main stairwell, leading above and below the principal’s office and currently littered with graffiti, is marked with ornately detailed handrails.

Ornate detailing along the stairwell leading up to the principal's office
Ornate detailing along the stairwell leading up to the principal's office, image by Jack Landau

Following Shaw Street School’s closure in 2001, students moved to the adjacent Givins Shaw School. Caretakers at the new school continued to maintain the Shaw Street property, keeping it in fairly good condition considering its age and near decade-long vacancy. Vandalism, however, is evident from graffiti throughout the building.

Image by Jack Landau
Image by Jack Landau

There is, of course, much work that has been or will be done to modernize the building, making it safe and practical for new tenants.  A service elevator will be installed, making Artscape Youngplace wheelchair accessible, along with an accessibility ramp to be installed at the front of the building. Lead paint and asbestos in walls, floor tiles and pipe wrap will be removed or encapsulated. New windows have already been installed for better insulation. Existing steel columns will be repaired with additional new structural I-beams installed. Soundproofing will be installed in certain suites.

With the ongoing gentrification of the West Queen West neighbourhood, indicated in part by the telltale sign of new condo developments, convention tells us that artists may be pushed out of the area where rent is more affordable. So we’re happy to see a space like Artscape Youngplace opening to help ensure that the arts can still thrive in West Queen West. The building is already shaping up to be an incredible place and will soon be a welcome home for artists. 

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