The performance space that is now Wolf Performance Hall is also a part of the story of the changing face of how Londoners shop and interact with one another. The story of how the performance center came about stems from the efforts to revitalize the neighbourhood of Downtown London. After the optimism of the 1960s, the 1970s had been a rude awakening. Rapidly rising energy costs and expanding global markets meant that competition for jobs had become stiff. People were not just competing with their neighbours in the economy, they were competing with people on the other side of the world who could do their jobs faster and cheaper. The slow loss of manufacturing jobs and related forms of employment meant a reduced tax base, and a reduced tax base meant less money to maintain and improve vital sections of the city of London, including the downtown. As a result, urban decay began to set in, with abandoned storefronts, broken windows, and grime popping up here and there throughout the neighbourhood.
By the mid-1980s, though, the situation stabilized and the city was ready to give the downtown a makeover. Part of this revitalization was the growth of downtown shopping. Since 1960, the Wellington Square had occupied a prime location in the heart of downtown London, with 400,000 square feet of space and a pair of then-big name anchor stores: Eaton’s and Woolworth’s. By the time London needed to revitalize the downtown, Woolworth’s was gone; however, the Campeau company in 1986 announced that they were expanding the Wellington Square into the Galleria Mall, a new, flashy mall space in downtown London that would occupy over a million square feet of space, attract 75,000 customers per day in foot traffic, and feature big retail names like Eddie Bauer, Harry Rosen, and the Gap. It was a big dream and it proved to be quite controversial at the time. Downtown merchants accused the Campeau group of trying to undercut their business by taking foot traffic away from the streets of downtown London into the central space that would be the Galleria Mall. At the same time, it was uncertain whether or not downtown London could support such a gigantic retail space – the largest in the entire region of southwestern Ontario – given the existence of both Masonville and White Oaks Malls, as well as the several neighbourhood malls that London supported at the time.
These concerns proved to be quite true. The Galleria Mall opened in 1989 and immediately was put up as collateral by a suddenly bankrupt Campeau group. The foot traffic failed to materialize; profits remained stubbornly low, or non-existent, for the retailers who had opened up spaces in the revitalized mall. Less than a year after it opened, the brutal global recession of the early 1990s began and decimated retail shopping both in London and elsewhere. The transition from the Wellington Square space into the Galleria Mall had cost $175 million; when the Galleria was finally sold in 1996 it went for a relatively miniscule $51 million. That price tag reflected the circumstances the mall found itself in. It was 35% vacant, and its anchors were on their last legs. Eaton’s closed in 1999, finally deciding that accepting $35 per square foot in retail sales was completely pointless. The Bay followed suit in 2000, relocating to a pair of smaller locations at both Masonville and White Oaks. By the time the 21stCentury got underway there were only 20 stores still operating at the Galleria.
Dead malls have become something of a morbid fascination in recent years – check out Dan Bell’s Dead Malls series on YouTube if you’re interested in how malls across North America have been coping with the decline of shopping malls as a place where we come together to shop. The question always comes down to what you do with a shopping mall when the shopping goes away. How do you deal with a massive, mostly-empty space that costs a lot to maintain but isn’t going to be attracting any new retail business, thanks to suburban supercentres like Wal Mart and the Real Canadian Superstore, as well as the sharp rise in online shopping through sites like Amazon? You can’t very well just waltz in and tear the whole thing down; it would leave an ugly scar on the face of the downtown and would cost far more than it’s really worth. Leaving it empty is just as ugly, though, and attracts unsavoury elements to the area.
Moving The Library
One of the ways that cities have been able to deal with the dead mall problem has been to repurpose them for use by non-retail organizations. The Arcade Providence in Rhode Island repurposed their empty space into micro-apartments for young singles moving to the city to pursue work and education. Closer to home, Westmount Mall has partially solved the problem of declining retail spaces by leasing out their top floor to a collection of medical specialists who operate their practices out of former storefronts. The Galleria went down this path as well. The space that was Eaton’s has since become a call centre. Western University leased a large space in the mall for some of it’s continuing education programs. The Odeon Cineplex that had been one of the centrepieces of the Galleria in it’s mostly-imagined heyday was purchased by Rainbow Cinema (now Imagine Cinema), who moved their operations from their former location at Smuggler’s Alley (the long-since demolished London Mews mall downtown) to the Galleria. Fanshawe College opened up an expansion of the Theatre Arts program in the Galleria in 2004, and Citi Cards Canada– the consumer credit division of banking conglomerate Citi Group – opened 114,000 square feet of office space in the Galleria in 2006. Twenty years after it opened, the Galleria changed it’s name to Citi Plaza, to better reflect it’s new purpose as a vital downtown center of business, with a little commerce thrown in.
One of the key factors in this transformation was the transfer of the London Public Library’s Central Branch to the space that used to be The Bay. Opening the Central Branch at the Galleria required a great deal of exterior work to ensure that the proper architecture was in place. I once overheard someone referring to the original design of the Galleria Mall as “like a fortress” and this was quite an apt description. The architects went with a design that eschewed windows in favour of monolithic concrete. There were no exterior windows or street-facing shops at the Galleria Mall, which was fine for cutting-edge mall design in 1989. For the new, prestigious Central Branch of the city’s library system, however, it would not do. To this end, renovations included cutting actual windows into the building, as well as installing huge clerestories (those big windows that are set closer to the ceiling in buildings that direct light and air into the building and then down, flooding the place with natural light). The end result was an expansive and spacious feeling befitting the city’s main library.
The Wolf Performance Hall
The construction of the Wolf Performance Hall was one of the key features of the new Central Branch. Libraries are more than just a place to check out some books, after all. They are centers of research outside of universities, and they are also places for groups of all sizes to come together to meet and discuss. To this end, Wolf Performance Hall was designed to be the central meeting place, the biggest and best of all of the meeting places in all of the libraries in the City of London. The idea behind Wolf Performance Hall is that a stage is more than just a stage – more than just a plank of wood that you trot out on to do whatever it is you came to do. Fundamentally, a stage is about ideas, and more to the point, about bringing those ideas to life in front of other people. To this end, Wolf Performance Hall is built to accommodate just about any meeting idea that you can think of, including public lectures, trade conferences, group meetings, theatrical and musical performances, film festivals, single film screenings, fundraisers, dance recitals, and even weddings.
Wolf Performance Hall features 370 seats, each of them fully accessible. Each seat has an attached lecture desk that swings out from under the seat, which makes taking notes during lectures or performances quick and easy. The stage features two separate screens, one upstage and one downstage (the downstage screen being slightly larger); the projection system for these screens is a state-of-the-art laser projection system. The lighting system is also on the cutting edge, with the lights being LED, powered by remote smart technology, and capable of a full range of motion. The digital sound system is a tasty surround sound system, but the Wolf Performance Hall also features a full Grand Piano for those who want to put on an epic acoustic performance as well. The stage floor uses an integrated spring system, allowing for a wide variety of dance and other physical performances to take place on it without having to worry about injuries to performers.
The Wolf Performance Hall is one of the busiest spaces in the entire city of London when it comes to lectures, debates, and performances. Past performances have included the Forest City Film Festival, a film festival dedicated to showcasing the best local and regional films from southwestern Ontario and beyond; films shown at the Wolf Performance hall for the festival have included local filmmaker Andrew Kooman’sShe Has A Nameas well as The Drawer Boyand On Her Shoulders. Children’s creative performances have always been a big draw, with the Little Theatre Company and Original Kids both displaying their skills and wonder on the stage at the Wolf Performance Hall. Comedy is another favourite; DeAnne Smith, a Montreal comic who scored a huge viral video with “Straight Men, Step Up Your Game”, put on a big performance at the hall in 2018. CBC London has also gotten into the habit of hosting performances. One of the biggest events of the year is CBC London’s Sounds Of The Season fundraiser, which aims to bring in donations for the London food bank. 2018’s lineup included jazz singers, chefs, choir music, and the delightful taste of free samples from London’s premier coffee company, Fire Roasted Coffee.
How To Get There
So, if the idea of having a place to see TED-style talks, debates, comics, singers, musical performers, dance troupes, films, and theatrical performances sounds like a good idea to you, the next question will inevitably be “how do I get there and, more importantly, where can I park?” The Wolf Performance Hall is located in the Central Branch of the London Public Library, in the Citi Plaza at 251 Dundas Street. This is the heart of downton London and it’s easy enough to get to by car or public transportation. It’s also within quick walking distance of London’s VIA Rail station. For those driving, parking is available directly at Citi Plaza; with approximately 1,500 parking spaces, you’re likely to find a spot. However, alternate parking is available in lots to the north and south of the London Convention Centre, which is located across the street from Citi Plaza.
If you’re on the other side of the spectrum, and you want to host an event at the Wolf Performance Hall, the Library makes this easy as well. The Hall uses the Eventbrite system to easily set up requests to host performances of any nature; simply fill out the form and wait for approval by the administration of the Hall.