The Lyceum: A Heritage Building with Unknown Potential

By Michelle McChristie with thanks to Jesse Roberts, Brodie Street Library and Jeff Sumner, Thunder Bay Museum.

On October 18, 1909, the Lyceum Theatre opened its doors to the residents of Port Arthur. The opening was a highly anticipated event for the community, as evidenced by the detailed updates on construction published in the Port Arthur Times. The theatre was considered to be a handsome addition to the city blocks. It was owned by J.A. Whalen—the businessman who put the “port” in Port Arthur and spearheaded several local enterprises, such as the shipyards, construction of the Whalen (Thunder Bay Hydro) building and the tug/icebreaker. Whalen saw no limit to the potential of the Lakehead and wanted a state-of-the-art theatre that could accommodate traveling shows.
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According to the Port Arthur Times, the Lyceum included ample stage room, a commodious orchestra pit, a large storage space for props behind the theatre proper, galleries (then called “the gods”) on both sides of the theatre as well as the back wall, and seating for 1000. The theatre also had an adjoining cafe, which the Times called “modern in every respect.” In its early days, a ticket for a vaudeville act cost 25 cents, 15 cents in the gallery.

The building is framed with steel from Hamilton, with brick facing and stone trim. The third story features five brick arches, each with a stone mask which indicates the building’s original use as a theatre. The masks depict bearded faces, and the central one is elongated. The central arch is flanked by two buttresses, which act as pilasters, with small stone panels featuring a textured crisscross pattern at the top. All five arches originally enclosed large windows, but only one remains. Stone panels separate the second and third floor windows.

Below the building’s projecting cornice, the facade is divided into three bays. The centre bay features a large stone panel with the name Lyceum carved in large letters. On either side, there are two small windows with stone label surrounds. A wide stringcourse of stone with a moulded projection serves as a continuous sill for the windows.

The ground level of the building has been extensively renovated with changes in ownership and usage. The original entrance was recessed and a covered roof was supported by columns extending along the facade.

The Lyceum was remodeled to accommodate “modern talking pictures” in 1932 (at which time the owner was in arrears for property taxes) and permanently closed as a theatre in 1955. At this time, Famous Players sold the building to local contractor T.A. Jones, who renovated the building to house offices and retail space.
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