The age of flower power had barely dawned, but the poetry and songs that defined a generation of protest and counter-culture were already thriving in Yorkville in the early 1960s.
Coffee houses and jazz clubs with names like the Riverboat, Penny Farthing and Purple Onion were packing in the beatniks and university kids eager for the folk tunes of Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell (who was still Joni Anderson then), Buffy Ste. Marie, Carly Simon and Neil Young.
Development has long since swallowed the landmarks of Yorkville's musical history. The once quaint and crowded streets are now bounded by high rises. The village has become a destination for international brands, exclusive boutiques and cafes that are as much about being seen as the cuisine. The Purple Onion is commemorated with a heritage plaque outside 35 Avenue Rd.
But one of the men who established the Onion thinks Toronto can do better. Barry Witkin wants a Yorkville Village museum to be incorporated in the mixed-use development slated to go on the corner of Avenue Road and Yorkville Avenue where the Onion opened in late 1960.
That's when Witkin, along with high school chums Al Lastman and the late Sam Gutmacher, signed a six-month lease for $750 a month with the option of extending it for five years.
The mansion that was the Purple Onion - one of the most important coffee houses on the scene in the 1960s, is still visible above the circular windows of the salons and boutiques that most recently occupied that space on the east side of Avenue Road.
Witkin, 82, envisions a re-created coffee house like the one he and his buddies ran for five years - packed with photos and paraphernalia - that would allow younger generations to soak up the 1960s vibe and groove to the tunes of the hippie generation.
He imagines seating capacity for performances, a book and craft shop, even a coffee shop.
He says Yorkville's gentrification has come at the expense of its important past.
"All the heritage properties are being destroyed and it's being converted into these beautiful-looking high-end stores," said Witkin. "So if the museum can change that by replicating what was there in the look and everything, I think it would be really interesting."
The Purple Onion, a 1960s coffee shop, brought the icons of the folk music scene to Yorkville at Avenue Road and Yorkville Avenue.
He, Lastman and Gutmacher ran the Purple Onion themselves on weekends while studying accounting via correspondence at Queen's University. A general manager handled the coffee shop's operations during the week.
The lease required the Purple Onion to rent the entire house, so the main floor and basement served as the coffee shop, and musicians and artists would rent the rooms upstairs.
"We pretty well did all the work ourselves," said Witkin. "We got our friends and family to help paint. It was really a fun time. We had no idea how we would do, but we decided we'll take a chance on it."
There were other partners at different times in the business, but the original trio stuck with the coffee shop for the full five years.
Initially they didn't know what kind of entertainment to offer, but finances made the decision for them. Jazz musicians tended to play in trios so they cost more. The folk musicians were most often solo acts, although not always. Gordon Lightfoot started out as a duo with Terry Whelan called the Two Tones. Carly Simon appeared with her sister, Lucy.
U.S. artists would come to Yorkville because it was part of a Canadian folk club circuit that ran through Hamilton, Montreal, Ottawa and Winnipeg.
At the end of the five-year lease when the partners had completed their accounting degrees, they sold the Purple Onion. As Witkin tells it, the place closed when their successor, who had turned it into a rock club, forgot to sign the lease.
Yorkville's coffee houses and clubs had an impact on music that was disproportionate to the size of the neighbourhood, said Mike Daley, a Toronto musicologist who is writing a book about Yorkville's history. There were really two histories there, he said.
Barry Witkin at the Purple Onion circa 1964.
The Purple Onion opened before the neighbourhood became firmly established as a hippie hangout. That came in the second half of the decade along with bikers and the drug culture, said Daley.
In the first part of the 1960s, he said, "It was really a folk scene - university students, some element of what I'd call beatniks. You didn't have a drug scene. It was just people drinking coffee."
Witkin remembers it as a time of hope and disillusionment.
"That was when John Kennedy was president. Everybody felt fantastic. We've got a young president and yet the Vietnam War came into play and he was shot and then Lydon Johnson took over and that whole Vietnam War exploded," he said.
Daley, who has been interviewing everyone he can find who was in Yorkville in the 1950s and 1960s, corroborates Witkin's claim that Cree singer Buffy Sainte-Marie wrote her protest anthem, "Universal Soldier," while playing the Purple Onion.
Sainte-Marie was in the San Francisco airport when she saw wounded solders returning from Vietnam, according to Witkin.
"She couldn't believe what was happening to them. She got so disappointed that she decided to write a song about it. And she actually wrote that song in the basement of our club," he said. "That was a big thing in her career because people really needed somebody to say what was happening and she seemed to express it."
Witkin has been promoting the idea of a Yorkville Village museum to anyone who will listen, including the property's owner First Capital. He has been in touch with its heritage consultant Shelley Ludman at ERA Architects.
First Capital did not respond to the Star's requests for comment and Ludman also declined to comment.
The city of Toronto has authorized the demolition of the property on condition that the developer provide a heritage interpretation plan that includes, but is not limited to, a heritage plaque within public view. That plan hasn't been submitted to the city yet, but it is a condition of rezoning so it has to be filed before the development can move forward.
"While a museum is not specified, it could be part of the interpretation plan," said a city spokesperson.
City Coun. Mike Layton's office confirmed that he also had an email exchange with Witkin and has expressed his support "in theory."
"At this stage, it is an idea and would require conversations with the community and the developer about the use of the private community space on site," said Layton's office.
Daley loves the idea of a museum that would prevent the musical past from being swallowed by upscale development.
"If it was done right it would be really cool and it would be such a great counterpoint to what's going on now with this superglitzy thing in Yorkville," he said.
He agrees with Witkin that the corner of Avenue Road and Yorkville Avenue is the place to do it.
"That's the centre," he said. "There were so many places right next door and near it and around the corner."
Witkin says he is encouraged by the interest in the area and the era he's seen in places like a Yorkville Village Facebook group.
"This could become a really big attraction for the developers and the city," he said.
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