The elegant Victorian building at 1588 Barrington Street, in the heart of downtown Halifax, has been a vital part of the city’s life for decades. We want that tradition to continue.
Originally built by the Church of England Institute to house education projects in the public interest, the Khyber Building, as it is commonly known, has, in the past decades, housed many important organization that reflect Halifax’s unique cultural diversity, grassroots spirit and cutting-edge reputation, including:
- The Khyber Centre for the Arts, a world-renown artist-run centre and gallery space
- The Turret, one of Canada’s first queer nightclubs and a hub for LGBTQ activism in the 1970s and 80s
- Musical venues central to the development of the careers of notable Halifax performers including Emily Vey Duke, Shary Boyle, Kelly Mark, Joel Plaskett, Classified, and Buck 65
- Wormwoods, an independent repertory cinema
- The Alternate Bookstore, Halifax first gay and lesbian bookstore
- Several culturally diverse restaurants, cafes and health food stores (Bean Sprout, Sanpaka and Khyber Café among them) which served as gathering places for many of the city’s newcomer communities
- The offices of organizations including Heritage Trust, the Gay Alliance for Equality and the Atlantic Filmmakers Co-operative, as well as the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides of Halifax
- (Please get in touch if you’d like anything added to this list).
The building was listed as a Canadian Historic Place in 2005.
We want to preserve and honour the Khyber’s proud heritage by seeing it once again become a hub for culture, community and creativity.
The current problem
- Since 1994, the building has been owned by the City of Halifax and leased to various arts organizations and community groups.
- Due to years of deferred maintenance and the recent unconfirmed suspicion of the presence of asbestos, on January 13, 2014 the City ordered the tenants out.
- On July 29, city staff presented a report to the Halifax Regional Council (HRC) recommending the building be classified as “surplus” and disposed of.
- This, in spite of repeated votes at the HRC in favour of maintaining the Khyber building as a downtown creative art hub.
- HRC has deferred their decision on the matter until September 9, 2014.
Help us tell HRC to save the Khyber!
The Khyber’s importance to Halifax’s arts and cultural community
Halifax’s artist-run culture is well-known across Canada for its grassroots spirit and remarkable resiliency, as well as for launching the careers of many fabulous, world-renown artists. The Khyber Centre for the Arts, headquartered in the city’s downtown, has been a vital part of this tradition. Not only has the Khyber been a key hub for the visual arts, it has also been a crucial venue for the performing arts, film, design, new media and music — indeed, many luminary Halifax musicians got their start on stage at the Khyber.
The success of the Khyber and its tenants is undeniable. But, some argue that the cost of preserving and renovating the Khyber Building is too high, that its programming could be moved elsewhere, and that the building could be sold into private hands to save the city money. We say:
- The Khyber’s location is crucial to its success as a multi-purpose facility in the public interest. The Khyber Building anchors a creative community in downtown Halifax providing an intersection of arts and culture.
- The elegant Khyber Building is also key: it is a beautiful, historical and architecturally unique structure that inspires and enriches our city.
- Private developers in Halifax have an atrocious track-record in preserving heritage properties and for maintaining affordable rental or lease rates for cultural and non-profit groups.
- With a relatively small investment the city could renovate the building and make it accessible to diverse communities. The Khyber Building could become a model in Atlantic Canada for community-led urban development.
- We are not convinced the city staff report, which estimates the costs of renovations at $4.1-million, is accurate and believe further investigation and consultation is warranted.
The Khyber’s importance to Halifax’s queer community and heritage
From 1977 to 1983, the Gay Alliance for Equality (GAE) operated a licenced social space for the Queer community on the third floor of 1588 Barrington Street. The Turret — named for the building’s most recognizable architectural feature — was for years the only gay bar in Halifax, a city with a large and active homosexual population. Other institutions serving the LGBT community, such as the Alternate Book Shop and the Youth Clinic (the first important source of health services to people with AIDS and HIV), were housed on the building’s second floor.
Starting with a hugely successful Friday-night dance, on 9 January 1976, the Turret quickly grew into a weekly, then a twice-weekly event. Within a few years, GAE was running a licenced lesbian and gay social venue with professional staff, open seven nights a week, its proceeds supporting a wide range of social, political and cultural activities. It was the first Halifax Queer bar to which women came in significant numbers, and it made GAE one of the best funded lesbian and gay organizations on the continent.
Operating first under special occasion licences, then from mid 1977 under a private club licence, the Turret was fully controlled by and accountable to the community it served. GAE, later known as the Gay and Lesbian Association of Nova Scotia (GALA), operated from 1972 to 1995. It had a high profile within the Canadian movement, and sent representatives to international gatherings as far afield as Paris and Sweden. Almost unique in North America, GAE was a broad-based community organization, with significant lesbian participation, that was both the main source of Queer political, social service and cultural activities in the city, and owner/operator of the chief (and from 1976 through 1990, the only) fully Queer social venue in town. Such an integrated model of Queer community space was common in Scandinavia and the Netherlands – where the local group would be a branch of a national organization – but in North America that combination of factors, in a city as large as Halifax, was virtually unknown.
The bar and dance space was on the top floor, at that time almost completely open, with windows on two sides and an open stairwell and skylight on the third. Halifax designer Rand Gaynor designed the Turret logo, which appeared on invitations, posters and T-shirts. From 1978 to 1983, hundreds of people carried this image in their wallets, printed on Turret social membership cards. For the past three decades, the Turret has been fondly remembered by many as a key site in the emergence of an active and visible Halifax LGBT community.