Meet the Hamilton designers helping to bring the iconic El Mocambo back to life

A Toronto cultural icon that has hosted the likes of The Rolling Stones and U2 is finally making a comeback — and a group of designers from Hamilton are on the ground floor.

Venue that played host to the likes of The Rolling Stones and U2 to open again next spring

El Mocambo owner Michael Wekerle says the new El Mocambo sign was "painstakingly" built to replicate the original version. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

A Toronto cultural icon that has hosted the likes of The Rolling Stones and U2 is finally making a comeback — and a group of designers from Hamilton are on the ground floor.

The Laundry Design Works is working with former Dragons' Den star and current club owner Michael Wekerle on the El Mocambo's redesign, with an eye for a soft launch reopening next spring.

Erin McCluskey and Gary Kuiper, who are partners at the design firm, say they are trying to toe a fine line between preserving the "authentic dirtiness" of a club like the El Mo, but still making sure that it can provide a rich, modern live music experience.

"That's one of the biggest challenges," Kuiper told CBC News. "We can't design a club that feels too commercial or corporate."

"That authenticity is something we think about every day," McCluskey said.

It will be a difficult challenge to navigate, with a deft touch required to successfully marry the much-vaunted authenticity of the space with the corporate partnerships that are being brokered to allow it to survive in 2018.

Wekerle, a merchant banker, has secured cannabis producer Tweed as the sponsor of the building's upstairs stage, while Bell Media is expected to sign a deal to support the venue.

Imax, the giant-screen movie company, is also looking at beaming live concerts from the venue into theatres. 

The two-floor venue stands among Canada's most iconic small concert spaces. It's where the Stones taped part of their Love You Live album in 1977 and U2 played its second North American show in 1980.

Canadian acts like the Tragically Hip, the Guess Who and Tom Cochrane have also graced its stages over the years.

But the club struggled financially throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, closing and re-opening under a number of owners before it was finally shuttered. Another local club owner bought the space in 2012 in a failed attempt to restore the space to its former glory.

A replica of the original, iconic El Mocambo sign was lit for the first time last week. (The Laundry Design Works)

Wekerle then bought the famed, 70-year-old concert venue for $3.8 million. The Laundry came onboard to design the space last spring.

Both McCluskey and Kuiper are staying mum about the plans for the inside of the building for now, which is currently under construction.

The pair did say Hamilton master carpenter Mike Haines spent weeks working on the building's facade, making sure it featured elements like recessed panels and giant columns to elevate the design and "bring a sense of craftsmanship to the exterior."

This was The Laundry Design Works's mock up for the building's facade. (The Laundry Design Works)

The designers say they also feel an extra pang of responsibility when it comes to working on the project, considering the effect that gentrification has had on venues in the GTA and in Hamilton.

Storied clubs are closing. The likes of The Silver Dollar Room shut its doors in Toronto, and now in Hamilton, much-beloved institution This Ain't Hollywood is up for sale.

As rents surge and developers see dollar signs, live music venues usually aren't the most lucrative institutions, even though they are often intrinsic to the growth of a neighbourhood.

"It's a big issue," McCluskey said. "And it comes with a certain level of responsibility."


About the Author

Adam Carter


Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.

With files from The Canadian Press


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.