The ghosts of the barn/stables still lurk at Church and Granby. It looks as tacky as ever, with its bright yellow paint and larger-than-life gay cowboys holding hands for Molson's beer on one side.
But two and a half years after the body of its owner, Janko Naglic, was found in his upscale Balliol Street home, the fate of one of this city's most popular and longest-running gay bars continues to hang in the balance, caught in legal red tape.
The fact, revealed following a January 2005 fire and renovations, that the building is crippled by structural damage is making the gaytown icon prohibitively expensive to repair. The asking price is a steep $2.2 million, but the land alone is said to be worth $1.5 million.
This Sunday will be the third Gay Pride day in a row that this icon of gay Toronto will be closed, though local Councillor Kyle Rae is still hopeful that it will reclaim its place as one of Toronto's premier queer clubs.
"I look forward to it reopening as a dance club," he says.
Asked about why it has remained unsold and empty for so long, Rae is critical of his own gay community.
"I have been singularly disappointed that the gay community, which has complained about not having enough dance floor space in the area, has not bellied up to the bar. We know the Barn made money. Yet no one has taken up the challenge. I am so saddened the community is unable to find someone prepared invest in a sure thing."
To this, Tom Ricketts, Naglic's long-time accountant and now the sole executor responsible for disposition of Naglic's large estate, responds sharply, "Why doesn't he get rid of the historical designation so I can sell it?"
The designation, which preserves the north and east walls, has killed at least one deal with a developer when a demolition permit couldn't be obtained.
It's important to note that since the establishment of the Entertainment District (something Rae supported), no new liquor licences have been given to gay dance bars in the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood. The fact that the Barn still has a licence makes the property even more valuable. But what about that historical designation?
In early 2005, not long after Naglic's murder, Rae applied to the Toronto Preservation Board (on which he sits as a council member) to have the building, originally three houses erected in 1891 by Toronto businessman Stephen Murphy, declared an historic site. As the citation issued by the board puts it, "The Barn is an excellent example of late 19th-century architecture. The properties display features of Second Empire style and are a cultural resource worth preserving."
The parking lot next door on Church north of McGill gave some developers the idea that a large building could go up there. But Rae, who has often been criticized for being too fond of tall condos, won't have it.
"They think they can build a tower, but the neighbourhood, the Planning Board and I will not support that." Rae sees the site as perfect for "Victorian townhouses with four storeys, which is in harmony with the area."
But executor Ricketts says this is impossible, as "it is a small lot, 50 by 70 feet, not big enough for townhouses." Ricketts has appealed the designation.
Meanwhile, the sensational murder trial of Ivan Mendez-Romero, a Cuban Naglic met on holiday on the island in the early 1990s and brought back to live with him in Canada, is now set for February 2008.
A maverick, original and imaginative gay businessman with a campy, eccentric style, Naglic regarded the Barn as his "life's passion" and ran it from his perch at the till of the second-floor bar. He was a major gay bar innovator, mixing funky leather with dancing and even a piano bar for older patrons. "It was pushing the envelope and an integration of gay lifestyles," says former Barn pianist Greg Beer, who now plays at Zipperz.
Sociologist and veteran gay activist John Alan Lee says the Barn also had a unique design that made it easy to cruise for everything from younger boy-next-door types to more mature bears and leather queens, since it had three stories, more than one staircase and many nooks and crannies.
Today, a Facebook discussion and memorabilia site dedicated to the Barn has more than 84 members. It's an eclectic group, like the odd mix that was the Barn clientele: young, middle-aged and some hip senior gays, a dozen or so women and ex-employees all habitués of a place fondly remembered as a gay community asset.
Barn regular Devon Poole e-mailed the group the following, and it says it all: "Many awesome memories from that club. I even met my husband there! The gay scene has not been the same since it closed its doors."
James Dubro is a freelance writer, documentary filmmaker and author of several books, including Dragons Of Crime.