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Old Don jailhouse set to rock with tourists and revellers

Historic Toronto building will open to the public for the first time in 30 years this weekend

Globe and Mail Update

jbarber@globeandmail.com

The doors aren't even open yet at the Old Don Jail, and the new wardens have already toured three potential wedding parties through the premises. They have ordered barricades to control expected crowds when the legendary old pile does open to the public on Saturday, as a highlight of the 2009 Doors Open Toronto event, for the second time in its 145-year history. And promoters all over town are "pitching like mad" for the right to host the final party before the nightmarish hulk is closed again and converted into cheerful offices, according to Chris MacKechnie of Slingshot Inc., the company managing the jail till then.

The place to be this Halloween will be Death Row, the real one, hard by the gallows where 34 men met their death at the hands of a century-long series of hooded executioners. In the meantime, guided tours and corporate events will likely make the Old Don Jail one of the hottest tickets in town this summer.

Leaving aside the matter of weddings, it is a profound place - crumbling, sinister, dank, yet grand. The experience of walking through those famous doors in the imaginary shoes of a prisoner is too powerful to be captured by such tepid words as "heritage." The horrifying cellblocks, unaltered since 1864, make comparatively modern Alcatraz seem like a nice place for a picnic. The semi-circular atrium they surround is one of the most beautiful rooms in Toronto. The right word to describe the overall experience, for once, is awesome.

Slingshot, a marketing firm that is managing the jail until November, is well prepared for the onslaught. The company was originally approached by Bridgepoint Health, an adjoining hospital that is set to renovate the jail as part of a new complex, to help organize a one-night fundraiser there. But his first visit persuaded Mr. MacKechnie there was "a bigger opportunity for them."

The result is a jam-packed summer of fun in the condemned jail, with parties, "ghost tours" and even a photo contest.

It may seem ghoulish to be "partying in a place where people lived very miserable existences," Mr. MacKechnie admitted. But no callousness, he added, can survive an actual tour.

And who could resist the iron brackets holding up the galleries encircling the atrium, cast in the shape of dragons and snakes, symbols of temptation? Or the special wing of super-secure cells from which the legendary Boyd Gang made its second escape from the Don Jail? That breakout was the lead story on the first news program ever broadcast on CBC television, according to Mr. MacKechnie.

The ragged hole in the wall of the end Boyd Gang cell was excavated by prisoner Melvin Yeoman, he adds. Unlike Tim Robbins in the Shawshank Redemption, who wriggled to freedom through just such a cavity, Mr. Yeoman was discovered with several feet of concrete left to go.

There is a picture of a knife dripping with blood scratched on the grimy wall.

There is conflicting evidence as to the whereabouts - even the existence - of Death Row. But the final walk of the condemned is open to all who dare trace it. It ends with a low door giving on to the gallows, visible today only as the stains left by its timbers on the walls of a windowless chute.

"No one is quite sure where it is," Mr. MacKechnie said. But the opening of the jail has also opened floodgates of new information. "We're sure we're going to find it fairly quickly."

More mundane concerns occupy his immediate attention, including an "ongoing struggle" with the fire marshal. It would appear that the Old Don Jail has inadequate "escape routes." What a surprise! A new back door is being installed to remedy the situation.

Beginning tomorrow, however, the biggest problem will be keeping people out of this most notorious prison, now a must-see summer attraction.

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BEHIND THE BARS

What you'll pay for a night in the Old Don Jail:

Private parties, including weddings

Mondays to Thursdays, $3,500

Fridays, $4,500

Saturdays and holidays, $5,500

Sunday, $4,000

A fashion show, a dance competition and a charity event have already booked events at the jail. All proceeds will go to the Bridgepoint Health Foundation

Tours

Guided day and night tours, which begin next month, will cost $20 and $25, respectively.

Staff

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