The building is for sale; performers and audiences are hoping for an arts-friendly buyer.
WHEN HERMANN NIEWELER died in June of 2015, his beloved jazz venue nearly perished along with him. The addresses of 751 and 753 View Street, owned and managed by Nieweler since the 1980s, had housed the iconic street-level Hermann’s Jazz Club, a licensed veteran’s club next door, and a succession of nightclubs upstairs. For a few years after he died, his children couldn’t agree on what to do—with the two-storey building, or the businesses housed there. The jazz club had no secure future.
Then one day in July of 2018, the much-loved bar and grill—which had hosted tens of thousands of jazz performances and luminaries such as Winton Marsalis and Michael Bublé—suddenly shut down. The family didn’t want to run it any more. But like the raucous Dixieland bands Nieweler loved, Hermann’s wasn’t about to go quietly. The loss of the unique venue was too horrifying a prospect for devoted fans, musicians, and house management, who rallied around a passionate preservation movement. Working tirelessly, these Victoria vision- and stake-holders are now navigating both the revitalization of the mission and the selloff of the building. A new owner, they say, could either explode the potential of a View Street arts hub—or pave right over Hermann Nieweler’s legacy.
Karel Roessingh on the piano at Hermann’s
The non-profit Jazz on View Society—now the Arts on View Society (AOVS) —organized, fundraised, and attempted a private purchase of the building in 2017. The Nieweler family’s price was $3 million back then, but though the society raised $100,000, it wasn’t enough to proceed. Instead, last summer, the society struck a hard-won, five-year lease and management deal for both Hermann’s Jazz Club and the neighbouring View Street Social tavern. AOVS executive director Nichola Walkden says a large portion of the funds the society raised have been used to make significant (and much appreciated) improvements to the kitchen, menu, and service. Reviving the club’s original schedule of offerings, and the mentorship and performance opportunities for high school kids, constitutes a large part of booking manager Ashley Wey’s passionate efforts.
The current price of the building, listed on the MLS in October of this year, is $4.5 million. Attractive to developers, Walkden says, with zoning that allows a building height in the double-digits, she and the Arts on View Society (AOVS) know their five-year lease can only protect these historic performance and community gathering spaces for so long. Walkden is fervently hoping for a new owner or developer who will share the society’s vision of a View Street performance and visual arts centre, one that would serve the Downtown core in perpetuity.
Wey, who grew up “rolling around on the floor” listening to bands at Hermann’s during her childhood, is now a professional musician herself. She serves as a director on the AOVS board, and says nobody expects the old property on View Street to remain at a height of two stories forever. The ideal solution, both women agree, would be the erection of a brand-new, multi-use building, where every cubic metre of current performance space is rebuilt and available for use by a range of disciplines: dance, theatre, music—even visual arts.
In October, I had the opportunity to attend an event at the little-known, little-used venue now dubbed “Hermann’s Upstairs,” which consists of two spaces that are still under the Nieweler family’s management (but could be leased to AOVS, if the society can make it work financially). Two beautifully finished rooms are each set up in cabaret style, with comfortable seating for 80 and 260, respectively. Darryl Mar, Victoria Jazz Society’s artistic and executive director, often books Hermann’s for its performers. He said of the recent Astrocolor event held upstairs, “We had a full house. A lot of people had never been up there before, and realized what a great music room it is. It was a wonderful evening. People were dancing, people were coming up to me—local musicians—saying, ‘I never realized this venue was here. How do we get access?’” As Downtown performance spaces rapidly disappear, Mar says, the configuration of Hermann’s Upstairs is especially valuable and unique, with elevated table seating around a stage and dance floor. “It’s a perfect venue that doesn’t take a lot of money or work to become one of the best medium-sized live music venues in Victoria,” he asserts.
Wey and Walkend wish the City’s zoning of these properties on View Street required developers to earmark a certain amount of square footage for arts facility rentals, providing a foundation for the kind of diverse entertainment experiences that are an essential ingredient in any thriving and vibrant downtown scene. Shortsightedness, however, is a stubborn visual impairment many politicians—and developers—share. A local industry professional tells me the guiding principles of putting up buildings in Victoria are brutally succinct: “minimize cost and risk; maximize profit.” Since there are no arts-oriented zoning parameters, AOVS is “at the mercy of a developer’s goodwill, and the two words ‘developer’ and ‘goodwill’ don’t carry the same magnetic charge,” he observes. However, if a developer can predict more profit and less cost and risk in “giving a building a ‘cultural’ brand, then that’s another market-based reason for a possible positive outcome. If culture will sell condos,” he says wryly, that’s the basic logic required for “creation or retention of a cultural element.” One can imagine the huge placards announcing “Downtown luxury living with music, theatre, dance and dining, right at your feet.” Perhaps everybody could win, with no “goodwill” required.
But real estate development is only one point of focus for the team reviving and expanding Hermann’s View Street offerings. Development of young talent has always been an integral part of the jazz club, says Wey. “It’s an all-ages venue; that’s what’s great. Generations came through [the club’s] open mic: Kelby [MacNair], I did, Nic LaRiviere, Oliver Swain, we all came through that program.” What Hermann’s provided, and what the pianist wants the next crop of young musicians in Victoria to access, is the opportunity “to come up [on stage] and get a chance to work with pros.”
“Hermann was like a grandpa to me,” Wey recalls fondly, “which is why I care so much about his legacy and keeping it alive.”
Whatever eventually gets built on what was Hermann Nieweler’s property, Walkden and Wey hope some portion of it will embody what the “Mayor of View Street” and patriarch of Victoria’s jazz scene was all about: convening community around good times and enjoying the music he so loved; mentorship and development of new performers; and warm, welcoming gathering spaces where, Walkden says, “you can have a drink, and come as you are.”
If you’d like to contribute to the Arts on View Society, see gofundme.com/Hermanns. To get a peek at Hermann’s Upstairs, attend the Jazz Society’s Blue Moon Marquee show on Friday, Dec 6: tickets on sale at 250-386-6121 or www.rmts.bc.ca.
Mollie Kaye is a multi-faceted mid-century enthusiast who documents her community connection project, “Turned-out Tuesdays,” at theyearofdressup.com.