New owners announce the former Railway Club will be reborn under a new name and altered format
Get ready for changes at the old Railway Club that transcend renovations to the room.
As reported earlier this week, the 579 Dunsmuir Street address that has housed the Railway since 1931 has been leased. The Straight has learned that the room—which has been shuttered for the past nine months—will be taken over by a group headed by partners Jeff Donnelly and Chad Cole. It will not technically be part of the Donnelly Group, an independently owned chain of bars that includes Bimini’s and Library Square Public House.
And when the room re-opens, it won’t be called the Railway Club.
“We’re not going to keep the Railway Club name, because it’s not going to be the Railway Club unfortunately anymore,” said Damon Holowchak, director of marketing for the Donnelly Group. “It’s going to be pay tribute to the Railway Club as much as we can, but it would do a disservice to the Railway Club if we called it that.”
One of the country’s most fabled live venues, the Railway helped launched the careers of artists like k.d. lang, Sarah McLachlan, the Barenaked Ladies, and Blue Rodeo in the ’80s and ’90s. Run by siblings Steve and Janet Forsyth, it also served as a launching pad for countless local artists.
The venue saw a gradual decline in popularity after it was purchased by Steve Silman in 2008. Citing the high cost of rent and diminished revenues, he attempted to sell the business in December of 2015 for $299,000. The Railway closed its doors in March of 2016 after there were no takers.
Holowchak says that the room will undergo minor renovations, with new ownership shooting for an opening date in the spring. The name of the venue is still to be determined. And while live music will be part of the format, he cautions that no one should expect the old Railway.
“We want to preserve its legacy in being one of Vancouver’s best social spaces in the city,” Holowchak said. “That’s truly what it was. Unfortunately live music isn’t the success that it was once. There’s not as many enthusiastic live-music people I guess. But we understand the full importance that the Railway holds in the nightlife of Vancouver. And we are not just going to run away from that—we love it, actually.
“That’s part of why this whole thing came to be,” he continued. “It was one of Jeff’s favourite places, one of Chad’s favourite places, one of my favourite places. It’s a place that I’ve been to countless blurry times.”
Holowchak noted that, like many live-music rooms in the city, the Railway struggled for a long time.
“It’s a tough business, live-music in this city,” he noted. “A lot of places have had to just stop doing it. Classic spots in this city are not able to sustain doing live. It sucks and it’s unfortunate.”
He stressed again that there will be live music at 579 Dunsmuir once the room has been rechristened.
“Our intention is to have a live component to the space,” Holowchak said. “We’re not abandoning live, that’s for sure. But will it be an exclusive live-music and band venue? It won’t be.”
In the weeks and months going forward, the group behind the new venture will be reaching out to the Vancouver live-music community to talk about programming.
“Once again the legacy of the Railway Club is something that we want to further,” Holowchak said.
Those who remember the former Railway for its eclectic decor—the miniature train and tracks that hung from the ceiling, the neon Ray Condo Forever sign—will be happy to know that the Museum of Vancouver will be helping to preserve part of the room’s past.
“We don’t want to lose the essence of what it was,” Holowchak said. “Anything that we can’t use we’re going to donate to the Vancouver Museum, which has already shown interest in some components of the space. We really want to preserve the legacy.”