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The Doty building on the corner of Front and Bathurst, set to be demolished to make way for a condo project. July, 2011 (Dave LeBlanc/Dave LeBlanc)
The Doty building on the corner of Front and Bathurst, set to be demolished to make way for a condo project. July, 2011 (Dave LeBlanc/Dave LeBlanc)

Condo dwellers: Do you know your area's history? (It might be pretty cool) Add to ...

"In Europe, they bolt everything - somebody discovers something, they put up bolts and people climb it - whereas here, people are much more protective about places."

Nathan Ng, a rock climber without a rock-climbing home, is talking about his community, but he might as well be talking about the long industrial building just over his shoulder at the northeast corner of Bathurst and Front streets. That's where Rock Oasis, his former climbing gym, lived until a few weeks ago. It's now empty, hoarded up and about to be demolished to make way for a massive condo project.

Mr. Ng is so protective about this place, or more accurately, the memory of it, he's written a very long goodbye - 15,000 words or thereabouts - and posted it on his blog: http://skritch.blogspot.com/2011/06/farewell-to-rock-oasis.html.

It's a "cathartic" essay about the unassuming brick building he felt compelled to write despite possessing only a "layman's interest" in architecture and public space. In it, he takes the reader all the way back to Victorian-age Toronto, when Front St. and the much wider railway lands to the south were a humming, huffing centre of industry, to the creation of the building, and then traces its many uses over the next five decades.

It's exhaustive, and utterly fascinating: Before the building was constructed around 1890 (industrial construction records were quite spotty before 1900), the site's first industrial use was as a coal and wood yard operated by Patrick Burns. Then, American émigré and machinist John Doty, who could trace his lineage back to a Mayflower pilgrim, expanded his Doty Engine Works from its original location at the southwest corner of Bathurst and Front. "The location proved to be the launching pad for Doty's sizable business empire," Mr. Ng writes. "Doty built all kinds of machinery, and for any purpose." Not only did this solidify the area's industrial character, it was "symptomatic of how Victorian Toronto divided itself into more clearly defined residential, commercial, and industrial districts."

Doty was so successful, he started a ship-building company at the foot of Bathurst, building Toronto ferries Primrose and Mayflower, along with other vessels.

After Doty's "mini-empire" went bust in 1892, the building was sold to Scots brothers George and John Bertram. Until 1905, the Bertram Engine Works busied itself with similar engine and boiler work as well as the construction of 46 ships at the shipyards. George Bertram would be elected to federal parliament in 1897. After his death in 1900, his brother John would oversee the building of the Montreal, a "floating palace" with a 3,000 horsepower engine. At this point in the text, Mr. Ng uses personal photographs to identify the large former opening in the building where trains would roll inside to pick up engines for transport to the shipbuilding wharf.

In 1904, after John's death, the building became home to Canadian Shipbuilding Co., but quickly changed hands a few years later to become a brick press manufacturer, the Berg Brick Machinery Manufacturing Company, which would thrive until 1916. This firm, he writes, "completely remodelled and overhauled the works, which had fallen into a state of some disrepair." It's possible, he adds, that Berg was responsible for adding the small peaked tower at the south end of the building where Rock Oasis located its tall climbing walls.

Finishing the war as a munitions factory, the building became H.W. Petrie Ltd. Machinery until 1940, leasing space to the Diamond Calk & Horseshoe Company in 1924 as well as a few smaller enterprises.

Mr. Ng skips over the next half-century to focus on the climbing gym's creation in the 1990s, and to offer speculation on the area's future as a residential enclave. Throughout, text is supported by archival photographs, postcards, newspaper stories, Goad's fire insurance maps and at least one YouTube video.

Of course, this all raises the question: Why would someone without a research or architecture background tackle a master's thesis-sized project of this sort? "I am interested to see what winds up here," he offers without animosity, "just to see how it will change and affect this neighbourhood." When pressed, he adds that 13 years of observing the "rough-hewn beams … which were just massive blocks of timber and these fist-sized nuts and bolts that you're just not going to see in modern construction" was enough to develop an attachment that's akin to outdoor climbers who "talk about becoming one with the rock."

Not surprisingly, this online display of passion has attracted the attention of at least one prominent member of the heritage community, who suggested other research avenues to pursue should Mr. Ng want to nail down some of the sketchier facts.

Whether or not the research ends here, Mr. Ng has produced an eye-opening examination of how one building can touch so many lives, even up to the present day. "History is a very interlocking thing," he finishes. "You can't view a particular piece of it in isolation … it's got a larger footprint that just the building site."

How true. And, as such, this essay should be required reading for condo-hunters and those already ensconced in the many towers that surround Mr. Doty's former Engine Works. Perhaps, if the developer is willing, Mr. Ng and Heritage Toronto can install a heritage plaque to get them started.

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