The Wychwood streetcar repair barns were once a major hub of the Toronto Civic Railway, the forerunner of the TTC. The site of the five attached brick structures - between Wychwood Avenue and Christie Street in what was then the city's north end - also became a sort of mini Union Station in the decades after the buildings were completed in 1921.
According to Joe Mihevc, city councillor and current vice-chairman of the Toronto Transit Commission, local lore has it that on weekends and holidays, residents carrying picnic baskets took a tram to the Wychwood stop to catch streetcars to greener places.
Today, the barns are again a hub of activity - but of a different sort. They have been reincarnated as the Artscape Wychwood Barns, an impressive 60,000-square-foot complex incorporating rental housing and studios for artists, a covered street, a greenhouse, outdoor bake oven, theatre space and offices.
It's also the first converted heritage building to be certified under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.
Vacant since the mid-1980s, the barns were inspected by a group of city officials in 1998. One of them was Mr. Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul's West).
"We were struck by their beauty," he recalls, noting the barns' high ceilings, the soft light filtering through skylights and the massive girders.
"Now the barns have been restored and reincarnated, and they own their history. Rather than drywall and plaster over everything, the majestic features are celebrated," he says.
The project was launched in 2001, and involved a team of architects, consultants and community activists. One of those involved, Joe Lobko of du Toit Architects Ltd., says the team had to grapple with many different expectations.
"We were challenged to retain the memory of the railway and build on the great work that was done before," he says. "There are a lot of sharp contrasts. ... The challenge of a renovation like this is to incorporate what was done and give it fresh but still sustainable use - to take the feisty old character of the buildings and make them come to life."
No one seems to know the identity of the original designers, but their work has captivated and impressed many of today's architects. One of the project's historical architects, Edwin Rouse of ERA Architects Inc., says the original barns, which were started in 1913, are considered prime examples of early industrial architecture.
"As historical architects, we have a lot of knowledge of traditional building styles," Mr. Rouse says. "These barns are old treasures that by virtue of how they have survived have demonstrated their sustainability. They are part of our industrial heritage.
"We didn't want to treat them with kid gloves," he adds, but "we know a lot of excellent [tradespeople]who could repair brickwork, for example, and give an acceptable result."
The historical preservation work is evident in features such as the brick walls, which have been carefully repaired in a way that respects the past.
"It isn't that the repair work should be invisible," Mr. Rouse explains. "But in 20 years, when everything has weathered, you won't be able to see it."
ERA colleague Jeff Hayes adds: "Where we cleaned the brick and blocks, the work was done so that a patina of paint still remained. In Canada, restoration doesn't mean getting everything squeaky clean and Disneyfying it. The bricks we used are from England, made with subtle variations, not some type of fake 'ye olde bricks.' "
Mr. Rouse notes: "Our architectural specifications read like old recipes. They focus a lot on colour and texture and placement. There are some terra cotta blocks that are part of the original barns and they look wonderful."
With the complex completed, artist-residents can now do their own creating. Nadia Tasci, for instance, designs and makes glass beads and jewellery in one of the live-work studios, which she shares with partner Uros Jelic, a painter.
They left behind more costly and far less desirable premises to move into the one-bedroom unit.
"It is very exciting to be a part of this community," Ms. Tasci says. "There will be a lot of opportunities for us, in meeting other artists and helping one another. The fact that the rent is geared to income means we can pursue our crafts full time."
Already, the couple has begun to transform the utilitarian space, which has concrete floors and a bedroom with a skylight. They're investing "sweat equity" to make the unit come alive, says Mr. Lobko of du Toit Architects.
Billie Bridgman, Artscape's executive vice-president, says that many of the city's artists have been displaced by development, adding that many of them were "forced by economics to work in conditions that were unsafe, illegal and dangerous."
Unlike some old warehouses with high ceilings and huge windows, the Wychwood barns have big skylights but very little in terms of windows.
"So there is light from the skylights and from borrowed light in the covered street, for some studios," Ms. Bridgman says.
In addition to spaces for 12 not-for-profit organizations, the complex contains 15 artist studios and 26 artist live/work units.
Sizes in the latter group include 433-square-foot bachelor units, one-bedrooms measuring 730 square feet, and three-bedroom suites of up to 1,123 square feet. Approximately 50 people live in the residential section.
Ms. Bridgman admits that the spaces may not be as large as many would like.
"Every artist would love to have 2,000 square feet, but the sizes of the studios and apartments were derived from what [people on]our waiting list told us [they]could work with."
Mr. Lobko gives Artscape a lot of credit for the "green" features, and its decision to focus on long-term energy needs.
"This project has geothermal heating and the rainwater is collected for ... flushing the toilets and for irrigation. There is a wall built of recycled plastic," he says, and notes that Artscape had to raise extra funds to afford these initiatives.
"J. Michael Godawa from Stantec Consulting and his colleagues Zorica Gombac and Nuno Duarte have used the earth's energy and the structure itself for the heating, a remarkable achievement," Mr. Lobko explains.
"The building itself is like a buffer, utilizing a kind of a porch effect, where a vestibule shields the inside and allows the air to be cooler or warmer than that outside.
"We brought this project in at $200 a square foot and still will be LEED certified. A project in New York that won an award cost $1,000 square foot, so that tells you how well everyone here did."
But the architect is sanguine about the success of the development, and realistic about its future. "I'm an optimist; there's no other way to be. But funnily enough, you have to realize this moment is tiny in the overall history of these buildings. I expect there to be a period of adaptation.
"There are a lot of users here: How will people like living next to a theatre? There may be some acoustic issues.
"But society throws away way more buildings than it should," he says. I feel very lucky to be involved in the redevelopment of these amazing brownfields and these incredible, unique structures. I see projects like this as examples of what we should be building."
Barns by the number
No. 1: studios and live/work spaces for artists (10 bachelor units, 10 one-bedrooms, and six three-bedroom suites between 1,097 and 1,123 square feet).
No. 2: covered mall-like space that is the site of a farmers' market on Saturday mornings.
No. 3: theatre, offices and a daycare centre.
No. 4: greenhouse where food will be grown, and educational events will take place, some making use of an outdoor bake oven.
No. 5: space exposed to the elements; it merges with the park-
land that is part of the site.