It’s a weekend morning in Hamilton. Hard sunlight bounces off a few slow-moving automobiles – even boom-boom stereos are dialled down – and pedestrians are sparse. Most are still inside making plans for errands, relaxation, or just going with the flow.
Morning is, after all, a wonderful time that’s pregnant with possibility.
It’s true also for a tired, five-building complex on Cannon Street East in Beasley, a working-class neighbourhood named after Richard Beasley (1761-1842), and one of the places from which this steel-proud city grew. Because, today, while the former Chipman-Holton Knitting Co. sits trapped in amber – although much equipment is gone, it’s easy to feel the presence of the generations that worked here – it readies itself for a wonderful new future.
And while it’s known that that future will be a residential one, exactly what form it will take remains unknown.
Affordable housing is currently on the table, with spacious three- and four-bedroom units that could open onto Beasley Park, but that scheme could fall through, says Glen Norton, Hamilton’s manager of urban renewal. “We can get between 70 and 80 units in here and some retail as well,” he says of the 110,000 square feet. he currently safeguards, but will help develop with the building’s private owner. “There’s a big internal space which is like an internal community space – it could be the centre of the building where everybody could go.”
Artist live-work spaces, with a vibe much like Artscape’s Wychwood Barns in Toronto, are a possibility also; after all, concrete floors and high ceilings make for wonderful places to create big honking sculpture. Maybe the Cannon Knitting Mills (as the complex is now called) could pay homage to its past by becoming a fashion incubator where young designers could live, conceive and construct.
As for the retail component, what about a farmer’s market in the community space? A hip café or restaurant is a natural for the oldest of the five buildings at 122 Mary St.; it dates to 1856 and might have been a hotel originally, since it features “domestic” decorative elements, such as a rounded corner, ornate carvings and a hip roof.
Although architect David Premi has prepared many schemes, he seems sure of only two things: the five buildings – some with concrete frames, others with thick timber posts and beams – are all “solid as a rock”; and the “church” portion, which faces onto Cannon Street. and has a somewhat ecclesiastical look with a peaked roof and rounded window-tops, would make for a wonderful main entrance. The rest, “could be a mix of housing,” he suggests
“Maybe if the affordable housing can’t stomach the whole thing – it’s such a big project – they’d take a piece of it, maybe some of it’s market housing, maybe some of it is office.”
All this pregnant possibility, of course, means a knock about inside is definitely in order.
Along with Mr. Premi and Mr. Norton, at the Architourist’s side is Toronto filmmaker Robert Fantinatto, who, in 2005, released Echoes of Forgotten Places, a documentary that takes viewers inside abandoned factories and power plants and espouses a “leave only footprints” philosophy. If anyone appreciates the allure of trapped-in-time spaces, it’s Mr. Fantinatto.
The spacious boiler room is our first stop. While the massive boilers will have to move out before people can move into the double-height space, Mr. Premi suggests he’ll find a way for some of these pieces to stay and tell their story: “They’re beautiful, beautiful machines,” he gushes.
“This could be a pretty cool little apartment, eh?” he asks after climbing stairs to an 800 sq. ft. room raised above the boilers where, likely, tools and spare parts were housed to keep things humming along. It sure would, especially if the little “Made in Hamilton” door, which opens up to view the boilers below, is kept intact.
To get to the suspected hotel portion, we walk and dodge pigeons in well-lit worker’s areas with structural columns lined up like telephone poles. Through a few darkened, creaky-floored rooms illuminated by crisscrossing flashlight beams, we pass a washroom with “Women” written on the door in magic marker, play “Guess My Weight” on an old industrial floor-scale, and spy a few ceased elevator shafts.
All while travelling up sturdy staircases and down concrete ramps: “When we’ve done schemes for housing in here,” Mr. Premi says, “these stairs are all located in the perfect spot for exits and corridors; the building is so well setup for adaptation, it’s amazing.”
Once in the old hotel, we all agree a table tucked into the rounded corner between the exterior Corinthian columns would be a lovely spot for a cappuccino.
“Look at that chimney, look at the detail,” exclaims Mr. Norton as we walk onto the roof; under our feet is an imprisoned internal courtyard that will be liberated. Back inside, we pass formal, wood-panelled offices – “That’s where they handed out the paycheques,” Mr. Premi says – until we are led into the atrium space.
A shared gasp too, as behind the church-like façade on Cannon Street there lurks an equally spiritual space that, once restored, will be bathed in light from a long clerestory running above massive roof trusses. While it’s difficult to tear our eyes away, a look down reveals a long concrete well that once contained toxic rivers of fabric dye.
“It would be a shame to carve this space into smaller chunks,” Mr. Premi says. “An art market or a fruit market, it could be many different things, but I think even if it’s community space within a housing complex, this has to be preserved as a space, somehow.”
With minds like these on the case, plus the iron will of Hamiltonians to make their city better, it will be. “There’s this pent-up level of interest and frustration,” Mr. Norton says. “We want to see it happen.”