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The Architourist

After decades of neglect, the rebirth of a Guelph heritage building

The Petrie Building, with its unique stamped-zinc façade, after restoration.

Kirk Roberts and Peregrine Wood take on a restoration challenge – a unique 1882 building, crumbling inside and out

"Every person that walks up or down Wyndham St. cannot fail to admire the handsome new building," wrote the Guelph Mercury in 1882. Designed by "our own townsman," Mr. John Day, the newspaper declared the slender, four-storey building to be "one of the finest in the Dominion."

An original etching of the building. Tyrcathlen Partners

Financed by pharmacist Alexander Bain Petrie (1842-1921), the building was also one of the Dominion's most unique: Using a system developed in the booming U.S. Midwest, the highly ornamented, stamped-zinc façade was mail-ordered from Ohio firm Bakewell & Mullins. It arrived in sections and was hammered into place. Local tinsmiths added their own bits and bobs and then it was "painted and then treated with a coated sand when it was tacky to give it the imitation of a brownstone," says Kirk Roberts, a man who has put a great deal of thought into Petrie's building for the last few years. "So it was a really rapid way to build a building that looked like stone."

However, by 2014, the Petrie Building no longer looked like stone. With a naked metal façade riddled with rust, a pestle absent from the gigantic ornamental mortar on top, boarded windows on three floors and a greasy spoon operating on the main floor, it took its shameful place on National Trust for Canada's "Top 10 Most Endangered Places" list. Add that those three floors had been unheated and unoccupied for decades – the second since the 1920s, the third since 1906 and the interiors of the fourth having never been constructed – and it was "becoming a victim of demolition by neglect."

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Thankfully, Mr. Roberts and his wife/business partner, Peregrine Wood, were ready for another restoration challenge in early 2015. After getting their hands dirty on a Queen Anne home, an 1847 boarding house and an old Gooderham & Worts grainery with their Tyrcathlen Partners (which they'd created after a job transfer brought the couple from Toronto), the Petrie didn't seem so daunting. And, quite serendipitously, as they conducted online research from their living room couch, they realized that they were sitting in the same stone house A.B. Petrie himself had lived in a hundred years ago: "Small towns," Mr. Roberts says with a chuckle.

By 2014, the building no longer looked like stone, with its metal façade riddled with rust.

After a preliminary report stating Petrie's unique façade – there are just two other pre-1890 examples in Canada – was in "better than could be expected condition," the couple arranged to purchase the three-storey building to the north as well, since one of the main reasons the Petrie's upper floors had remained vacant was the next-to-impossible requirements for modern exits, accessibility and natural light within the 21-foot-wide and 100-foot-deep building. The silver lining, however, was that with "no HVAC and no renovation" for decades, there was "no destruction of the original stuff," Mr. Roberts says. Indeed, Mr. Petrie's second-floor office, which looks like something out of Murdoch Mysteries, was surprisingly intact, as were hardware, decorative moulding and interior transom windows throughout.

So, with $1.5-million spent, the whole first year was occupied with, well, spending quite a bit more on unsexy details such as an elevator and stairwell, which straddle the two buildings (after partial removal of a 20-inch-thick limestone wall with hand tools), foundation work (the building sat on sand; it now sits on helical piers), new storm drains and clever ways to bring heating and cooling inside.

A wall with graffiti in Sway Advertising's office, before restoration. Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

By 2017, interior suites were beginning to take shape; some were being created out of thin air by adding square footage to the back of both buildings. And, luckily, tenants were clamouring to be part of the building's rebirth: Donna Hirst of The Modern Bride remembers that, when they signed their lease, she and her daughter, Jessica, climbed onto a third-floor scaffold and "went through a hole in the plaster ceiling" to see the as-yet-unbuilt fourth floor; Taylor Prestidge of advertising firm Sway found the Victorian graffiti on his floor so interesting he incorporated much of it into his design scheme.

Much to the delight of Mr. Roberts and Ms. Wood, there was so much surplus aged wood around, practically every tenant has used it to make tables, new-old floors and bar tops (Brothers Brewing is on the main floor).

And where others might have cheaped out on a new street-level storefront by installing catalogue components, Tyrcathlen hired Mennonites to create something appropriate out of Brazilian Accoya, a treated, long-lasting wood.

The restoration of the stamped metal façade is a story in itself. With a "Top Off the Petrie" crowd-funding campaign organized by the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario and supported by the Downtown Guelph Business Association in full swing, Tyrcathlen equipped two students from Willowbank School (and one of their paint crew) with "scrubby pads" and two-inch wire brushes and set them loose on the metal corn, pineapples, laurels and lion's heads. The conservation plan, as devised by expert Ed Bowkett, was to clean "to the point where bare metal was about to start to appear and then stop," Mr. Roberts says. This meticulous work took three solid months.

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There are only two other pre-1890 examples in Canada of buildings with the same façade as the Petrie building.

While Empire Restoration added a great deal of new metal – especially on weather-destroyed horizontal surfaces – lost elements had to be recreated. For instance, when one of the two spade-shaped roof finals was found crushed in the attic (these used to sit on either side of the big, curving pediment that cradles the mortar and pestle), it was shipped to W.F. Norman Corp. in Missouri for repair, since that company still uses vintage presses. They also created a new one. Rejecting the idea of tints, new metal was left shiny: "I think we're just going to let dirt do that over time," Mr. Roberts says. And, lastly, everything was given four coats of Everbrite.

Today, the metal-and-stone building that bears Petrie's name is a thing of beauty. Tyrcathlen's decision to keep it commercial brings life, energy and a hustle-bustle back to this downtown corner. The decision to preserve the smoky-dark façade with pits and pockmarks intact means this swirling story of pride, neglect and rebirth will continue to be told to Guelphites – and indeed the whole Dominion – for generations to come.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the building was on Heritage Canada’s top 10 most endangered places list. In fact, that list is a project of the National Trust for Canada, not Heritage Canada.
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