It’s when we get to the lockers that it hits me: People worked here. Some worked the night shift and greeted the sunrise as they went home. Some loved their job, some didn’t. Some worked here when it was the Inter City Baking Co.; perhaps they remembered, as children, when it was Browns’ Bread Ltd., which built the first portion of this complex in 1919. Some greeted the prairie transports and connected the hoses that drained them of flour, others toiled under fluorescent lighting in little offices.
In June, 2014, that all stopped when the Weston Bakery on Toronto’s Eastern Avenue was shuttered.
Today, things are much as employees left them. Many of those multicoloured lockers have faded name tags on them; many have little boot trays made from scraps of wood; some sport “Sunshine Girl” clippings, others religious figures.
In the millwright’s workshop nearby, a few tools lay scattered about, and a penciled-in schedule is pinned to the wall. In offices, yellowed purchase orders sit on desks. On some of the production floors – and there are many – the massive machinery required to bake bread for half the nation awaits removal.
“This is my baby,” tour guide Neil Pattison says . “I’ve been involved since Day 1; the grease and the yeast were the two predominant smells when I first walked into the factory.”
“Day 1” for Mr. Pattison, vice-president, development project management at Graywood Developments, took place in June, 2016, when Graywood was handed the keys and started dreaming of what the next 100 years would look like for the massive, cobbled together complex, which includes portions built as late as 1979 (much of it designed by the leading authority on industrial bakeries, architect Sydney Comber [1887-1961]). When all is said and done, Graywood and their architects, Diamond Schmitt, will have provided hundreds of new homes in the form of lofts and townhouses while retaining a significant portion of the old bakery.
But I’m not here to talk condominium units. I’m here for one last peek at this neighbourhood landmark before the block-long industrial oven and acres of cooling racks are replaced by Wolf stoves and acres of granite countertop. And I’ve brought along documentary filmmaker Robert Fantinatto, who adores these old spaces (he released Echoes of Forgotten Places in 2005, plus he and I collaborated on Where Cool Came From in 2014-15, some of which is still available online) to handle photography.
And although he’s nattily attired, Mr. Pattison isn’t your ordinary suit: He loves this place as much as we do. A Leslieville resident since 2001, he’d driven by regularly while the bakery was still operational: “I remember seeing people hanging out [on the street], smoking, wearing the white coats, with the hairnets,” he says. “It’s this big, imposing building, and you’ve got no idea what’s going on inside, but it’s actually quite fascinating.”
He is a fount of fascinating information. He points out everything from the cumbersome architectural transitions between additions, to holes in walls where enormous equipment came in. “Every aspect of the building has been changed and repurposed at some point,” he says – the hodgepodge nature a result of the competitiveness of the baking industry and how quickly technology changed. He tells us that the building’s steel and concrete frame has a “live load capacity of 200 pounds a square foot, as opposed to a modern condominium which has 50,” and then he changes gears and waxes poetic on Lewis Brown and the little Georgian home on Booth Avenue that started it all in 1887.
While Graywood cleared away all of the machinery on the first floor to rent space to Downtown Automotive Group in the interim period before construction begins, the second, third and fourth floors still look like a Wonder Bread wonderland, and Mr. Pattison knows a fair bit about that process, too: “That’s a $3-million commercial bread oven,” he says, pointing to something that looks like a long, low-roofed subway train complete with Buck Rogers portholes.
“There’s a story and a process of how it all comes to be,” he continues, as Mr. Fantinatto snaps away. “These are all the mixing vats, and if you see these white pipes here, this is how the raw materials got around the factory, so when we go to the top floor, you’ll see the bulk flour vats and liquid sugar vats.
“So the trucks used to park on Eastern, and [raw materials] used to get vacuum-pumped to the top floor.”
Much of the equipment is, of course, metal (for heat), much of it, such as the many conveyor systems, are driven by chains – “The noise would have been deafening” – and much of it defies description. For instance, on the fourth floor, we encounter rooms so large, with equipment so heavy and belt-and-pulley systems so complex, it’s hard to believe everything can be removed so that people can live here one day. “We’re probably going to take the roof off and just lift these things out,” Mr. Pattison says with a laugh.
In contrast, we enter impossibly tight rooms filled with enormous hoppers that would’ve needed little maintenance; here, ducking and contorting ourselves, we agree that, for one clipboard-toting worker, it would’ve been tolerable for short periods of time.
Once we’re in more spacious surroundings, I ask Mr. Pattison about the agreed-upon conservation plan between Graywood and Toronto’s Heritage Preservation Services. Luckily, it goes far beyond façadism, as most of the four-storey building – complete with mushroom columns and steel beam ceilings – will be retained. Only the five-bay, two-storey portion that meets Logan Avenue will be façaded. New, taller portions will be tucked well back of the original roofline, and most of the window- and loading door-openings will stay in their original places. Window lengthening will be done only where necessary, and, even then, partial sills will be retained to “show how the building has evolved.”
“They didn’t want us to sanitize the building,” he says of the city’s heritage department. “They wanted us to keep the history alive.”
And very soon, a new history will be alive with people and pets…and storage lockers filled with bicycles, beach chairs, and Christmas trees.
A rare opportunity to see Weston Bakery will take place during the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival. On the weekends of May 12-13 and May 19-20, photographer Laird Kay will show photographs of the factory inside the factory itself. More information at scotiabankcontactphoto.com.