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Former Dominion Wheel and Foundries buildings at 153 Eastern Ave., Toronto.

Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Two of the Toronto Daily Star notices were two columns wide, and the third was three columns wide. Each began with “In Memory Of” and each announced the closing, on Wednesday, November 10, 1948, of the offices, plants, and branch plants of the National Iron Corp., the Railway and Power Engineering Corp., and Dominion Wheel and Foundries Ltd., in memory of their president, Mr. Joseph A. Kilpatrick.

Mr. Kilpatrick’s obituary, which was printed in newspapers across Canada the next day – including The Globe and Mail – trumpeted the achievements of “one of Canada’s outstanding industrialists,” and outlined his “small beginnings” as an apprentice mould maker to that of creator of “a network of foundries and manufacturing plants across the Dominion.” Born in Rothsay, Ont. in 1868, by the end of his life, North America’s “oldest active foundryman” would serve as president or board chair to companies in Albany, N.Y., Vancouver, and Montreal, as well as Toronto.

It seems Mr. Kilpatrick was very highly regarded. Too bad his remaining buildings in Toronto haven’t enjoyed a similar respect.

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Last month, by provincial government order, bulldozers began ripping into the walls of the foundry building of Dominion Wheel and Foundries after a somewhat vague announcement about the need to build affordable housing on the expansive site, which is now hemmed in by a new neighbourhood of condominiums (some built as residences for the 2015 Pan American Games). One of four remaining buildings of a much larger complex once engaged in building railway equipment, rolling stock, and machinery, when the 1951 building at 153 Eastern Ave. was breached, alarm bells rang throughout the heritage community. And, after multiple protests, petitions, and harsh words by Toronto councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, the province, finally, pushed the pause button.

The four buildings are listed in Toronto’s Heritage Inventory and are provincially owned. While the province is charged with protecting heritage structures, it has used an MZO (Ministerial Zoning Order) to abrogate its own responsibility. Insult was added to injury when crews removed Heritage Toronto’s 2012 plaque, though on February 12 a spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said that “some elements” of the site might be preserved.

On a recent and bitterly cold morning, Heritage Toronto’s Chris Bateman joined me for a walkabout of the site. And while we tried to keep our political axes (and grinding wheels) holstered, we couldn’t help but wonder why all parties can’t be satisfied.

“Everywhere you look there’s an example of what you could do with buildings like this,” said Mr. Bateman, 34, his English accent still prominent after 11 years in Canada. “Ways that heritage can be kept not just because of some legal requirement, but can be the draw, like [Artscape] Wychwood [Barns], the Distillery …”

Walking east, our conversation trailed off as we passed the Dominion office building at No. 171 (built 1930). Not only are lovely red-and-white checkerboard tiles visible between the pilasters that frame the front door, we noted that the empty space beside the building seemed more than large enough to build upon (as is the massive space at Rolling Mills Rd. and Palace St.). As we walked south to admire the tucked away machine shop at No. 185, we speculated that, perhaps, not everyone has come to understand that different cities have different forms of heritage.

“For places like London and Paris it’s a different story in terms of how the city was built out,” said Mr. Bateman. “This is Toronto’s heritage – it’s places of work, like factories and foundries.” Which means the Distillery District is our Old Montreal, since we Torontonians were stiff-upper-lip Victorians with noses to the grindstone; we didn’t do ‘fun’ in Toronto until, perhaps, the 1960s.

This means, writes Bartosz Walczak, we need to “reassess history in a such a way that the past [is] seen not only in terms of the Antique … but also in the context of individual national cultures.” While Mr. Walczak was writing his 2005 paper, “The Importance of Industrial Heritage for Cultural Landscape of Lodz and Its Local Indentity” on the textile mills of Lodz, Poland, his words resonate here also.

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While the concept of “industrial heritage” has been around since 1959 (when the Brits held the world’s first Committee for Industrial Archaeology), many cities still need to move past the idea that mills and factories are too utilitarian to preserve, he continues, since they “may constitute an important stage of development in a particular nation or region, and as such can be of historic importance.

“Textile mills are, moreover, of great social significance as places where numbers of people worked. The mills were a part of the economic basis for the development of folk culture and the growth of communities in general.”

Mr. Bateman, though shivering, agreed: “You see the aerial photos of this area and it’s all factories, tanneries, railway sidings, like a huge industrial area … it’s a real piece of neighbourhood heritage.”

If only, I suggest, we could go back in time and pay a visit to the storied Canary Restaurant, just a stone’s throw away, to ask a few old-timers about what a huffing, puffing, hive of activity this area once was, and what it meant to the “folk culture” of the neighbourhood, we might convince those in power to save more than a few token pieces.

“You could easily have a couple of extra buildings on this site, filling in some of the gaps, and retain these heritage buildings … I think that’s a conversation that hasn’t happened at all, and people are understandably upset,” finishes Mr. Bateman.

“Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”

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