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the architourist

Rack House D in Toronto's distillery District, which opened in the 1890s will be transformed into a new hotel, a Curio by Hilton to be exact.Easton's Group

There is electricity, but it’s still scary-dark in here. In part it’s because the dozens of green-painted, metal shutters are preventing life-giving sunlight from penetrating, but there is also the matter of that deep chasm – or would it be better described as a yawning void? – that occupies most of the interior of this red-brick beast.

A void so dark, one begins to think about the darkness in one’s own heart? Maybe not today, but had a person stood on these wide, well-worn planks 35 years ago and sampled the wares contained within the building, well, perhaps they would have.

And that’s the thing: the yawning, six-storey “void’ contained within Rack House D in Toronto’s Distillery District is only a void if you’re a human. For a Gooderham & Worts barrel of whiskey, the complex, bolted-together latticework of thick Douglas fir beams would’ve been quite cozy and hospitable. And, from the day it opened in the 1890s until it closed in 1990, the David Roberts Jr.-designed warehouse – Mr. Roberts also designed Toronto’s famous “Flatiron” building for the Gooderhams – was a creaking, groaning, hive of activity that involved winches and pulleys, barrels so heavy they left permanent scars in the masonry, and a complex racking system only a mathematician could love.

“They would manage them here for however long, if it’s two or five years,” says Andrew Pruss, a principal at ERA Architects, of the barrels. “And they’d have to rotate them every so often, and the guys would move everything around by hand – they’d lift them into the racks [and] they would walk along these walkways between.

“It’s kind of like a management system, but manual-labour based.”

  • Rack House D in Toronto’s Distillery District will become the area's first hotel once the work is complete over the next three years.Easton's Group

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Mr. Pruss has been doing heritage work in the Distillery for so long that he walks confidently in the semi-darkness, a path lit only by the thin, blue light from his smartphone. However, Steve Gupta, chairman of Easton’s Group of Hotels, Mario Angelucci, Easton’s executive director of development and planning, and architect Mansoor Kazerouni (global director of buildings at IBI Group) are walking with the same caution one might use on a frozen lake. That goes for this writer, and his pal, filmmaker Robert Fantinatto, who is here to take photographs: it’s the penguin-walk for us as well.

It’s certainly cold enough for a penguin in here.

Over the next three years, however, Mr. Gupta and his team are going to transform Rack House D into one of the hottest hotels in the city, a Curio by Hilton to be exact. And one of the prime reasons it’ll become such a hotspot is that the entirety of the heritage portion will be accessible to the public. No private guestrooms here: just a grand lobby space, a little bit of back-of-house, and bookable meeting rooms.

“We thought it would be great to create these tall volumes … and get a better sense of how these walls were constructed and the fenestration pattern,” Mr. Kazerouni says. “You can come sit in the lobby, you can come to the restaurant, have a coffee, have a meal, go up to the rooftop bar [on the] 31st floor – a very unique vantage point of the Distillery that doesn’t exist today.”

And, save for a few condo tower Airbnb suites, it should be noted that during the Distillery District’s almost two decades of existence – and despite the throngs of tourists it attracts – there has never been a hotel here. There have been rumours of boutique chains and a few failed attempts, sure, but nothing concrete – pardon the pun – until now. And that’s because of the complexity of keeping Rack House D standing, in situ, as the racking system (which supports some of the building’s weight) is removed and meticulously catalogued, and then, after a tower is placed on top and five levels dug underneath, taking the time and money to return portions of the rack to assemble it, artfully, will not be easy. It will, however, engage and delight patrons.

“The amount of investment that is needed to repurpose this building is huge,” confirms Mr. Angelucci (Mr. Gupta will later tell this writer it’ll be almost a quarter of a billion dollars). “It’s a massive amount of work, and we want to do it right.”

Renderings bear this out.

While long, glazed openings will be incorporated into the mostly blank south façade, the middle bay will retain its six large shipping doors (and their shutters), and the first and ninth bays will be left untouched. On the east and west façades, the rhythmic and symmetrical arrangement of 108 windows (per façade) will be retained, with some shutters left open and others closed. The angles created by these shutters-and-shadows, along with those of the flared brick courses at the bottom and top, have informed Mr. Kazerouni’s design for the new building.

“The details on [the new] window bays actually borrow from this building … by sloping the base of the vertical piers that make up those large windows,” he says. “In some bays it’s on one side, and other bays it’s on the other side, so that playfulness that these [existing] shutters represent, it’s carried up, but it’s trying to mimic it, it’s about trying to find a language or vocabulary this is synergistic with the existing building.”

To further allow Rack House D to exert its dominance – and proudly show off its gently sloping roof – the first two storeys of the new hotel will be set back considerably and fully clad in glass. And because the Curio Collection allows for non-standard decor, artifacts found in the building will used liberally.

As one of the last buildings in the district left to repurpose (across the street, the General Distilling Company Building, also by David Roberts Jr., awaits new life), kid gloves, a tender heart, and a motivation other than huge profit will be required.

“For us it’s a sense of accomplishment,” Mr. Gupta says. “It’s not just [about] making money; I also want my second and third generation to look at this hotel and say ‘My dad, my grandfather, built this.’”

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