Sure, if you build it, they will come.
But what if you restore it?
What if you assemble investors, spend their money, spend far too long cleaning up and adapting an old-yet-grand hulk of a Hamilton building in an up and coming neighbourhood to create Class A office space where, perhaps, folks aren’t yet looking to rent?
If you’re developer Meir Dick, you trust your gut: “It’s a challenging project,” he admits of the old Westinghouse office building at 286 Sanford Ave. N. in the city’s Barton Village neighbourhood. “It’s not the typical project a developer wants, there’re a lot simpler ways of making money out there, but for the people that can see what this building was representative of, and the opportunity here to recreate something that’s special and recognizes what’s here that’s already special, that’s an opportunity that I couldn’t give up.”
Thankfully, he’s not alone. The architectural firm responsible for bringing the 80,000 sq. ft., 1917 Classical Revival building back to life, McCallumSather, was so taken with the place, they moved into the second floor in January. The second floor is where massive, riveted, bridge-like trusses take the weight of the five storeys above so that a grand, column-free auditorium can exist on the first floor.
Yes, an auditorium. That’s how important Westinghouse was to the social life of this city 50, 70, 100 years ago. Second only to Stelco, at its peak in 1955, the manufacturing giant employed 11,000 Hamiltonians. The first plant outside of the United States, Westinghouse arrived in 1897, and, when it came time to build an office tower to oversee operations, Pittsburgh-born Bernard Prack was called. Mr. Prack, with Cleveland’s Ren Perrine, had created Prack & Perrine in 1911, had opened a Hamilton office that same year and, through their use of newly developed reinforced-concrete techniques, had received commissions for foundries and factories all over Southern Ontario.
Of course, the bigwig executives at Westinghouse needed more than reinforced concrete. Long before a fancy website was a firm’s calling card, it was actual, physical things that impressed visitors, clients and suppliers, so the building was outfitted with marble tile floors, intricate plasterwork on columns and ceilings, fancy light fixtures and deeply veined oak trim around windows. Indeed, archival photos of the building in its heyday could be mistaken for that of a swanky hotel in Manhattan.
When Mr. Dick received the keys a few years ago, however, he wasn’t sure any of these hotel-like features still existed; boarded up since the 1980s, what he saw was “100 dumpsters” of junk to remove, surfaces covered with cheap ceramic tile, 1960s drop-ceilings and drywall partitions creating rooms in the former auditorium. Even some of the building’s many windows had been drywalled over.
“So we had a bet,” Mr. Dick says as he leads the way to the auditorium, “fingers crossed, right, when we lift those tiles, what are we going to find?”
That expensive, mosaic marble tile in white, oxblood, purple and grey. That exquisite Greek key pattern. And terrazzo, that’s what.
“Sometimes you get very, very lucky,” Mr. Dick continues, “and for the most part, we’ve only found things that surprised us and were really fascinating to us.” In the auditorium, the flattened columns between windows are still there; the amazing plaster ceiling, mostly there; the odd, greenish-coloured acoustic tiles still make up one wall; and the extent of the damage to the oak trim is, surprisingly, only a few nail-holes. The heavy wood windows actually tilt open, 21st-century style, to allow for incredible cross-breezes. “It’s amazing, I know,” he says.
And rather than maximize profit by breaking up this floor for tenant occupancy, the plan is to keep it as a community space with varied programming via an events venue and community outreach, like a picnic-basket program that gives away meals to new Canadians for free. It’s an idea he got from his new neighbour, the not-for-profit 541 Eatery & Exchange (which uses a pay-it-forward “button system” whereby patrons can purchase buttons to be exchanged for free meals by the less fortunate) at the corner of Westinghouse Ave. and Barton St. E. “Because we’re facing [Woodlands Park], there’s a huge opportunity to bring vibrancy back and be stewards of the park,” he offers.
It’s quite the departure from when “all of these business leaders grew Hamilton” from their marble- and wood-clad offices, says McCallumSather’s Laura Sears. “Taking this heritage asset, and completely adapting it to how people have evolved in how they see workspaces, how they see open workspaces, how they collaborate and learn; it’s very cool to see that change between the two [eras].”
Indeed, Ms. Sears enjoys standing in the former president’s office – now the firm’s design library and lunchroom – to watch sunset draw long shadows across the park. In this second-floor room, as in others, Ms. Sears revels in how, through this restoration, the ornate has been forced to rub shoulders with the utilitarian. In many places, the marble floor peters out to become rough concrete; missing sections of carved plaster are represented by their ghostly impressions rather than replacements; time-saving, ugly-beautiful structural clay tile (a.k.a. “speed tile”) has been revealed in corridor ceilings as a framing device.
“Every time I come through the building, I see something new that I didn’t notice or pay attention to,” Mr. Dick says. “There’s just so much detail buried under detail.”
But will that detail attract tenants? There are still entire floors to fill. Who will occupy the empty top floor, with its glorious peaked skylight, where Westinghouse draughtsmen once sketched out products of the future? Will the footfalls of hundreds echo on those gorgeous slate stair treads? Will a neighbourhood that so desperately needs life be reanimated?
Yes. A thousand times yes. Mr. Dick says, “For companies, especially, that look at this building and say, ‘This represents our brand, this represents us being our best.’ For those types of companies, you can’t find buildings like this.”
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