Although 99 per cent of guests will never see it, there's a wonderful "tell" in the catering kitchen of Toronto's newest event space, the Symes, at 150 Symes Rd. in Toronto's ascending, former meat-packing district near St. Clair Avenue West and Weston Road.
There, partly obscured by gleaming stainless-steel sinks and snaking PVC pipes, stenciled directly onto the buff brick wall is: "NO FIREARMS BEYOND THIS POINT."
The Symes, you see, had an industrial – and somewhat dangerous – past. Opened in 1934, the handsome, striped, porthole-windowed building was once known as the Symes Road Destructor. Until it became simply a waste-transfer station in 1977, it destroyed garbage via intense heat. Of course, dangerous flames aside, this still raises the question: Were there so many garbage thieves in the 1930s and 40s that city workers were required to arm themselves?
"I have no clue," chirps Viviana Kohon, her excitement palpable. "We left it for the chefs because we thought they would get a kick out of it."
Chefs, and guests alike, will also get a kick out of the fact Ms. Kohon and her partners, Namita Tandon-Walsh and Caitie Yue, have allowed the grand, old art-deco dame to show off even more of her rough charm. The massive steel beams that hold up the roof are mottled with age; the thick, concrete columns are chipped away near their bases; in hallways and bridal ready-rooms alike, there are walls of intermittent metal strapping and pockmarked plaster.
"We're all about restoration and respecting the bones of the building," says Ms. Kohon, who once produced television shows until she began Blast Events, which organized everything from Dîner en Blanc in Niagara to hosting Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. "We tried to keep as much original as we could."
Indeed, when the partners first saw the building, it had been in private hands for only a few years, so it was largely intact. Surrounded by weeds and covered in graffiti, the city had declared it surplus in 2009 and had listed it for sale after that. However, shuttered in 1996 and used for storage and, intermittently, for TV and movie shoots, most Junction residents had given up hope that they'd ever see the building put to daily use again. In early 2011, light at the end of the tunnel appeared in the form of local resident Arthur Rozumek, then a University of Toronto history student, who sent a nomination to the city's heritage preservation services office to have the building designated. Shortly after that, Councillor Francis Nunziata put a motion forth to have the office study the nomination immediately.
A City of Toronto report from May, 2013, described the building as a "well-crafted excellent representative example of a public works building" due to its "pyramidal massing, [brick] banding and linear decoration." Designed by City of Toronto chief architect John James Woolnough, assistant and successor Kenneth S. Gillies and "brilliant young staff architect" Stanley J.T. Fryer – also responsible for the Horse Palace at Exhibition Place, the police station at Yonge and Montgomery (now the Anne Johnston Health Station), and the Waterworks Building at Richmond Street West, between Brant and Maud Streets – the building was designated in July, 2013.
While early reports suggested Junction Craft Brewery was going to occupy the entire space, by March, 2016, Ms. Kohon and her partners were invited to see a large portion of the old Destructor after rejecting a space on Sterling Road (now occupied by the Drake Commissary).
"We fell in love with this building the first time we saw it," she says, adding that they signed a 10-year lease.
After the owner did the "base building," Ms. Kohon jokes that her new company, the Symes, then spent "a gazillion dollars" creating a purpose-built events space that nestles comfortably between the opulence of the Carlu and the rawness of Evergreen's Brick Works. "It's not that we do other things and we do events on the side," she offers. "We're not doing [farmers markets], we're not an art gallery … we consulted with the caterers, we consulted with the planners; we put the second elevator in because our furniture rental guy said 'you need a cargo elevator.'"
And while the brewery has set up on half of the main floor, the Symes has also secured the second-floor space with the distinctive porthole windows: Billed the Scarlett Room, it boasts a 280-guest capacity and, it's hoped, a full rooftop patio that will hold 250 (they're still working with the city's heritage preservation services office to see if that's possible). On the main floor, Grand Symes offers 5600 square feet of floor space that can accommodate 350 people underneath those glorious, mottled steel beams.
To offer relief from the many raw surfaces, the team instructed interior designer Barbara Nelson to treat the washrooms as islands of luxury. With a side of cheekiness: In the men's rooms, Ms. Nelson hired a graffiti artist to pay tribute to how the building was "decorated" while abandoned.
Something else likely to get the graffiti treatment, Ms. Kohon says, is the massive weight scale that was uninstalled during renovations: It will be painted and then placed in the foyer as an objet d'art. Between the main entrance (at rear) and the generous parking lot, the Symes has created another objet: the old, interior crane operator's cab – a feature Woolnough and his team had seen in action in Buffalo and New York in the early 1930s and adopted here – has been restored and placed outside, and Heritage Toronto will be supplying an interpretive plaque.
It's a happy ending for a building that could easily have been lost. And, hopefully, it will host many happy beginnings for decades to come.
"The good thing about a place like this is you can dress it up as much as you want," Ms. Kohon says, "or you can just put some candles and be done."