By Lisa Pasold, originally published July 6, 2009
The corner of Lansdowne and Davenport is calm these days. But it was once much noisier, a hard-working intersection of industry and train traffic that defined this Junction border zone. The two enormous brick warehouses still stretch along the west side of the street, topped with glass monitors that once illuminated the workspace inside. One is now abandoned, and broods mysteriously, its windows mostly shuttered. But the northern warehouse opened last year as a condo-loft development, and despite its shift in purpose, the massive building is worth visiting for its enduring industrial aesthetic.
These warehouses are part of the original 60-acre foundry site, which includes the derelict but impressive former powerhouse, and a well-maintained office building, along with a smoke stack that once competed as one of the tallest structures in Canada.
The history of these buildings starts in Old Toronto, at 206 Front Street East. From at least 1872, William Hamilton manufactured railway cars, cast iron pipes for water, and related metalwork at the St. Lawrence Foundry on Front Street East. In 1900, the company was sold and became the Canada Foundry Company Limited. In 1903, after changing owners yet again, the Foundry set up shop at a new, spacious location in the town of Toronto Junction, at 940-1100 Lansdowne.
The Canada Foundry manufactured steel and cast iron items: railway tracks, bridge parts, fences, staircases, and fire hydrants – if you happen to spot one of Toronto’s antique fire hydrants, odds are it was produced here. The Foundry also made more whimsical objects, such as over-the-top Edwardian decorative dragons designed by architect E.J. Lennox, now encased in glass in the lobby of Old City Hall. These “grotesque animals” (as the catalogue called them) disappeared after an ill-planned City Hall renovation, but in the 1990s they were found and returned to their former location. Old City Hall’s spiky dragons, along with its elaborate staircases and original elevator cage, are surviving reminders of the delicate workmanship that once issued from the massive Davenport and Lansdowne site.
The Canada Foundry was perfectly located among other factories along Royce Avenue (now called Dupont Street). The neighbourhood’s companies manufactured every part of the early 20th century’s mechanized dream, from railway tracks to engines, radiators, grinding wheels, and gears, all conveniently located near the trains themselves.
In 1923, the Foundry was sold to Canadian General Electric and began manufacturing electrical transformers. In a 1998 article for Taddle Creek, the Toronto Star journalist and editor Alfred Holden describes these behemoth transformers as “weighing up to two hundred and thirty tons, whose cores and coils could be hung like mere meat on hooks and jigs from the factory’s beams.” The transformers had to be shipped out on specially-equipped flatbed trains.
The transformers had a lingering impact on the elegant warehouses of the Foundry site: when the last functioning section was closed in 1981, the site became known for complex PCB contamination. Through the 90s, the warehouses were essentially abandoned, while GE struggled with legal issues in cleaning up the site. The company is rumoured to have spent $20 million on decontamination and toxin removal.
And yet, even during these uncertain years, the site attracted admirers; the turn-of-the-century industrial buildings became a favourite film location, the grandest of the abandoned factories that had once defined the neighbourhood. The Foundry’s century-old industrial architecture, even abandoned, kept its most spectacular aspects-the warehouse buildings’ distinctive gabled roofs and top monitors, with corbelled brick (the projecting brickwork that outlines the support base of the roof). Unfortunately, the southern warehouse lost some of its detailing in a renovation during GE’s tenancy.
By 1990, Toronto City Council was already considering the site as an industrial heritage site; by 2004, the former old office building and the powerhouse were designated. In 2008, the building at 1100 Lansdowne was classified under the Ontario Heritage Act.
These heritage designations came just in time, as Burka Varacalli Architects worked on preserving the warehouse building for the Foundry Loft conversion. Today, the southern buildings remain untouched, as planning and permissions continue to be worked out. But the upper warehouse has become a successful loft conversion.
New residents moved into the building this past fall, but the warehouse exterior suffered only minor changes. The original window shapes have been preserved and the roof monitor carefully restored. Inside, much of the huge open space of the original building has been maintained as a communal atrium, stretching through the whole central area. Hallways are hung along the edges, giving every loft a main entrance onto the shared 4-storey atrium, lit by the original skylight monitor. In the middle of the atrium, there’s a new square brick structure that houses a shared gym and meetings rooms. It looks as if a plain work building from the original site was picked up by tornado and dropped into the warehouse-a nicely-accomplished architectural wink to the original Foundry.
Other traces of the Canada Foundry survive outside. The south-end lofts look out at the still-standing smokestack, once claimed as the 2nd highest structure in Canada. Local residents and new loft owners were irate when one developer’s plan suggested tearing down the chimney. Now, the smokestack is staying, on the edge of the park currently in process, on the west side of the development. There’s a rumour that the southern warehouse, currently empty, will be dedicated to retail, which could have a positive impact on the area. But whatever the future holds, hopefully the heritage value of the former industrial site will guarantee the buildings’ survival as an integrated whole.