Presenting – Toronto’s Distillery District – A Unique Vision

As a European immigrant, historical districts always hold a great fascination to me. Over the last few years, Toronto has been enriched by the revitalization of an entire district: the Distillery District, a complex of 13 acres composed of 44 buildings, made a stunning transformation from outdated industrial relics to becoming one of Toronto’s hottest entertainment areas. I have visited the Distillery District several times over the last year, but I realized a more indepth introduction to this unique area was in order. After all, this complex is Toronto’s only pedestrian neighbourhood; it is the largest and best preserved collection of Victorian industrial heritage buildings in all of North America, a designated National Heritage site and winner of numerous awards. I knew that, as an architecture and history buff, I would be in my element and was looking forward to discovering this unique Toronto neighbourhood.

I requested a meeting with Mathew Rosenblatt who handles media relations for the Distillery District and was excited to find out that he is actually one of the co-owners of Cityscape who together with Dundee Realty are the developers of this unique heritage area. Mathew offered to give me a personal tour of the entire complex and I was extremely excited to learn about this unique project from one of the key people behind this vision.

We started at the foot of Trinity Street and Mathew explained that about 150 years ago the Lake Ontario shoreline was located right at the bottom of this street. The area to the south, which today includes the Gardiner Expressway, the Via Railway corridor and the new waterfront, was not filled in until much later. In 1832 the first windmill was built in this location when Toronto was home to only about 10,000 people. Mathew explained that these were vastly different times: local residents would leave dead animals on the ice over the winter, which would then contaminate the lake water when the ice melted. As a result, the demand for distilled spirits was born.

Originally the distillery was named “Worts and Gooderham”, after the two brothers-in-law that started this business. But after James Wart’s wife died in childbirth, her husband was so distressed he committed suicide, so William Gooderham continued the business by himself. As a result the name “Worts” was deleted from the company’s official name. James Wort’s ghost is still rumoured to haunt the complex and the Distillery Complex is an official haunted site in Toronto. His oldest son, one of 13 children, later joined William Gooderham in the distillery business, and his name was added back in, but this time after the name Gooderham.

In the middle of the 19th century the Gooderham and Worts Distillery was the largest distillery in the world and provided up to 50% of tax collected by the Canadian government. The oldest remaining building is the Stone Distillery Complex, a large, limestone building dating back to 1859. All the buildings still have names that allude to their original industrial function, for example the “Boiler House Complex”, “The Case Goods Warehouse”, “The Cooperage”, The Maltings”, “The Smoke House” etc., illustrating their original function in this industrial complex.

Gooderham & Worts manufactured whiskey and various hard liquors as well as industrial alcohols and antifreeze, used in both World Wars. During WWI it manufactured acetone used for hardening the fabric wings of by-planes. Gooderham & Worts was sold to Hiram Walker in the 1920s and then sold to Allied Domecq in the 1980s as part of a corporate takeover. In 1990 production shut down and this transformed the complex into the largest film production location in North America. Among countless other big screen productions, TV and music video productions, blockbuster movies such as “X-Men”, Chicago”, “Cinderella Man” and “The Recruit” have all been shot at the Distillery District. Hollywood stars such as Al Pacino, Meg Ryan, Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rene Zellweger and Colin Farrell and many more have been immortalized here.

In the narrow passageway between the Cooperage Building and the Stone Distillery Complex Mathew pointed out a sculpture called “Bronze Tree Root”, one of many traveling exhibits of artwork that find a temporary home at the Distillery District. Along the way Mathew pointed out “Sport”, a retail shop focused on the rich history and tradition of sports, often frequented by women who are looking for the perfect gift for their husbands. We also saw “AutoGrotto”, a retailer specializing in automobile and motorcycle memorabilia and collectibles. Our stroll continued to the Cooperage Building and we entered the “Sandra Ainsley Gallery”, a gallery representing the works of major contemporary Canadian, American and internationally recognized artists working in glass and mixed media. The backdrop of exposed industrial brick, wooden beams and strategically placed lighting provides a perfect setting for hundreds of unique sculptures and art pieces that range in price from several thousand to about a million dollars. The beauty and innovative design of these items is striking and discerning art collectors from all over the world visit Toronto’s Distillery District because of its 14 galleries and its dozens of artists studios.

Among other tenants, the Maltings Building houses an unconventional clothing retailer called “Lileo”, featuring some of the most original names in denim, apparel for men, women and children, as well as footwear, accessories, books and much more. We turned eastwards and strolled up Tank House Lane. Mathew introduced me to the “Boiler House”, one of Toronto’s finest restaurants. With several restaurants, cafes and bakeries, the Distillery District offers a broad range of fine dining, casual fare and very affordable bakery food. Diverse culinary pleasures are available at every price point. Just down the street is “Archeo’, a restaurant featuring Italian cuisine where no dish costs more than C$14. Mathew and his partners made a commitment to ensuring that affordable dining options would be available to all visitors. In addition to exceptional, reasonably priced Italian cuisine, Archeo offers unique design features: oversize archival photos of the distillery are used as partitions between the tables, acting as unusual aesthetic and innovative room dividers.

During our stroll up Tank House Lane, Mathew informed me that the cobble-stoned streets of the Distillery District are real brick pavers from the 1850s that used to be located in Cleveland. When Cityscape bought this complex, there were only dirt roads that had to be dug up to install modern gas, sewer and electrical lines. When it came to repaving the developers were looking for historically authentic material and found it when the City of Cleveland was selling off its unused stock of brick pavers. The developers wanted to use authentic historic paving material which had to come from another northern city in order to provide sufficient durability. So they went all the way to Cleveland to secure this batch of historic brick pavers.

To give me a real taste of the Distillery District, Mathew took me into “Soma”, manufacturers of some of the best chocolate, handmade truffles, praline, cookies and fresh churned gelato in Toronto. Soma’s craftsmanship and dedication to quality has made them winners of the “Toronto Choice Awards” for best chocolate. Mathew invited me to taste a “Mayan Chocolate Shot”, which was an espresso-size cup full of the most aromatic medium-brown liquid chocolate I have ever tasted. The intriguing taste is derived from a blend of authentic Mayan chocolate, spiced with Australian ginger, Madagascar Vanilla, orange peel, chili and Soma’s unique blend of spices.

Further down Tank House Lane is the “Young Centre for the Performing Arts”, a 50,000 square foot state of the art, brand new performing arts facility and the result of a unique partnership between George Brown College and the Soulpepper Theatre Company. Performing arts are big in the Distillery District: it just hosted a Dance Festival and also is the venue for an annual Opera Ballet Festival. The district’s three indoor and one outdoor theatres delight performing arts aficionados with their diverse offerings.

We turned onto Brewery Lane and walked through the “Pure Spirits Oyster House and Grill”, one of Toronto’s most popular fresh fish and seafood restaurants. The Barrel Shipping Room is a magnificent setting for dining or after work drinks and even in the middle of the afternoon this restaurant was very busy. The 100-seat outdoor patio was positively packed with people enjoying the sunny afternoon.

Mathew pointed out that each business inside the Distillery District has one or two artifacts from the original distillery operations, and the “Pure Spirits Oyster House and Grill” features an original wooden armoire and a wooden hatch from the pre-restoration era. In a hallway behind the restaurant I saw a colourful ornate safe that Mathew informed me was once owned by William Gooderham himself, who incidentally also founded the Bank of Toronto which later became the Toronto Dominion Bank. Throughout the entire district, the integration of historical elements and the modern adaptation of the original architecture is a phenomenal example of architectural revitalization. I enjoyed the historical setting without ever feeling like I was in a museum.

Right opposite this restaurant is the home of the “Mill Street Brewery”, Toronto’s most award-winning micro-brewery, which is just adding a brew pub to its facility. Walking further south the laneway opens up into large square that is used for various outdoor performances throughout the year. Then heading back west we walked down Case Goods Lane which on the right hand side features “Grand Piano Pastries”, a cafĂ© with exposed brick walls and an Old World atmosphere. Next door is “Pikto”, a gallery featuring internationally renowned and emerging photographers that holds monthly photo contests.

On the south side of Case Good Lane the “Case Goods Warehouse”, which houses “Artscape”, a collective of artists and artists’ studios, many of whom provide live demonstrations of their crafts, from hat making to ceramics to clothes design. Many of the working studios in the district are open to the public and Mathew explained that many of these artists demonstrate their crafts and actual processes to interested onlookers.

As we were completing our loop Mathew showed me the original millstone, imported originally from England in 1832, which was part of the first mill in the district. We walked by the sales office for the Pure Spirits Condominiums which are going up just west of the historic Distillery District. Mathew indicated that this project is helping offset the costs of redeveloping this historic district and the majority of the condos were sold out within a week, simply because of the desirability of their location, right next to door to one of Toronto’s most vibrant and diverse entertainment districts.

Talking about real estate and architecture, I was particularly interested in the rehabilitation process that turned 44 run-down, outdated industrial buildings into one of the hippest entertainment districts in all of North America. Mathew said that the revitalization project was difficult and very costly, but in just about 18 months they turned 13 acres of obsolete unused industrial carcasses and more than 40 buildings into a visionary project that has become the trendsetter for industrial rehabilitation all throughout North America.

Mathew explained that the more than 100 tenants at the Distillery represent every field of arts, culture and entertainment, including the various restaurants and eateries, galleries, retailers, performance theatres and even educational institutions which include a day care centre, the Distillery Early Learning Centre, George Brown College and the Voice Intermediate School. What motivated him and his partners to even to consider this project were his visits to other international destinations where he wanted to explore the city not as a tourist, but to experience it as the locals do. And when you go to the Distillery District you will not see any touristy shops or souvenir or t-shirt vendors. Instead you will find top notch arts, culture and entertainment at every price point, and you can enjoy a whole day in this venue, even on a shoestring budget.

Cityscape selected their tenants very carefully. They did not want chain stores and franchises in their complex and decided to forego some often lucrative leasing offers. Instead they deliberately set out to attract high quality tenants with unique products or service offerings and a real passion for their craft. Mathew added that they wanted to combine big city sophistication with small town charm and likens the end product to the SOHO of the 1960s. He and his partners wanted this place to be a melting pot of disciplines and an incubator of new ideas.

According to Mathew, key to the success of this project was the fact that Cityscape and Dundee Realty are able to retain control of this project and carry out a consistent vision from start to finish. What distinguishes this project from other neighborhoods is the conscious choice of tenants that reflect the developers’ dreams of creating a one-of-a-kind centre of culture, arts and entertainment in a unique historic setting. The Distillery District has definitely succeeded and become the trailblazer for industrial revitalization projects all through North America.

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