These are revolutionary times for industrial heritage in Toronto and other cities across Canada.
Victorian masterpieces, plainer early 20th-century buildings and former factories are being adapted for use by artists, technological entrepreneurs and pioneers of new ways of working that did not exist when they were built.
But that’s the way with heritage: built for new ideas in the past, ready for new ideas in the present – and the future.
In 1961 Jane Jacobs published The Death And Life Of Great American Cities, which includes what might be her most famous lines: “For really new ideas of any kind… there is no leeway for chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”
The “new ideas” she listed seem quaint today: neighbourhood bars, foreign restaurants, pawn shops, studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies.
But Jacobs was on to something.
If she were writing Death And Life today, her list might include technologies and new ways of working that are transforming Toronto’s former factories into centres of “post-industrial industry” – places like 401 Richmond.
In 1899, Scottish immigrant David Macdonald moved his metal lithography business into a new building at Richmond and Spadina. Macdonald Manufacturing churned out colourfully branded tins for cookies, food and household products until 1944, when Continental Can took over the company.
In 1994, Margie Zeidler bought the building for $1.5 million. Her aim: “to retain 401 Richmond’s atmosphere – and low rents – and grow its interesting mix of tenants to create a synergy to expand on.” It’s a formula that works.
Today 401 Richmond is packed with galleries, co-ops, creative businesses and non-profits. Its 150 tenants include Open Studio printmaking centre, CARFAC (a national union for artists), the Myseum pop-up museum project (that “connects our recollections of the past with our visions of the future through the ideas, art and artifacts we share”), Gallery 44 centre for contemporary photography, Esmeralda Enrique’s Spanish Dance Company and a daycare that opens onto the building’s courtyard garden.
In the basement, alongside a Dark Horse café, there’s the Station Coworking Space for Creative Freelancers, Swipe Design’s objects and books about urbanism and architecture and Spacing’s shop of Toronto-centric items and magazine covering planning, transit, sustainability, pollution, public art and other “joys, obstacles and politics of Canada’s big cities”.
For 401 tenant Heather Dubbeldam, one of Canada’s most eminent architects (she’s a winner of the 2016 Prix de Rome), “it’s an inspiring place to work… filled with creative energy, [and] a testament to the vision of Margie Zeidler.”
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