It’s taken five years but a bold plan to dismantle a heritage building brick by brick and rebuild it as the centerpiece of a commercial and condominium complex is completed.
Starting in 2015, 100,000 bricks and other pieces of masonry, which formed the Loblaw Groceterias Company Building at Lake Shore Boulevard West and Bathurst Street were carefully taken down, cleaned and stored.
Then, they were rebuilt to form a Loblaws superstore integrated into the commercial development. It was no easy trip and stands as the biggest undertaking of its kind in Canada.
Today the West Block is a waterfront condo complex of a pair of towers, 37 and 41 storeys. They’ll have a combined 876 units on the 3.5-acre site sitting on top of a Loblaws supermarket, whose facade is the faithful reconstruction of the building where it all started: the 1927 former headquarters and warehouse of the supermarket chain created by Theodore Pringle Loblaw in the 1920s.
At the time it was a Toronto wonder, with its own electric tram, huge baking ovens and drums for blending tea and 22,000 feet of refrigeration piping. Employees had a private bowling alley and an auditorium where they could put on entertainment.
Nearly 100 years later the exterior looks the same but everything inside has changed.
Plans were first submitted in 2004 but because it was a heritage structure it took 11 years to get a shovel in the ground.
Tony Grossi, president of Wittington Properties, under Choice Properties REIT, the real estate arm of the George Weston conglomerate which owns Loblaws, says ultimately the structure had to be preserved for two reasons, first a demand from the city but also perhaps more importantly because it’s an important part of the brand.
As he notes, the best intentions and most meticulous of planning don’t always result in the easiest path.
“It’s like an old suit, you take it off, put it in the cupboard and then 50 years later your tailor tries to fit it to you, it’s maybe going to be a little tight,” he says. “In putting the old material back, it had to go on a wall and there’s ton of extra metal to hold up the components because we needed two storeys of open space for the store that that’s there.”
Still, he says, the result is all that matters now: “It’s very handsome and we’re happy with the result.”
Paul Goldsmith of Historic Restoration got the call for the masonry and says when it came to putting the pieces back, the real challenges started.
“It’s like a jigsaw, you’d normally start in a corner and work your way across,” he says. “But in this case we’d have to work where they were ready for us,” he says. “So we were putting pieces back all over the place.”
Tolerances were extremely tight, he adds, and shaving bricks wasn’t the optimal choice so there was a lot of fiddling and fussing to get it right.
Essentially, he says, you’re fitting one form onto another and a shift in dimensions of a few millimeters can cause havoc in trying to get the brick and stones back into their rightful places and to be true to the heritage and the over esthetic result.
Looking back, Grossi says, it was a bold step but there wasn’t a lot of leeway.
“It’s iconic to the brand and location,” he says. “And to see it come out the ground without the patina, the grime, it’s now historic but not neglected.”
Budgeting was always going to be tricky because there was no way to really predict how long it would take to resolve the giant jigsaw puzzle to everyone’s satisfaction and to incorporate the creative skills needed as much as the stone mason’s skills, making it a unique project.
”Paul (and crew) was the first to come on site and the last to leave,” says Grossi. “It really is a bespoke structure.”
While 100,000 bricks and stone pieces is a mammoth sized job, there is one feature of the project, Goldsmith fondly remembers as feeding his creative needs.
“Personally, it was restoring the bronze frame of the door and polishing the front faces of the stone around it,” he says. “That took a lot of work and it really pops out now.”
Would he do it again?
“Of course,” he laughs. “But I’d charge a lot more money next time.”