How to decide whether an old building is worth saving
Last week, after I heard that the Groundwood Pulp Mill was being demolished by its owners, Montreal-based paper conglomerate Domtar, I went up to the Booth Street bridge for a look. I wrote a weekend column about how the building came to be flattened, but what struck me as I looked at the half-demolished mill on Chaudiere Island (it’s completely gone now) was how much it reminded me of the kind of buildings that have been restored and repurposed in Toronto’s Distillery District.
That led me to call up the folks who redeveloped the Distillery District, a private partnership called Cityscape Developments to discuss the whole Chaudiere Island issue. In speaking with partner Matthew Rosenblatt, who’s also a real estate broker, it emerged that his company was really really interested in talking to Domtar about redeveloping their lands, which, naturally, became the focus of my column, published in the Citizen on Tuesday.
But Rosenblatt had some interesting things to say about deciding whether to demolish a building or not. I was opining that the Groundwood mill, with rounded windows and fronting directly onto Booth Street, looked to have a lot of potential to me, but then again, what did I know about these things.
Here’s what Rosenblatt responded:
I don’t actually think it matters whether buildings are esthetically pleasing. I mean, it helps. But they’re just part of the character of the area, they are the history – they are what they are. It’s really what you do with the buildings that creates life.
The architectural canvas is just that – it’s a canvas and it’s up to the developer and the community to paint on it. And you either create something that’s compelling or you don’t.
I’ve looked at a lot of sites around the world, and sometimes the ugly buildings are really quirky and makes them really interesting and makes them really memorable.
I don’t view the buildings’ esthetic, especially if it’s historical, to necessarily be a liability. Because history is history.
That’s a good way to look at the Domtar buildings. They are our history, some of the only remnants we have left of our lumber and paper-producing pasts. t’s why we need to move to protect them, as well as find a creative use for them.
Some people say the Domtar buildings aren’t as nice as the old Thompson-Perkins Mill, which may be true. But that doesn’t mean the Domtar buildings shouldn’t be saved. (Indeed, I recently argued about this very thing with a charming older couple having lunch in the Mill St. Brew Pub, housed incidentally in the historic Mill.) But the Mill didn’t look like it does today by magic — it took millions of dollars of restoration for that.
The Domtar buildings may not end up looking as picturesque as the Mill, but that’s beside the point. They are part of the heritage of this city, and, as Rosenblatt says, history is history.