Warehouse Redux

PROJECT 60 Atlantic Avenue, Toronto, Ontario
ARCHITECT Quadrangle Architects Limited
TEXT Elizabeth Pagliacolo
PHOTOS Ben Rahn/A-Frame unless otherwise noted

Adjacent to Toronto’s downtown core, Liberty Village embodies the exasperating dilemma of gentrification in the city. Most can easily point out its worst aspects. An ever-growing cluster of condo towers rings the eastern edge of the neighbourhood. Central to this proliferation, apace for the past 15 years, is a parking lot and strip mall that culminates in a Metro grocery store; a slice of suburbia. Yet the central core of Liberty Village came about as a result of the area’s unique industrial history, some of which survives to this day.

Of the area’s heritage structures that have been converted for modern use, the two-storey property at 60 Atlantic Avenue stands out. This isn’t just adaptive reuse; it’s a wholesale transformation. Plugged into a glass-enclosed corridor along the north elevation, two 13-metre-tall curtain-wall volumes framed in Corten steel glow like lanterns at night, as if signalling the storied building’s rebirth. “I like the idea of heritage, but I don’t like the idea of preservation,” says architect Richard Witt, MRAIC, principal in charge of the project at Quadrangle Architects. “For me, heritage is not about preserving what used to be there, it’s about constantly taking pieces off, adding pieces on, keeping it relevant, keeping it functional.”

Functionality is key. 60 Atlantic began life in 1898, when it was built as a warehouse for St. David’s Wine Growers Co. As the area morphed from manufacturing centre to dead zone to artist enclave and IT hub, the ivy-shrouded building played a vital role in bridging past and present. In 1991, Artscape moved in, and proceeded to parcel out low-rent studio spaces to painters, sculptors, media artists and others while setting up a support system for the burgeoning creative community at large. Two decades later, the organization was effectively priced out of the space. In his goodbye letter to Liberty Village, Artscape CEO Tim Jones explained: “In 2005 […] the annual operating subsidy required to keep rents below market needed to end. While Artscape is proud of its work in making space for creativity and transforming communities, we are not immune from the pressures of the real estate market.”

Those same pressures weighed on developer Jeff Hull, who bought the property in 2012 and was initially advised to demolish it and erect an eight-storey office block in its place. Instead, he championed the existing architecture. “We’re in the business of buying, renovating and owning buildings with character—we think there’s value in that,” he said. The 43,000-square-foot project would also be a test for Hull’s other newly acquired heritage properties around the city. In the few years since taking over Hullmark, which his grandfather founded in 1950, the 33-year-old entrepreneur has shifted the company’s focus away from huge suburban developments (like the Hullmark Centre in North York) to mixed-use retrofits of century-old architecture in the city core. Other conversions in progress include 545 King Street West and 100 Broadview. But 60 Atlantic is special, and Hull saw its potential as a hybrid of office, retail and gathering spot.

As it turns out, this was a tall order. The L-shaped footprint amalgamates two structures with different ground-floor levels: the original building that fronts Atlantic Avenue and another that faces Jefferson Street, with a carriageway that ran between. “It was a rabbit’s warren, with a corridor snaking its way through,” says Witt. The first move was to create a new main corridor in the form of an addition nestled alongside the north façade. The corridor ramps up from a wheelchair-accessible glass entry vestibule, tying together the entire building.

Two translucent glass-wrapped towers—containing a stairwell, elevator and washrooms—animate this passageway. On the north-south axis, Corten planes slice through the building. In fact, the exterior steel panels were naturally weathered, their silvery finish taking on a rusted patina, while those on the interior were artificially aged to match. “We had someone spray them with vinegar and all sorts of stuff,” laughs Witt. The effect is nonetheless seamless, establishing a visual line from inside to out.

The interior corridor features an enlarged Goad’s Fire Atlas map of the former industrial zone. “I’m kind of a map geek,” Hull explains. A red block marks the spot of the former St. David’s Wine Growers, right next to the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women, on the lot now filled by Lamport Stadium. Along with the demolished men’s prison further east, the infamous reformatory gave Liberty Village its name—freed inmates would take their first steps out onto Liberty Street. Many of the other structures on the map still exist. Their present-day identity as lofts, offices, shops and furniture showrooms is a distant echo of the lighting, carpet and metal factories that turned out munitions and supplies in wartime.

Quadrangle Architects celebrated 60 Atlantic’s many historical details as they retrofitted the interiors for new creative industries, including the digital agency Invivo. Over the past decades, various tenants had erected infill walls, punched holes for windows to let more sunlight in and to allow for direct loading, and bricked up other openings. In each case, the architects responded with imaginative ways of contrasting old and new: openings that needed filling were patched up with grey brick to set them apart from the original yellow brick; new windows were framed in anodized aluminum and topped with a beam of unfinished mild steel while historical ones were refreshed with black frames. They also inserted cast-iron floor plates at the threshold of the original building and the corridor addition.

The most dramatic change to the original structure was excavating to the basement level on the north side. “When we looked at the levels, we realized the ground floor is four feet above grade, which means the basement is only five feet below,” explains Witt. Digging out a side courtyard, he says, “would realize value while creating a semi-private space that’s connected to the street.”

Come spring, Calgary-based Big Rock Brewery will operate a restaurant that spills out into this new courtyard, flanked by a concrete stair integrating bench-sized steps where people can congregate. On Liberty Street, the brewery will have a second entrance to its ground-floor bottle shop and dining area—a few steps below and through a massive arch discovered in the renovation. “It required a bit of structural gymnastics to take out the beam and cut back the second floor to create view lines,” explains Witt. For Hull, the effort has paid off. “We were hoping that a restaurant tenant would see the vision, and luckily Big Rock came along and did.”

On the Liberty Street façade, a supergraphic “60” serves as an icebreaker. Like the bench stairs from Atlantic, it beckons passersby to come in. Making new connections to the street was a crucial gesture for both Hull and Witt. These elements complete a transformation at 60 Atlantic that shows how old and new can come together in boldly original ways.

Elizabeth Pagliacolo is a Toronto-based architecture and design writer.

Client Hullmark Developments Ltd. | Architect Team Base Building—Richard Witt, Brian Curtner, Kevin Offin, Court Sin, Danny Tseng, Derek Towns. Interiors—Caroline Robbie, Dyonne Fashina, Julie Mroczkowski, Kenzie Thompson. | Structural Read Jones Christoffersen | Mechanical/Electrical Integral Group | Landscape Vertechs Design Inc. | Interiors Quadrangle Architects Limited | Construction Management First Gulf | Heritage Philip Goldsmith Architect | Artist Pascal Paquette | Area 43,000 ft2 | Budget Withheld | Completion November 2014