Once know as the Westside Lofts, the Clock Tower Lofts is a very visible landmark at the corner of King and Bathurst. The yellow 14-storey building with the faux clock tower certainly stands out (at least the current grey-on-grey paint job isn’t as jarring as the previous red & yellow scheme). Another office building converted to lofts, another casualty of business pullbacks in the 1990s due to the recession in the early part of the decade.
Taking advantage of the existing structure, the Clock Tower Lofts has become a rather successful conversion, one of the earliest in a burgeoning neighbourhood that was to become the King West we know today. The Clock Tower Lofts’ features are impressive and dramatic – 11-1/2″ ceilings and over-sized windows, and the suites are spacious. Adding to the loft feeling, all of the units have sliding barn doors, though you won’t find much in the way of exposed brick or concrete here.
But the building is known for its VERY solid concrete construction, the Clock Tower Lofts known for its soundproofing. Some owners have exposed some of this concrete, others have installed brick veneer walls. You can only work with what you have.
But there is not a lot of history in this particular building. It was built in 1987, I have heard that the developer was Murray Goldman. But it was used by the Sun Life insurance company, one of 3 different locations they had along King Street West, including numbers 225 and 150. Those offices will close down as the company consolidates their operations at One York Street. Sun Life made news 40 years ago when they moved their head office out of Montreal to Toronto in 1976. Ten years later, they built the office building at 700 King. They hired EI Richmond Architects build it, who had cut their teeth designing MANY apartment buildings in the 1970s (such as the landmark round buildings on Maitland Place). Most famous of their work would have to be Palace Pier. Sun Life’s building at 700 King was probably their 2nd office. Doesn’t seem they did many more, as condos became their bread and butter.
Not sure when Sun Life moved out, or where exactly they moved to, but a 1996 MLS listing is the first time we see the building offered for sale. Listed for $6.975m and sold for $5.35m almost 9 months later in May of 1997. Not bad, especially when you consider that so many other buildings languish on the market, are re-listed repeatedly, or simply never sell (through MLS).
The conversion was headed world-renowned Young + Wright Architects, under the direction of 700 King Street (1997) Ltd. Obviously the latter was the company formed to do the conversion, though I have heard some say it is related to Urbancorp. The first lofts were listed on MLS in 1997 with projected occupancy set for early 1999. And then the 1999 MLS listings have original buyers starting to resell. Looks like occupancy began in 1999 and the condo corporation was finally registered in the fall of 2000.
Side note – Charles Milborne was selling the lofts for the builder, working for the C. Hunter Real Estate Corp. Milborne went on to found his own brokerage, rather well-known for representing builders, Milborne Real Estate. This is probably where it all began.
On another interesting side note, there is a tenuous tie to another loft. Sun Life is an insurance company, so 700 King is a converted insurance office – same as the old MONY building at 797 Don Mills, now the Tribeca Lofts. Always interesting connections between the various lofts conversions of Toronto. It’s a small world and history can make it smaller.
Speaking of history, we cannot really talk about this loft without talking about what came before this building. And there is always the obvious question of why the clock? It is an homage to the past history of the corner of King & Bathurst. So let’s go back in time, there are important things to discuss.
For almost 100 years, the Otto Higel piano factory occupied the spot on the north west corner. The Otto Higel Co. Ltd. was a Toronto manufacturer of piano and organ supplies. The company was founded in 1896 by Otto Higel (from Silesia, Germany), who had bought the Toronto piano action and key manufacturing business of F. Koth, for whom he had worked since moving to Canada in 1889. Higel amalgamated in 1901 with Augustus Newell & Co. (founded in 1878 as the Newell Organ Reed Co.) and the resulting firm of Newell & Higel Co. Ltd. manufactured piano actions, keys and hammers, as well as organ keys, reeds and reed boards. Higel purchased the firm’s assets in 1904 and changed the name to Otto Higel Co. Ltd. (though he also used the name Canada Piano Action and Key Co. Ltd.).
Higel achieved his greatest success with the manufacture of player-piano actions, a venture he began in 1906. By 1911 he had added a department for the cutting of perforated piano rolls, under the brand name Solodont. The company, located at Bathurst and King streets, employed 450 workers in 1912. Player pianos with Higel actions were in use around the world and were in such demand that a second plant was opened in Buffalo likely around 1914, followed by a third in New York City in 1916. After Higel passed away in 1930, his son Ralph O. Higel assumed direction of the company, which gradually began making other products, such as cabinets and wooden toys. Sadly, by 1938 control had passed out of the Higel family, though the name was retained. After this point, the firm apparently made only kitchen cabinets and appliances, and by 1944 business ceased entirely.
There are no records of any firm date when the building was originally constructed. Checking the 1910 Goads map, the building is already there, at least the long part running north along the west side of Bathurst. I assume the addition west along King would have come later. A smaller – but still large – building can be seen on the 1903 map, as well as in 1899. But it was NOT there in 1893. Thus, it had to have been built in the late 1890s. Since the company was founded in 1896, it makes sense for it have been built around that time, completed in time to appear on the 1899 map.
The main architect was George Martel Miller, who did a lot of notable buildings around the city, like the Gladstone Hotel, the Household Science Building (now the flagship Club Monaco on Bloor Street West) – and he was the supervising architect on Massey Hall. While he might not have been responsible for the original building, he is listed as being involved in additions made in 1907, 1910 and 1911. Could be that the original construction details are lost to time. It is possible that Miller was the original designer, but hard to say. But if you look, you can see a very different style in the west wing as opposed to the north wing. Even the central corner, it appears different than the north wing to my eyes. And the west wing different again.
Piano building in Canada began in the early 19th century and grew into a major, thriving industry between 1890 and 1925. By this time, the quality of most Canadian pianos was so high that only the most renowned brand names were imported. And we can see the remains of this once-thriving industry to this day.
Legend has it that Theodor Heintzman made his first piano in a Toronto kitchen, sold it immediately, then used the proceeds to start his business. He founded his Toronto business around 1860, incorporated it in 1866 and by 1888 Heintzman was able to open a new piano building factory in the Junction (now the site of condos, on Heintzman Avenue, natch).
By the 1890s, the Heintzman & Co. piano factory had 200 workers and was cranking out 1,000 new pianos a year. In those days – without radios, televisions, or computers – the piano was the centre of both home and public entertainment. Heintzman pianos certainly weren’t the cheapest brand on the market, but they sold well due to their reputation for high quality.
As the company prospered, so did Theodor and his business-minded sons. They built some of the finest homes in the Junction, which was then a thriving Toronto suburb. Heintzman remained a popular Toronto business well into the 20th century, eventually relocating to the Owen Sound area in the 1970s.
However, few other companies survived the Depression. Radios, record players and televisions gradually displaced the piano as the focus of home entertainment; trends in music education saw students choosing a wider variety of instruments. As a result of the declining demand, companies amalgamated, were taken over or went out of business.
Thus doomed poor Otto Higel. WWII would have sapped materials and most people’s disposable income and pianos became superfluous. Only the really major players, like Heintzman, could survive. Even Heintzman finally closed up in 1986, though it seems there are Chinese knockoffs still being made today.
Believe it or not, Heintzman was connected to Higel. Piano parts suppliers such as Otto Higel Co., had made their money supplying “straight” piano actions and parts to other manufacturers who merely assembled the action, frame, soundboard and strings in a cabinet of their own design.
Otto Higel also produced the pneumatic actions required for player pianos and supplied Canadian piano manufacturers who were eager to ride the crest of the player piano wave. Heintzman was one of the companies that produced popular player piano models, and they preferred to use either Higel actions or American brands such as Ampico.
Yet another side note. This loft is also connected in a similarly obscure manner to the Noble Court Lofts. The old factory at 24 Noble is also associated with piano actions, as they were manufactured there at one point. And, of course, Heintzman was the major player in Toronto. With a huge factory in The Junction (unfortunately long demolished) that gave the area Heintzman Street, as well as their old office building on Yonge Street (across from the Eaton Centre) though partially obscured by some horrid storefront cladding.
Anyway, back to our friend Higel. Discerning what happened with the building from 1944 until its ultimate demise in 1981 is not so straightforward. We have seen in the past, many companies building these large buildings and then rent out parts of them to other businesses. Seems to be the case with the Otto Higel building. Which was pretty damn massive.
There is a photo in the Toronto Star from 1936 showing the side of the building with broken windows. The caption beneath reads “When the fur cleaning machine in the plant of A. Hollander and Sons, at the corner of King St. and Bathurst St., exploded, Hugh MacCutcheon, 42, was seriously injured. Burned about the head, shoulders and chest, he crawled through the smoke and fumes to a window where he was found by Captain James Bell of the fire department.”
A. Hollander & Sons were dyers and dressers of furs, started in 1889 in Newark NJ. They gave rise to the term “Hollanderizing” which was a cleaning process for many types of furs. It involved sawdust and other agents to remove the grime that fur accumulated during a winter of wear. For many women, it was a spring ritual to take their coats to a furrier, who would send them to be Hollanderized.
The presence of A. Hollander & Sons creates yet another connection to another building, just down the street. Not quite converted to lofts, but an old commercial building repurposed, which is fine by me. Located at 560 King Street West, the building is known as the Toronto Silver Plate Building and was constructed in 1882 for the Toronto Silver Plating Company (now almost buried under the Fashion House Condos). With the Gurney Stove Factory (1873) at 500-520 King Street West, the factory is one of the earliest surviving industrial complexes in the area. The stove factory was almost torn down years ago, as it had been hidden behind some horrible cladding. As the workers pulled it off, someone noticed the gorgeous Italiante brickwork, some calls were made, some history discovered, and a neat piece of Toronto history was saved.
Comparable to Hollanderizing, Shinerizing was the process invented by the Scientific Fur Cleaning Ltd. Scientific Fur Cleaning Ltd. was a business name registered in 1943 by a Toronto-based fur cleaning and storage company founded in the early nineteen thirties. The Shinerizing buildings were located at 570 and 572 King Street West and 457 Adelaide in downtown Toronto.
The company name was derived from the company owners’ last name (Hyman Shiner and sons Sol and Huck). Shinerizing invented many fur cleaning methods that are now industry standards worldwide, and their fire-engine red delivery vans were easily recognized throughout Ontario. In the early 1990s, the company was sold to Hollanderizing! It now goes by the name Hollanderizing-Shinerizing. The Shinerizing buildings remained in the family until 2009, when they were sold and converted as part of the Fashion House condominiums; though the historic facade on King Street was restored.
With its location close to the heart of Toronto’s garment industry, it is not surprising to find that the International Fur and Leather Workers Union Records has minutes of a conference called to propose to aid the situation in Winnipeg and unionization of shops of A. Hollander and Son in 1937. The company was everywhere!
But back to Higel’s old factory and what happened to the building after the pianos left and before it was so unceremoniously torn down. One of the biggest clues would be the photos from the 1970s and 1980s that should National Furniture Factory signs on it. I cannot find out when they became the main tenant. If Higel moved out in 1944, did National Furniture move in right after? The photos do make it look like they’ve been there a while.
Obviously there were others renting space in the massive building. Other photos show a sign that said “Joy Studios” which seems to have left no historical mark anywhere on the internet. Then there is the “Paris Sportswear Robert Lewis” sign above what appears to be the main entrance. Also in many photos in multiple decades. Oddly enough, there seems to be a Robert Lewis Paris Sportswear still operating in Montreal. And there is a 1951 List of Manufacturing Establishments Employing Fifty Hands Or Over, published by the Federal Department of Trade and Commerce that mentions Paris Sportswear at 12 Front Street, unit 2B. Same publication mentions A. Hollander & Son Ltd. at 995 Wellington St. in Montreal. What did I say about the size of the world?
Everyone agrees, though, that the old Otto Higel piano factory was a fantastic building – and it was in amazing condition. From the size, the street presence, the clock tower… one could say it was one of the most beautiful old warehouses downtown. But then, of course, due to the brilliant thinking of the day, it was torn down in the name of “progress”. Because at that time, anything new was perceived as better. Can you imagine what would have become of it today? Imagine what a spectacular destination it could have been. Another Gladstone / Broadview Hotel type of thing.
Patrick Cummins photographed the demolition in 1981. His photos are the black and whites on this page that show the interior during demolition. I would have loved to have joined him as he explored the old factory! Except for being 9 years old at the time…
The current clock tower is a replacement of sorts, an homage if you will. And that homage is continued in its new name, the Clock Tower Lofts. The original clock tower was supposed to be preserved by the developer, similar to the preservation of the church steeple at the Channel Club Condos at Bathurst and College. Somehow it collapsed during demolition. Oops. Yeah right. Cuz that hasn’t happened before. So we have what we have now instead. Apparently it was the same developer as the Holiday Inn on Bloor near St. George. In that case the historic mansion (designed by EJ Lennox) was supposed to be moved to St. George, but it collapsed during the move. Not a great record for heritage preservation in Toronto.
Even worse, the old Higel building was apparently being used as artists’ lofts and studios already, right before they demolished it. All they had to do was keep it and restore it like they did with 401 Richmond and the Toronto Carpet Factory. Or convert to lofts for sale. But when the original scheme came forward in the 1970s, there wasn’t that kind of thinking in place at the City. More, there was a lot of pressure insisting that the fashion industry needed new, modern industrial space in order to survive. The combination of this, plus the opportunity to do some social housing on the north end of the site doomed the building in the eyes of the planners at City Hall.
I wish they had kept and converted the Otto Higel piano factory, but it was yet another victim to Toronto’s short sighted civic planning. Torn down in 1981 because reasons, the current building was erected in 1987. Seems odd that the lot remained vacant for that long. Or maybe it just because demo started in 1981 but did not finished until ’82 or ’83. Clear and remediate the site. Planning applications and decisions regarding the office and housing to the north. Parts of projects begin maybe ’85 or ’86, building finally complete in 1987.
In the end, we have what we have. Built in 1987, but vacant and up for sale only 9 years later in 1996. Conversion process started in 1997, finally completed in 2000. We now have 14 floors with 216 lofts, mostly one and two bedroom units, usually in the 700-1,000 square-foot range. The building has a spectacular rooftop deck, where you can BBQ with friends and look at awesome city views. There is also underground parking, 24-hour security, a gym and a party room.
Location is key here, as you are close to most of Toronto’s cultural and entertainment comforts. From parks to theatres, galleries to bistros. Walk to work or take the King streetcar. Another streetcar north takes you to Bathurst station and anywhere else via subway.