Corktown Lofts – 21 River Street

The Corktown Lofts is a unique boutique loft building at Queen & River Streets.

History of the Corktown Lofts

I have been told by owners that the Corktown Lofts was originally a tannery built in 1853, which would make it the oldest loft I know of, beating the 1860 date of the St. Lawrence Market Lofts at 81A Front Street East. But I am not content with hearsay, I have to make sure, to know for myself.

So I started to check the old maps and archives of the city. I could not find it on William Somerville Boulton’s 1858 Atlas of the City of Toronto(, which concerns me. The old Davis (Don) Brewery (now the Malthouse Loft Towns) is there, but 21 River Street is an empty lot. I can see the Queen City Vinegar building on the 1913 Goad’s fire insurance map at 19 River Street, with something questionable to the north. But nothing that looks quite like the Corktown Lofts building. Only on the 1924 Goad’s map do we see the building unequivocally.

Corktown Lofts – 21 River Street

The Corktown Lofts on River Street, back when the Queen City Vinegar Lofts were under construction

To me this means it was built sometime between 1913 and 1924, putting the whole 1853 date into serious question. It also appears to be numbered either 23 or 25 River Street, so the current number 21 of the lofts is not original. Using those addresses, I found an old ad for the Atlas Engineering and Machine Co. Ltd. at 23 River Street, manufacturers of heating and pumping equipment.

I have also found a bio of Lewis Sanagan Elsie, from Delaware Ontario. He came to Toronto in 1919 to become manager of production, and also held the offices of secretary and treasurer for the Atlas Engineering and Machine Company. Thus the building was built somewhere between 1913 and 1919. I am guessing that Atlas built it for their own original use, in the 1914-1918 period, probably to capitalize on the need for machining work during WWI.

Corktown Lofts – 21 River Street

An old ad for the business that likely built the building housing the Corktown Lofts

As much as I like the 1853 tannery story, it is sadly not true. Possibly there was once an old tannery near that spot in the mid-1800s, but that is not the building that is now the Corktown Lofts. There is a listing for “Grant E. Cole Co., 23 River Street, Toronto” in the “Mechanical Contracting & Plumbing January-December 1923”, indicating that Atlas had moved on by that point.

Finding actual historical photos was even harder! All I found was one, and only by accident. We can see the building in the background of this photo from 1946, though I cannot read the signage to help us determine what it was at that time.

Corktown Lofts – 21 River Street

Behind the children at left is the Corktown Lofts building in 1946, with the Queen City Vinegar building at right – I wish I could read the sign on the building!

In 1995, it was an ugly office building, with nasty mirrored glass windows. They still used the lower level for manufacturing at that time, though what I do not know. The whole building sold for $275,000 back then… I know… It was originally marketed as River Studios in 1996, with prices in the $160s. Things have changed for sure since then, as they go for 4 times that much now.

This hard loft conversion only has 8 units, each with a private entrance, walk-ups in a New York style. Upper units have rooftop decks. They were against the addition to 19 River as it casts shadows on their rooftop decks. Lower units have living space on the main floor, with bedrooms on the lower level, a very European way to live.

Corktown Lofts – 21 River Street

Some of the Corktown Lofts are lovely and luxurious

If you want size, then the Corktown Lofts is for you. The lofts range in size from 1,154 to 1,682 square feet. The ample space allows some owners to work from their lofts. Some units are rough and raw, others are luxurious and opulent. One unit still has the original owner.

The Corktown Lofts have vaulted ceilings, original cedar post and beams, plank hardwood floors and large windows. The revitalization of Queen Street East is apparent by the all the new construction projects in the area. The suites are generous in size and reasonably priced as compared to houses, which makes them the right choice for a lot of east-end urbanites.

Corktown Lofts – 21 River Street

Original posts and beams give the Corktown Lofts their hard loft character

Due to the relatively small size of the building, there are no amenities, but maintenance fees are higher as they include utilities.

Once a slum for immigrant workers, Corktown is truly coming into its own. With the revitalization of Queen Street East ramping up ever faster, this area is one to keep your eye on. There are other hot loft conversions in the area, such as the Queen City Vinegar Lofts right next door at 19 River Street, the Malthouse Loft Towns right behind, the Carhart Lofts kitty-corner on Queen, and the Tannery Lofts up the street on Dundas.

Corktown Lofts – 21 River Street

The side of the Corktown Lofts is tucked away off the main street, giving a very mews-style feel

What used to be a sketchy area is being reinvented into a booming neighbourhood. New and more relaxed zoning bylaws in the Corktown district have resulted in the speedy conversion of many of Corktown’s commercial buildings into work/live studios, condominium lofts and professional offices, all of which has helped to revitalize the entire neighbourhood.

For as much as Corktown itself is being renewed however, it’s becoming just as well known for the two huge new neighbourhoods being constructed at its borders. To the north is the new Regent Park, where condo buildings are going up and changing the Corktown sky almost daily. To the south, projects changing the area include the fantastic River City by Saucier + Perrotte Architects, the new TCHC Buildings at King and River, Underpass Park, Don River Park now at the foot of River Street, and the entire Canary District; just south of the neighbourhood and future home to a new George Brown campus and the largest YMCA in Canada. The number of cranes visible in the sky in this once-desolate parcel is truly staggering.

corktown common

But as much as there is new in Corktown, the thing many people like most is respect for the old. Corktown was originally settled by working class immigrants in the early 1800s. As a result of that past, Corktown is still largely filled with old row houses and small cottages built in the late 19th century.

But no one can tell you authoritatively how it got its name. One story claims it’s because of local breweries and adjacent distilleries a century ago. The main theory says that it was because the majority of its Irish inhabitants came from County Cork. Historians say that both stories are fiction – that it was always just the southern tip of Cabbagetown, severed by the construction of Regent Park after World War Two, and cut off on the south when the Richmond overpass to the Don Valley Parkway was built.

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