Imperial Lofts – 80 & 90 Sherbourne Street

The Imperial Lofts is an odd one, composed of 2 very different buildings from 2 very different eras – but both are awesome.

History of the Imperial Lofts

These are the lofts you see in your mind when you think about converted buildings. This is where your dreams are! Check around downtown to see which neighbourhoods offer the best mix of character, urban life and convenience – you already know one of the best is the original old Toronto.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

The main century loft building, with the 1946 addition at left

For those in the know, this vintage pocket of character architecturally significant buildings with contemporary mid-rise infill developments provides an engaging street life with the very best of urban amenities. And it is in 2 of these amazing historic structures that you will find the Imperial Lofts – one of the only loft conversions in downtown Toronto.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

The 1913 building, with 680 News ad, as it looked in the 1990s, with the 1946 addition behind

Spread between a pair of authentic heritage buildings – the Imperial Optical Warehouse and Office Building – the Imperial Lofts consists of a 6-storey authentic brick and beam building completed in 1913, combined with a 3-storey Art Deco office building from 1945-46. The two have been restored and converted to create 65 hard lofts. Completed by PlazaCorp in 1997, this intimate complex features rustic brick walls, vintage wood beam columns, hardwood floors, and loads of character – witness the period elevator cab at 90 Sherbourne – it is as charming inside as it is out.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

Sales sign on the south building, sometime in 1996 or 1997. You can clearly see Benjamin Brown’s last minute addition.

The Imperial Lofts are located on the west side of Sherbourne Street, running almost the full block from Richmond Street south to Adelaide East. The 6-storey mill style structure at 90 Sherbourne features walls of 100-year-old red brick, vintage wood beams, classic mullioned windows and high ceilings – plus the original patina of the old factory hardwood floors throughout. The Art Deco building to the south at 80 Sherbourne boasts 10-1/2-foot ceilings, concrete ceilings and columns, and exposed ducts and pipes. Imperial Loft sizes vary from 780 square feet to 2,500 square feet. There is no concierge or facilities, so it has decent maintenance fees.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

Inside the Imperial Lofts you will find all sorts of brick and wood

Some have outdoor space, most do not. But there is an amazing common rooftop terrace. Parking is a mixed bag. There is a small underground lot, but residents are on a waiting list to get in to it. In the meantime, parking is on the surface for everyone else with a spot.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

The common rooftop area of the Imperial Lofts, with its amazing views of the downtown skyline

Imperial Optical has a long and interesting history. It was founded in 1900 by Mr. Percy Hermant and was the first prescription lens business in the Maritimes. Percy headed the company until his death in 1959 and, under his leadership, the company eventually grew to be the largest company of its kind in the British Commonwealth. The head office was located in the Hermant Building (named for Percy) at 21 Dundas Square (which is still there, designated heritage by the City). After Percy’s death, the company passed into the hands of his son Sydney, who sold majority control to the Caribbean based Harcourt Carter Optical in 1965. By 1991, Harcourt Carter Optical had assumed total control of Imperial Optical.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

The J. M. Lowes building, pre-Imperial Optical, as it looked back in 1933

Interestingly, this is the same company that built the Century Lofts at 365 Dundas Street East. The Century Lofts originally started life in the 1940s as the Imperial Optical Company’s lens factory. The original two storey building for Imperial Optical at 270 Ontario Street contained a storage facility, a garage, janitor’s quarters and an employees’ restaurant. Seeing as how large the company was at one point, I do not find it odd that more than one of their buildings would have survived. That would make 3, including the old office at Yonge & Dundas.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

The southern addition, as it looked not long after conversion, in the late 1990s

Also of note, Imperial Optical was not the first company to occupy 90 Sherbourne – or 80 Sherbourne for that matter. Note the old photo from February of 1933 and the sign on the building is J. M. Lowes Co. And the yellow-brick Art Deco office to the south is not yet built, with buildings still occupying its site.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

One of the lofts in the newer addition, still cool, but without the vintage brick and beam look

This is just as possible as the accepted 1905 date, as John Lowes closed his shop in Whitby in 1879 and subsequently opened J.M. Lowes Company, a coffee and spice trading store, in Toronto. The building is noticeably absent, though, from the 1910 Goad’s fire atlas… But it also not on the 1913 edition, which is truly curious if it was built around 1910-1911. Regardless, it was most definitely NOT built in 1905. There is scant information about his early years and the early years of either Lowes Co. or Imperial Optical. In the 1921 City Directory, there is a “J M Co, Ltd” listed at 90 Sherbourne.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

One of the vintage lofts, in the original 1913 building at 90 Sherbourne

Stephen Burwell Coon first appears in the Toronto city directories in 1902, where he is listed as being in business with W.H. Burnett, as W.H. Burnett & Co, piano dealers, located at 9-11 Queen St. E. Beginning in 1903, and continuing for the next decade, Mr. Coon is listed in the directories as an architect, working from home for most of that time, before taking up offices in the Temple Building on Bay St.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

One of the saddest losses in Toronto architecture, the Temple Building (torn down in 1970 to build 390 Bay) though some relics are preserved at The Guild Inn.

During this time period, his address is given as 82, then 58, then 100 Roxborough Street W., and then 259 Russell Hill Road. Mr. Coon built each of these houses, occupying them for two or three years before moving on to the next one.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

259 Russell Hill Road is still standing today, in fact it was for sale in the first half of 2018

Among his many Rosedale home designs, one was created for Charles Lowes, president of a highly-profitable coffee and spice business – the J. M. Lowes Co. The company had relocated to Toronto in 1905 with a small store on Front Street. When three houses with industrial zoning between two coal yards became available, on sooty Sherbourne Street in 1907, Lowes bought them all. S. B. Coon was hired to design a modest 3-storey warehouse to spread across the rear portion of the three deep lots, behind the existing houses.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

The 1913 building permit for the large warehouse, the one we know today as half of the Imperial Lofts

This appears to have been the 47-year-old architect’s first industrial design. Completed in 1910, the building stood until 1968 in what is now the back parking lot of the Imperial Lofts. After this, his career blossomed. During the late 1920s, S.B. Coon & Son designed a number of significant buildings in Toronto, such as the The Atlas Building (later known as the Dominion Building), a 13-storey office building constructed in 1928 at 350 Bay St. At around the same time, the firm designed several apartment houses in Toronto: the Balmoral Apartments, the University Apartments, the Queen’s Park Apartments and the Lawrence Park Apartments. The firm also actively participated in the boom eras of school construction that occurred in the 1920s and 1950s.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

Front elevation sketch of the Imperial Optical warehouse at 90 Sherbourne

J. M. Lowes Co. and some commercial tenants moved into this 3-storey rear building in 1910. Business was good, Charles Lowes proceeded with his next project, again hiring Coon as the architect, this time to design a 6-storey warehouse to replace the old houses fronting onto Sherbourne Street. This is the building we see today at 90 Sherbourne, housing the northern part of the Imperial Lofts.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

The front entrance of the Imperial Lofts, looking much as it would have in 1913

Back to the southern building; we know it was built in 1945-46 by famed Toronto architect Benjamin Brown. Lithuanian-born Benjamin Brown and his family fled anti-Semitic persecution as refugees in 1896. In the early 1900s he enrolled in the Ontario School of Art and Design intending to become an artist. When art proved to be a financially unfeasible profession, Brown decided to switch to architecture, graduating from the University of Toronto in 1913.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

One of the ground floor units in 80 Sherbourne, with direct street access

His building designs forever changed skyline of Toronto, especially along Spadina Avenue (the Tower Buildoing, Balfour Building and Reading Building). For most of his career his office was located in the Hermant Building (which he designed for the founder of Imperial Optical) on Dundas Square.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

The Tower, Balfour and Commodore Buildings, some of Benjamin Brown’s best know work

Brown was among the first Jewish architects to practice in Toronto during the early 20th century. The discriminatory atmosphere in Toronto in the 1920s was such that it was difficult for Jewish professionals to attract clientele. Thus, Brown’s early commissions came primarily from members of the Jewish community, who were concentrated in Toronto’s Fashion District along Spadina. Many Jewish clients in the clothing trade commissioned him to design functional loft buildings constructed of reinforced concrete and dressed in a stylish Art Deco cladding of cut stone and brick.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

The building permit taken out by Benjamin Brown in 1946 for the southern addition

By the time he retired in 1955, Brown had designed over 200 projects from single-family residences to apartment buildings, commercial and industrial buildings, as well as synagogues and other community buildings. Many of Brown’s best-known buildings were designed in the Art Deco style, though others have Georgian, Craftsman, Colonial Revival, Tudor and Romanesque elements. Many of which are now designated heritage.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

The Imperial Lofts feature open, airy spaces accented with vintage brick walls and wooden beams

It was fairly late in his career when Benjamin Brown began work in 1945 on a building for Percy Hermant, though the company name is illegible on the permit. The document does state that the building was to be an “addition to factory for manufacture of surgical supplies”, giving Imperial’s head office address of 21 Dundas Square.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

Since most of the Imperial Lofts follow the traditional plan of a single open space, owners have created their own varied spaces within the lofts

The building was to be built on a rectangular at 80 Sherbourne Street, lot immediately south of the Lowes Building at 90 Sherbourne, but north of the corner with what was then Duke Street. In 1946, after the walls had already gone up, Kathleen Freestone’s property at 80 and 82 Duke Street (now Adelaide), at the corner of Sherbourne, became available. Brown quickly designed a southern addition that was seemlessly integrated into the building that was in the middle of construction (and is most likely the portion south of the entrance).

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

This is where dreams of lofts are born…

So we know that Imperial was on-site by 1945 at the latest. We also know that the name on the 90 Sherbourne building still read J. M. Lowes Co. in 1933. The Hermant Building on Dundas Square was built in 1929, the building on Ontario Street in the 1940s. Neither date helps us much… Regardless, it is safe to assume a late 1930s or early 1940s date.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

I wish Imperial Lofts came up for sale more often, as they tend to be exactly what people are looking for in a loft

Located on the west side of Sherbourne Street, between Richmond and Adelaide Streets, the Imperial Lofts is in one of the city’s most convenient urban locations. All of your transportation needs are covered – from the 24-hour King and Queen streetcars, to the nearby subway… or a short walk south to the GO and VIA trains. Then there is the DVP to the east and Gardiner to the south. But no promises as to how well they are moving!

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

However, in this location you’re likely to live your life exploring the neighbourhood on foot. Stroll to everyday shopping including the charming St. Lawrence Market with its purveyors of fresh produce and specialty foods, Fahrenheit Coffee, and even the nearby 24-hour Metro.

Imperial Lofts 80-90 Sherbourne Street

Even the smaller lofts are filled with authentic loft charm

For those with a love of design, you’re smack dab in the middle of the King East Design District with tons of designers, art galleries and an outstanding array of entertainment and cafés. Be sure to try Fusaro’s Italian and the George Street Diner on Richmond, and The Beerbistro located on King Street East. Living at the Imperial Lofts means you’ve got it all at your fingertips!

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