The Robert Watson Lofts are considered by many, myself included, to be one of the best loft conversions in Toronto. But, as with so many other old buildings, its origins aren’t what everyone thinks. Robert Watson was NOT the first occcupant of the grand old factory…
It was built in 1912 by the Columbia Graphophone company, NOT Robert Watson! Which does go a long way to explaining the ghost sign on the north side of the building. There is a rather long and storied history of music and recording in Toronto, a lot of which I have detailed on the page for the Industrial Revolution II Lofts on Richmond Street West. And there is a lot more to be found on this page about the history of recorded sound in Canada.
It may even have been built before 1912, as the 1910 Goad’s map shows a building on the site, with the original address of 365 Sorauren. There is a great photo of the building from 1912 (where it appears fully built and definitely in use) that shows it was definitively Columbia Gramaphone’s building. And there was a promotional photo taken by Consumer’s Gas in 1913, showing the gas lighting in the “Columbia Phonograph plant”. Past research leads me to believe it was built in 1907, but there is no definitive proof.
There is an ad in the Furniture Buyer’s Directory from January, 1916 that says “As they have in the past, so to-day, Columbia Grafonolas and Columbia Double-Disc Records not only produce bigger profits, per sale, or per dollar, or per hour than any other line of musical merchandise now being sold, but they add to the appearance of a furniture store and to the standing of a furniture business. There is more on this subject in ‘Music Money,’ a free book you ought to have.
Columbia Graphophone Company
365 Sorauren Ave., Toronto”
This ad, as well as another listing in the January 1915 guide to the Stratford Furniture Exhibition, were designed to appeal to furniture stores, such as Eaton’s, to try to get them to stock their products.
In 1924, Louis Sterling of the Columbia Phonograph Company, Ltd. of London, bought out this Columbia and reorganized it. The new Columbia moved to 22 Front Street West by 1927. The company was gone by 1951, although Columbia records were being made by Sparton in London at that time. After this move, Robert Watson moved in.
At this point, we are back to the main story, just moving it forward by a decade and a half. The building became the home of the R & T Watson Co. confectioners, and at some point the address changed to 363 Sorauren Avenue. This historic landmark was transformed from sweets to suites in 2007 by Rosebud Homes and Sky Development Group, and now the former candy factory is full of fabulous lofts.
The vintage building making up half of the loft conversion fronts on to Sorauren Avenue. It is the century-old Robert Watson warehouse (built in 1907) that was been restored and converted into vintage lofts. With exposed century-old brick, wood ceilings, wood and steel columns, and 10 to 16-foot ceilings, the project stands out as one of Toronto’s finest loft conversions ever. It is loaded with spectacular luxury finishes including granite and stainless steel appliances. The new loft building behind is a six-storey soft loft with high ceilings, polished concrete floors, concrete columns and expansive glass with spectacular views.
The original Robert Watson confection factory was converted in 2007, while at the same time a soft loft extension was added behind the main building, where a smaller building had been torn down. The result is 153 one and two level units that range in size from 550 to over 1,500 square feet.
My favourite unit is the one on the ground floor at the back of the original building, carved out of the old boiler room. The remains of the old smoke stack poke up from the top of this unit. And you can still see the large round holes (now bricked up) where the huge pipes went through the walls.
There’s plenty of character in all of the lofts at Robert Watson, with exposed brick walls, beautiful floor to ceiling windows, high ceilings with original wood beams and polished concrete floors. Some units also feature private terraces, and suites with arched windows in the hard lofts are some of the coolest you’ll see. Limited amenities include an excellent fitness centre and a multipurpose/party room, but keep the fees reasonable.
Respecting the heritage of the building, Rosebud and Sky Development went to great lengths to preserve the vintage building’s character by leaving the original painted lettering on the exterior, as well as the century-old brick and wood inside the lofts. The remains of the 1907 industrial aesthetic give the Robert Watson Lofts their authentic conversion charm.
Both buildings include high ceilings and polished concrete floors. The new loft building will also feature expansive walls of windows offering stunning city views, gas ovens for cooking, and patios or balconies. The fusion of the new and vintage buildings is spectacular. The conversion project received Honourable Mention for the 2011 Toronto Urban Design Awards and the 2011 Heritage Toronto Award.
Robert Watson born in County Down, Ireland, in 1850 and his brother in 1852. They came to Canada in 1867 and settled in Toronto. That same year, he started working for a confectionery established by a Mr. Robertson, staying at that job for 7 years. In that vein, I found an interesting wedding notice from November 1873. William George McDermott – a confectioner – married Charlotte Cuff with Robert Watson as a witness. I bet they worked together. And this was one year before he left that company to start his own business.
After learning all he could about the candy business, at 24 years of age, he started his own company with his brother. They began at 357 Yonge Street, a much different neighbourhood than today. Then to 65 Jarvis and finally settling at 75 Front Street East where they really started to grow the business. Unfortunately that part of the gorgeous southern block of Front Street west of St. Lawrence Market was torn down long ago. Interestingly, part of that portion of the block is occupied by condos, condos that were designed by Eb Zeidler, whose office was in the bottom of the building that is now the Richard Bigley Lofts! Small world.
And the loss of that building is a real shame, as E. J. Lennox designed their factory on Front Street in 1888. One of early Toronto’s best loved architects, it is really too bad his building is long gone. He also built Robert Watson a house on Shuter near Jarvis in 1893. Probably near their previous facility at 65 Jarvis. And then he built Robert Watson’s new house at 234 St. George in 1902.
NB: One of the best pieces of Toronto loft trivia. Robert Watson is the only historic Toronto figure to have both his home and his place of business converted to lofts. His factory has become the Robert Watson Lofts and his home is now the Lennox Mews Lofts.
Originally the R. & T. Watson Co. was known for cough drops. Their main product was “Watson’s Imperial” cough drops. They sued a competitor in 1887 (with J. M. Ridout acting as their lawyer, a relative of the John Ridout that Samuel Jarvis famously killed in a duel) over the name. The other company was selling Imperial Cough Candy, one can see what the problem was. They also made “Watson’s Cough Drops”, as seen in a text ad in the January 2nd 1892 edition of the GRIP. They were even advertising as far away as New Brunswick by 1896, illustrating the reach of their products at the time. Their slogan was “Koff No More” and they marketed them towards smokers who had sore throats!
The tins the cough drops came in were apparently manufactured by a company called Macdonald, but I am not sure who that is. The tins are rare these days and seem to be quite collectible. You can find them on eBay and Etsy and other antique and collectibles sites. History does indicate that cough drops were the biggest item in their inventory, not candy so much. At least not in the beginning.
I even heard from the great-great granddaughter of Robert Watson. She was doing some online ancestry research and found this page. She remembers Robert’s daughter (her great grandmother), Eliza Jane, whom they called Nanny. She even has old home movies that she is in! Her grandfather, Richard Barber (son of Eliza Jane Watson-Barber, Robert’s daughter) was also in the confectionery business, thanks to Robert. So was one of Richard’s sons. She remembers visiting them a few times each year, and racing down into the basement to smell the boxes of chocolate bars, as they kept all stock in their homes. On a lucky day, her grandfather would open a box and give the kids each a milk chocolate bar.
She even sent me some pictures picnic ribbons handed out at my great-grandfather’s annual event. She also sent me a photo of the ribbons given out by John Taylor & Co., who she thinks was a pharmaceutical company/drug store. Perhaps Robert sold his goods to their store? Kind of goes along with the cough drop theme.
There isn’t a lot of information about the company in the 1900s. The factory was built in 1907 and there were additions made in the 1920s. Then Watson moved in around 1927. At some point they switched from cough drops to mints. They were bought by the British candy company Trebor in 1975. At that point they were known for their peppermints, sugar-coated Scotch mints and coloured after-dinner mints. I wonder if there was a connection to the large Nestle plant to the north, which used to be Cowan’s Cocoa and Chocolate factory back in the 1920s and 1930s? In 1989 Trebor was bought by Cadbury and all traces of the Watson boys faded away.
There is certainly a bit of a connection to the old Canada Linseed Oil Mills around the corner on Wabash Avenue, though. An Emporis photo from 2006 of the rear of the building shows an old ad for “Watson’s Linseed & Licquorice Lozenges” – I wonder if they got the linseed oil from the linseed factory… The old hulk will soon be turned into a community centre for the neighbourhood. I wish it were lofts, but the end result will be a nice addition to the area. If you are curious what the interior looks like, I poked around inside many years ago.
The factory was being used to make confectionery & chocolates for the Robert Watson Company and, apparently, SOS steel wool pads. O-Cedar replaced the SOS pad operation by 1951 and had moved elsewhere by 1968. The Watsons soldiered on until at least 1972, when it seems they left the old building on Sorauren for good.
I wonder if they rented space to other companies at various times. Especially when looking at the ghost ads on the building. Wander around the outside and you can make out the remains of many painted advertisements. The ones I can read are:
– Columbia (obviously)
– Robert Watson (also obvious)
– Cannon Canadian Co.
– British American Brushes
What do they mean? Did the Robert Watson Co. rent out space in the building to other companies? That was not unusual at the time, as noted in the history of the old Wellinger & Dunn Leather Sports Goods building, now the One Columbus Lofts. Or, did companies just buy ad space on the walls? You can barely see how the “Columbia” one extends to read “Gramophone” on the next piece of wall. But the others are still a mystery as far as I can tell.
After 1972 the old building eventually became derelict and became kind of a squat, popular with artists and artisans who appreciated the high ceilings and ample daylight. It may have continued as a squat even into the 1980s. I’ve heard a story about a woman who bought a 2nd floor unit years ago. Turns out that that unit was part of the area she squatted in when she ran away from home decades ago! She claims that molasses dripped from the ceiling back then. Gross! If it was a squat, then that means it was vacant for some time, which helps explain why there are no records for decades.
There was another old building where the new building (#369) is now. It was deemed to have no heritage value and was thus demolished. You can see the pit where it once was in the 2006 Emporis photo above. Legend has it that a trapeze artist used to practice his routines in there. What I would give to see photos of that! I’ve also been told that there used to be a ceramic studio in the main building during the squat days. People would complain because the whole place would stink when they were firing the kilns.
The Robert Watson building, the Chapman Ball Bearing factory just south of it, the Wellinger & Dunn building across the street and the other old factory/warehouse at 251 Sorauren (which remains as rental artists’ spaces) down by Wabash. All but 251 Sorauren were eventually kicked out by developers in order to convert the buildings to lofts. Strangely, it doesn’t appear that anyone ever lived in the old linseed oil factory on Wabash…
There was an article in the Toronto Star that picks up in 1995, talking about artists and their studios in old factories on Sorauren. There were fights with the city over zoning and derelict landlords letting the buildings go to pot. The article is mainly about 347 Sorauren, but it does mention the tenants of 350 Sorauren being evicted. The landlords of both buildings were not keeping them up to code, they were dangerous fire traps according to the city. So 25 tenants at 350 Sorauren were evicted because of their bad landlord. I guess the building was bought cheap after that and converted. Same with 347 Sorauren, I assume those tenants also got turfed, which led to it being converted to lofts as well.
Part of the problem with the rental live-work spaces was that the buildings had never been officially zoned for residential use. They were not necessarily in the best shape and certainly were not up to building code. Technically, everyone was living there illegally, but booting them all out for profit still isn’t cool. Sure, the tenants were given first choice of the lofts to buy, but few bought as most of them could not afford the prices. The residents of 363 Sorauren did not protest like the occupants of One Columbus did 10 years previously. Instead, they had yard sales and sold off lots of art and interesting found objects.
You almost don’t want to know what they originally sold for. The prices started low, if I remember, my wife and I checked them out way back when. You could get a pretty big and awesome unit for around $249,000 I think. Small ones started as low as $149,900. But that was in the mid-2000s.
The most attractive feature of this building today is the location. Sorauren Avenue is in the heart of a quiet, family neighbourhood, where people know their neighbours. Sorauren Park next door is a haven for dog walkers and kids – and it has one of the best farmers markets in the city. Authentic lofts with a healthy dollop of community and a large side of lifestyle is what the Robert Watson Lofts are serving up.
Roncesvalles is primarily a residential neighbourhood, one that has become increasingly in demand in recent years, especially since the city undertook a major reconstruction of the area from 2009-2011. The renovations not only replaced much of the infrastructure, but also rebuilt sidewalks and bike lanes and beautified much of the neighbourhood with trees and planters — turning the area, especially Roncesvalles Avenue itself, into a pedestrian-friendly destination.