Tannery Lofts – 736 Dundas Street East

The Tannery Lofts is a hard loft conversion of a 1913 red brick factory building. As with many converted lofts, the name and myth don’t always match up to the actual history…

History of the Tannery Lofts

The Tannery Lofts is a hard loft conversion of a 1913 red brick factory building that was formerly used for industrial purposes. As with many converted lofts, the name and myth don’t always match up to the actual history. The Tannery Lofts was designed and built by one of Toronto’s best-known architects, John M. Lyle, it was originally used for manufacturing and storage by the Adam Beck Cigar Box Manufacturing Company.

Tannery Lofts – 736 Dundas Street East

The buttressed facade of the Tannery Lofts at 736 Dundas Street East

The Tannery Lofts is located at 736 Dundas Street East, just east of River Street near the Don Valley Parkway. Some units are located in the original three-storey structure and have the awesome 13-foot wood ceilings, brick walls and exposed posts and beams. Blending in with the old building is a new two-storey addition with a brick facade and warehouse-style windows. You almost wouldn’t know there was an addition if you didn’t look too closely.

Tannery Lofts – 736 Dundas Street East

The original Tannery Lofts building (nicely cleaned up), right before construction of the addition began. You can see the elevator shaft poking up above the roof.

The developer of the Tannery Lofts was the Walsh Development Group (who also completed the conversion of the old Gillette razor factory on Adelaide Street East into the Liberty Lofts – https://jeffreyteam.com/info/liberty-lofts/). With the Tannery Lofts, the company waded into a neighbourhood where two other experienced developers had pulled loft projects from the market because of poor response. Can you imagine a time when loft conversions got a “poor” response?

Tannery Lofts – 736 Dundas Street East

There was a time when people were not that interested in living in an amazing loft like this. I know, right?

Demand for the Tannery Lofts was pretty crazy at the time – lines formed and excitement grew. Some people were filing out contracts on cardboard boxes! While others waited their turn, it was not unusual for prices to rise by $5,000. Crazy… The lofts range in size from the smallest, a 443 square-foot unit, to the largest at 1,300 square feet. On a square-foot basis, the prices are pretty good, probably because of its location next to Regent Park. But once that redevelopment is complete, expect prices to jump nicely.

Tannery Lofts – 736 Dundas Street East

You can see the old cigar box factory at right in this photo taken some time in the 1960s

Before being turned into the Tannery Lofts, the building was always more famous for being a cigar box factory. Not a tannery. This former industrial building was designed by the prominent Toronto architect John M. Lyle. Its owner, the Hon. Adam Beck, was a businessman and politician, and an influential advocate for a publicly owned electricity supply in Ontario.

Tannery Lofts – 736 Dundas Street East

Lofts in the addition do not have the exposed brick and wood character of the lower floors, but they do have a pretty killer view!

Beck was born in Baden, Ontario to German immigrant parents. He attended school at the Rockwood Academy in Rockwood, Ontario. As a teenager he worked in his father’s foundry, and later established a cigar box manufacturing company in Galt (now Cambridge), Ontario with his brother William. In 1885 he moved the company to London, Ontario, where it quickly flourished.

Tannery Lofts – 736 Dundas Street East

The original 3-storey factory on Dundas, just east of River, as it appeared in 1972. Note the awesome Chevelle driving past 🙂

Beck was an early and prominent advocate of publicly owned electricity grids, opposing the privately owned companies who he felt did not adequately serve the needs of the public. He convinced the Ontario premier to create a board of inquiry on the matter, with him as chairman. The inquiry suggested creating a municipally owned hydroelectric system, funded by the provincial government, and using water from Niagara Falls and other Ontario lakes and rivers. In 1906 Premier Whitney appointed Beck the first chairman of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission.

Tannery Lofts – 736 Dundas Street East

A couple of units on the lower floors have these odd patios squished in on the west side of the loft, next to the public works building. Cool little spot if you ask me!

As principal founder and guiding genius of Ontario Hydro, Beck helped establish the public enterprise tradition in Canada, though his methods did little to render such enterprises more politically accountable. The Sir Adam Beck Pump Generating Station on the Niagara River in Queenston is named for him. He was knighted by King George V in 1914 for his promotion of electricity and development of transmission lines.

Tannery Lofts – 736 Dundas Street East

Upper level lofts have more traditional terraces, with amazing city views

Before cigars, the property was first developed in 1910 when a single-storey tannery was built for Harry B. Johnston, a tenant to Adam Beck. Apart from his political activities, Beck was a prominent businessman whose company manufactured cigar boxes. Seems that Beck owned a large lot, the entire strip from River Street to the Don River, the southtern half between Beech/Wilton/Dundas and Cornwall Street to the north. The tannery was a long and low building east of where the Tannery Lofts stand now. The Lexus dealership stands where the tannery would have been 100 years ago.

Tannery Lofts – 736 Dundas Street East

The arrow highlights the old loft building, with stucco or paint on it, as seen in 1977. Closer to the camera you can see the other old warehouses on the spot where the tannery once stood. Heck, they may even be part of Harry Johnston’s old operation. But nobody wanted to buy lofts carved from the buildings, so they tore them down and built a car dealership on the spot. Criminal!

Johnston must have rented part of the land from Beck upon which his tannery was built. You don’t want to know what kind of awesome old building was there in the early 2000s, the one that could not generate enough interest to be converted… The little building between the Tannery Lofts and the Lexus dealer is all that is left. And that little box probably dates back to the tannery and might be the only authentic “tannery” anything on the block!

Tannery Lofts – 736 Dundas Street East

The old cigar box factory as it looked back around 1930 or so

Very little out there about Mr. Johnston and his tannery. Best I can find is that he lived at 740 Spadina Avenue in the early 1900s, as noted in the 1913 City Directory. He married Winifred in 1906 and she gave birth to little Howard Eckardt Johnston in June of 1911. The birth notice mentions that Harry B. Johnston is a “leather wiper”, but not that he owned a tannery. They must have been somewhat important, though, as they warranted a listing in the 1913 Blue Book (noting that they received visitors on the 1st Tuesday of the month). Ominously, he does not appear in the 1921 City Directory.

Tannery Lofts – 736 Dundas Street East

The Tannery Lofts is really one of the most authentic and character-filled lofts in Toronto

Back to our loft building. Completed in 1913, the plans for Beck’s factory were prepared by the notable Toronto architect, John M. Lyle. While Lyle is more famously associated with Union Station and the Royal Alexandra Theatre, he also designed several power stations for Ontario Hydro (I’m guessing Beck liked his work). Lyle’s plans for this site worked around Johnston’s Tannery on the east side of the lot. Significant for its association with an important historical figure, the Adam Beck Cigar Box Manufacturing Company Building is architecturally important as a well-designed early 20th century industrial building.

Tannery Lofts – 736 Dundas Street East

The Tannery Lofts is a gorgeous red brick industrial remnant, with a very well-integrated addition

The heritage attributes of the cigar box manufacturing building are found on the exterior walls and roof. Rising three stories, the structure features a long rectangular plan. The building is clad with red brick and trimmed with brick and precast stone. It was designated heritage by the city in 2005.

Tannery Lofts – 736 Dundas Street East

Gorgeous inside and out, the Tannery Lofts is one of my favourites

Lyle designed Beck’s factory in 1913, as well as the tannery for Harry B. Johnston & Co. in 1910. Some say it used to be a soap factory, many say that was the original use. But, it cannot be, as Beck had Lyle build it for him. It started out making boxes for cigars.

Tannery Lofts – 736 Dundas Street East

You’ll have sweet dreams in a loft as cool as this!

Lastly, the Tannery Lofts used to front onto Wilton Avenue, which used to be Beech Street. Wilton became Dundas East between 1913 and 1924. It was Beck who championed the construction of a Toronto branch of his cigar box company on the extension of Wilton Avenue (later Dundas Street East) near the Don River Bridge.

Tannery Lofts – 736 Dundas Street East

The heritage plaque on the Tannery Lofts explaining how the building wasn’t, uh, ever a tannery…

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