The corner of Lansdowne and Davenport is calm these days. But it was once much noisier, a hard-working intersection of industry and train traffic that defined this Junction border zone. Once there were two enormous brick warehouses stretching along the west side of the street, topped with glass skylights that once illuminated the work space inside. For years they sat abandoned, brooding mysteriously, their windows mostly shuttered.
One has been demolished… a historical crime and a huge loss to all of us. But the northern warehouse remains, converted into one of the most incredible lofts in all of Toronto. Even if you aren’t looking to live there, the massive building is worth visiting just for its enduring industrial aesthetic. The Foundry Lofts are part of the original 60-acre foundry site – along with other remains that include the impressive former powerhouse and a well-maintained office building.
The history of these buildings starts in Old Toronto, at 206 Front Street East. Starting at least as far back as 1872, William Hamilton manufactured railway cars, cast iron pipes for water, and related metalwork at his St. Lawrence Foundry on Front Street East. In 1900, the company was sold to W.D. Matthews who changed the name to Canada Foundry Company Limited. In 1903, it was sold again, this time to W.R. Brock and Frederic Nicholls. The new owners moved the company to a new, spacious location in the town of Toronto Junction, at 940-1100 Lansdowne Avenue, between Dupont and Davenport.
While everyone seems to talk only of trains, the Canada Foundry manufactured many different steel and cast iron items: from railway tracks to bridge parts, fences, staircases, and even fire hydrants. The Foundry also made more whimsical objects, such as over-the-top Edwardian decorative dragons designed by architect E.J. Lennox, once housed in the lobby of Old City Hall, now on display at the Toronto Archives. Those dragons, along with the elaborate staircases and original elevator cage, are surviving reminders of the delicate workmanship that once issued from the massive Davenport and Lansdowne site.
The Canada Foundry was perfectly located among other factories along Royce Avenue (now called Dupont Street). The neighbourhood’s companies manufactured every part of the early 20th century’s mechanized dream, from railway tracks to engines, radiators, grinding wheels, and gears, all conveniently located near the trains themselves.
In 1923, the Foundry was sold to General Electric Canada, who began manufacturing electrical transformers. These massive pieces of electrical equipment could weigh up to two hundred and thirty tons, whose cores and coils could be hung like meat on hooks and jigs from the factory’s beams. The transformers had to be shipped out on specially-equipped flatbed trains.
The transformers had a lingering impact on the elegant warehouses of the Foundry site: when the last functioning section was closed in 1981, the site became known for complex PCB contamination. Through the 90s, the warehouses were essentially abandoned, while GE struggled with legal issues around cleaning up the site. The company is rumoured to have spent $20 million on decontamination and toxin removal.
Layers and layers of soil were removed and replaced before the site was deemed to be clean. This is the reason I think that so many buildings were not kept on the site. Of everything that used to be there, only 3 buildings remain? I am sure they were torn down and removed because they were too toxic to clean. Everyone reminisces about the more whimsical times, of trains and beautiful metal work, but the truth is that transformer production was the main function of site, occupying 58 of the factory’s 78 functional years.
And yet, even during these uncertain years, the site attracted admirers; the turn-of-the-century industrial buildings became a favourite film location, the grandest of the abandoned factories that had once defined the neighbourhood. The Foundry’s century-old industrial architecture, even abandoned, kept its most spectacular aspects – the warehouse buildings’ distinctive gabled roofs and top monitors, with corbelled brick (the projecting brickwork that outlines the support base of the roof).
By 1990, Toronto City Council was already considering the site as an industrial heritage site; by 2004, the former old office building and the powerhouse were designated. In 2008, the building at 1100 Lansdowne was classified under the Ontario Heritage Act. These heritage designations came just in time, as Burka Varacalli Architects worked on preserving the warehouse building for the Foundry Loft conversion. Amazingly, the Foundry Lofts are one of few heritage-designated loft buildings, you can count them on two hands. While most Toronto loft conversions are in historic buildings, most of them have no official heritage recognition.
The Foundry Lofts now hold 104 units of various sizes. The majority of the units are 2-storey lofts with 2 bedrooms and 2 washrooms, most just under 1,200 square feet. The remaining units are mostly one storey units in the 700-square-foot range, with some huge and unique 3-storey units at both ends, three 3-storey units in the middle of the west side, and a scattering of odd sized units on the ends and near the entrance.
The new loft residents moved into the building in the fall of 2008, but the warehouse exterior suffered only minor changes. The original window shapes have been preserved and the roof monitor carefully restored. Inside, much of the huge open space of the original building has been maintained as a communal atrium, stretching through the whole central area. Hallways are hung along the edges, giving every loft a main entrance onto the shared 4-storey atrium, lit by the original skylight monitor. There is nothing like it anywhere else in Toronto.
The rest of the site south of the Foundry Lofts, through down to Dupont is being built up with all sorts of new condos and town houses. New stores are going into the old Sully’s Gym building… the entire area is undergoing a fundamental shift to a entirely new residential neighbourhood. From the scraps of Toronto’s industrial golden age, the new Davenport Village neighbourhood rises.
Now that the Galleria Mall has been sold and is going to be developed, there is another upcoming addition to the area just west of Lansdowne. South of Dupont, Wallace Avenue has seen some wonderful smaller loft conversion projects such as the Wallace Station Lofts and the Union Lofts in the old church at Wallace and Perth.