Photo: 151 John St. South, undergoing renovations. Credit to the author.
I live on the mountain and take the 35 Bus downtown about two or three times a day. I get off the bus at John and Augusta, so throughout the winter and into the spring, I watched the little building at 151 John South be gradually torn apart. When considering its renovation, it's easy to think about fashion, function, history, and the desire for urban space; that little concrete building serves as an example of how we preserve built heritage and how we tear it down. In other cities, brutalism - the architectural style known for exposed concrete built into sculptural shapes - is making a comeback. The style has mostly been used by institutions, especially universities. So, it was unusual to see a smaller-scale domestic example, a charming exception to the drab Victorians that make up the rest of the neighbourhood.
As I watched the renovations occur in that building, I became more and more concerned that they would strip all the charm out of it. I watched as a building that was so private and contained had its sides gouged out for giant steel windows. As a building that was so respectful of its initial materials that it needed nothing more than beautifully crafted concrete weathered into an elegant grey, was painted something closer to black. The paint job was then replaced with faux wood; the building was looking increasingly like a dentist's office. What had been unique, gritty, and gorgeous in a difficult way had become condoified.
What had been unique, gritty, and gorgeous in a difficult way had become condoified.
Researching the building was a difficult exercise. There was little information in the local history archives at the central library and even less in the city archives across from Jackson Square. I started working through newspapers, talking to contractors and current architects. People were a little cagey, which made my work harder. When I spoke with a contractor, who most likely told me more than he should have, I learned that the building was to be taken over by a co-op program run by McMaster, which would teach future insurance brokers. He was wrong; today it is the HQ for Orbis Communications, who build software for experiential and career education programs on post-secondary campuses. The architect on the renovation project, who is newish to Hamilton and working between here and Toronto, gave elegant but generic answers to questions about preservation. He would not discuss the new owners of the building. The city representative in charge of heritage preservation I spoke to had excellent answers, but didn’t say much about the John Street building itself. Working through social media, I found people who had spent years of their lives researching the history of Hamilton who often thought that history had ended decades before. I spent months researching this little brutalist space, trying to save it. However, as time went on, saving it seemed more and more impossible.
Photo: 151 John St. South, side view.
Here is what we know about the building: it was built in 1980. There had been Victorian houses on the site before that. The building housed William Morris and his personal injury law firm for a little over a decade. It was eventually turned into housing, with up to sixteen people living in the space at a time. It was bought a year or so ago. The tenants left, and construction began. I have not been able to find the original architect, and though Morris is still practicing law, he had little interest in talking with me about the nature of the building or why he made the bold design choices that he did.
Considering what it means to preserve modernist architecture and to determine what gets saved and what gets demolished or renovated, it is not that the city of Hamilton is ignoring modernism altogether. Since the 2007 destruction of the monumental school board building, there have been more buildings saved and more attempts to save them. As Alissa Golden, who works in heritage for the city of Hamilton, notes: "In terms of the preservation of modern heritage in Hamilton, it is definitely on our minds here at the City. The heritage inventory work we have recently undertaken includes the identification and recognition of modern heritage structures in addition to the standard “Victorian” buildings, including Stelco Tower, Hamilton Place, Landmark Place and some mid-century residences (e.g. Inglewood Drive) in Downtown Hamilton and the Durand Neighbourhood. And one of the most famous modern heritage buildings in Hamilton, City Hall, is designated under the Ontario Heritage Act."
...It is not that the city of Hamilton is ignoring modernism altogether. Since the 2007 destruction of the monumental school board building, there have been more buildings saved and more attempts to save them.
This desire for preservation resulted in two exhibits, both called Sleek: here and here. They were created with the purpose of informing and preserving a modernist heritage in Hamilton, but a heritage that speaks of a kind of social ease. They are largely residential homes, marked by open plan layouts and frequent use of windows. They are easy buildings to love, and easy buildings to love are easy buildings to preserve. Buildings that are difficult to love - that have not been formally revived, that are a little weird, and have ambivalent relationships to the city - are much more difficult to preserve. With the damage done to 151 John Street South on the same block, I wonder if the extensions of St Joseph's Hospital, or the apartment building Terraces on John, would be as simply preserved. I wonder, in short, what is next.
The architect of the current renovations, talking about what it means to save a building that might be too old or too ugly, said: "if a building has meaningful stories to tell about the place and people of the community, then I think those buildings will naturally be preserved, whether formally with Heritage status, or by developers recognizing the value of the story and capitalizing on it."
Buildings that are difficult to love - that have not been formally revived, that are a little weird, and have ambivalent relationships to the city - are much more difficult to preserve.
Photo: 151 John St. South, exterior before renovations.
Aside from the problem of capital, the question of story is a difficult one. Part of the difficulty is that some stories are easy to tell; the ones in the Sleek exhibit are ones of entrepreneurship and daring, but the same might not be true of John Street. There is also the factors of willingness to tell the stories and response to the people who tell them. Lastly, there is the more difficult story, about having so little low-income housing space available in this city (not that 151 John S was designated as such) and having ad hoc or ersatz solutions. About having low-income housing being taken away and not replaced quickly enough. For all the long conversations that Hamiltonians have had about creative reuse of buildings, a building that was successfully repurposed without renovation has had its character stripped and has been returned to a public-private partnership.
For all the long conversations that Hamiltonians have had about creative reuse of buildings, a building that was successfully repurposed without renovation has had its character stripped and has been returned to a public-private partnership.
The loss of John Street – be it inevitable or merely potential – would be another example of the loss of Hamilton's built environment, and perhaps, its sense of self.