Almonte national heritage award shortlist: Building 2

The National Trust for Canada has recently advised the Almonte Heritage Redevelopment Group that five buildings that they rehabilitated have been shortlisted for an Ecclesiastical Insurance Cornerstone Award for Resilient Places.

Look for an article in the September Humm to learn more about this national award and why it is so exciting that Almonte might be receiving it. In the meantime, we’re shining a spotlight on each of the buildings over the coming weeks.

This week: 78 Mill Street, Almonte

One of the skills of the amateur urban historian is to learn “to read the text” of our built environments. This comes in very handy this week as we look at the impressively modest – or is it modestly impressive – building at 78 Mill Street.

78 Mill Street, second from right.

When we looked at the Thoburn Mill last week, its very scale told us that this building has importance to Almonte. Square footage equates to capital, as everyone knows, and a building of such size had to have cost a lot of money to build initially and then maintain (and redevelop). So with all that big effort and big investment, there must be big stories to tell about the Thoburn Mill.

But let’s look at something much smaller – a building of effectively two dimensions that forms part of a wall of a streetscape. What might something with such a small footprint in plan tell us about who built it and why? This where the reading of the building comes in, and even if you don’t know any of the lingo of architecture and history you can learn a lot by just comparing it to what’s around it.

The first thing that strikes you about this building is that huge welcoming recessed doorway, which today entices you in for a latte from North Market. But look at the scale of those windows and the height of that ceiling! Even accounting for the slope of the sidewalk the first floor of this building is significantly higher that those either directly flanking it or anywhere else on Mill Street.

Paving Mill Street in early 1930s. 78 Mill at right.

This scale continues above the first-floor cornice that marks the break from the transparency of the shopfront to the solidity of the brick façade of the second storey.

But this is not typical Mill Street brickwork, just as the first storey is not of a typical Mill Street height. In fact, in just one storey, the brick describes six zones: a base band below the windows in vertical yellow stripes, linking the windows to the cornice and suggesting balcony railings; a horizontal band connecting the sills of the four windows; a zone of plain brick flanking the moving sash; a highly elaborated course of hood mouldings that project above the windows, magnifying their size and underlining that they are in two styles of arch: half-round and segmented; another zone of plain brick; and a final band of yellow brick that protrudes to meet the substantial tin cornice.

Who would have paid for all this, and why? This is where some actual archival research begins. But that research can be inspired by more informal wondering and speculating about the buildings around us.

The answer, it seems, is that this building originally contained the printing shop of William W. Pittard (1850-1938), who published the Almonte Times from this location following its founding in 1882. Suddenly the scale of the building makes sense. In a time when a town the size of Almonte had two papers, it is understandable that their buildings should be on a scale to reflect their importance. In fact, once you know that this was almost an institutional building, you can see the similarities to its cousin, the Old Post Office, across the street.

After the end of the Times’ time in the building, 78 Mill Street went through a series of uses including, in a downward social spiral, a bank, a gift shop, and a law office. (That’s a joke, folks.) Changing uses led to changing design, and by the time that Vicki Veenstra, Johannes Hill, Inez Kettles and Stephen Brathwaite – all members of the informal entity that is the Almonte Heritage Redevelopment Group – bought the building in 2004, the light filled spaces required for typesetters squinting at lead had been replaced with respectable consulting rooms walled in with brick, small windows and low ceilings.

Before the restoration

Happily, though, the solidity and majesty of the upper floor exterior had inspired all its owners to maintain it through changing ground-level alterations. In particular, the great cornice, so often sadly lost from other buildings of the era, remained. What’s more, as demolition began on the infill brick façade, much of the original material was discovered, to the relief of the project architect Peter Mansfield, including the original cast-iron columns and ceiling of the retail doorway.

This work in 2013 was achieved with a facade improvement loan from Valley Heartland Community Futures Development Corporation. It led to a much more public use than professional offices when, under those re-exposed 14’ ceilings, a coffee house opened for business. The North Market currently occupies the space, which for a week last September masqueraded as a bookstore for the filming of Christmas Around the Corner, and has recently had its first pop-up dinner event on August 22, 2019.

If you have any memories of 78 Mill Street to share, please do so in the comments below. And thanks to Susan Macaulay for her enthusiastic endorsement of last week’s article.