Almonte national heritage award shortlist: Victoria Woolen Mill

by David J. Stephenson

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.

The article on page 18 of the September Humm gives more details about this national award and why it is so exciting that Almonte might be receiving it. In the meantime, we’re continuing to tell the stories of the individual buildings over the coming weeks.


This week: The Victoria Woollen Mill at 7 Mill Street, Almonte

If there was ever a story of heritage resilience to be told about a building in Almonte, it would be this one.  Against many odds, this is the third iteration of a building on this site and each one has been fascinating.

Our main interest is in the current version of the building. But first a quick overview of the previous two versions.

In the 1820s, when the town of Almonte did not exist in any real way, the first two mills were built by Daniel Shipman to fulfill the requirement of a land grant from the Crown, to which he obtained patent in 1830.  These buildings were a sawmill, where the Old Town Hall currently stands, and a grist mill on the site of 7 Mill Street.  Presumably a dirt track linked the two along the approximate line of Mill Street today, but there was essentially nothing else around but a lot of forest and the roaring Mississippi.

The second iteration of the building began after the original wood-framed mill building burnt in 1853.  It was replaced with assorted buildings related to the milling of wool.  Although the building today is called the Victoria Woolen Mill, in truth it is only a rather plain 1863 addition to the grander 1857 main building.  And the milling operations run on the site had many names over the years as ownership changed.

From its heyday, the site of the mill became ever more tired with time.  A fire in 1909 destroyed the main building and 7 Mill Street went through a variety of owners and uses until it was finally sold in 1993 to Greg Smith and Stephen Brathwaite.

At the end of its milling life, the specific process occurring in 7 Mill Street was “shoddy milling”, a term that originally applied to the reprocessing of wool and fabric scraps into new material, but eventually came into the language to mean things of lesser quality.  Hearkening back to that final use, before formally incorporating as the Victoria Woolen Mill Inc., Smith and Brathwaite impishly called themselves the Shoddy Mill Partners, although potential investors were understandably unsure of what to make of that.  So apt, though, that a heritage redevelopment, the ultimate form of environmental reuse, should be a building that had recycling in its past!

Just as we need to imagine the origins of Almonte as a few buildings in the woods on the edge of the water, it is also important to remember our more recent history.  As William Chapman wrote in The Millstone on October 5, 2012, “In 1976 the Victoria Woolen Mill, the 5-storey structure at the bottom of Mill Street housed Pinecraft, a pine furniture manufacturing plant which soon retired to its headquarters in Ottawa. Most of that building was derelict as was the Old Post Office in the centre of Town and the Thoburn Mill at 83 Little Bridge Street.” Downtown Almonte was not a very nice place in the last part of the last century.  Part of the reason for this series of articles is to remind us all that it was the tenacious belief in a better place by a few passionate individuals that has given us the downtown we can enjoy today.

A striking example of the state of the downtown is key to this story: a criminal act almost finished the project before it had even begun.  In the same year as the purchase by Smith and Brathwaite, someone set fire to a kids’ fort beneath an old wooden extension attached to the north of the main stone building.  Smoke and water destroyed interiors of the main building, as well as the works of a few artists who had just started a coop in the building.

This would have been enough for most people to just walk away and cut their losses.  But Victoria Woolen Mill Inc. persevered, showing tenaciousness – and resilience – as they continued to seek support for the cool rehabilitation that they knew was possible.  A post-disaster fundraiser by the community, for instance, helped to get things rolling again.  But the big chartered banks turned them away, explaining that they were not interested in being saddled with the problems of, in their opinion, “small towns, small populations and small dreams.”

There were very few grants available for this kind of work. Initial financing was finally obtained through the government guaranteed Small Business Loans program under the guise of improvements to the physical offices of the businesses within the building. Also, numerous local private lenders who believed in the project’s potential were critical to its success. Eventually secured loans were obtained through the Valley Heartland Community Development Corporation, the Federal Business Development Bank and several credit unions across the province acting in syndication to share risk, delivering on their founding principle of people helping people.

And the team doggedly kept going, countering each “no” they were given and transforming it to a “maybe” or a “yes.”  Gradually things turned: artists re-established themselves, post-fire; small businesses rented space and grew, leading to a floor-by-floor renovation of the interior; the masonry walls were repointed; the new stucco addition on the falls side with decks and emergency stairs was designed initially by Julian Smith and completed by Larry Gaines, the Riverwalk lookout was added by the Town with an easement from the owners, and an elevator tower designed by Peter Mansfield was constructed; some formerly commercial spaces were transformed into cool apartments; and restaurants and shops enlivened the main floor.

By 2009, more than 15 years after its purchase by Smith and Brathwaite, the successful conversion of the project to a condominium corporation was completed, eventually comprising 16 units. All have been extensively renovated by Smith and Brathwaite or their new owners.

What we now have is 20,000 square feet of high-grade commercial, retail and residential space downtown.  When the building was purchased by the Almonte Heritage Redevelopment Group it paid about $5,000/year in municipal taxes; it now pays about $50,000.

More importantly, the conversion created 12 new homes in the very core of the town.  The people who live in them populate the streets and patronize the businesses nearby.  And this presence of people living downtown is one of the things that has transformed it.  Jane Jacobs famously wrote about the importance of “eyes on the street”, not in reference to our age of CCTVs, but the more subtle social management that comes from people knowing that other people are potentially watching their activities.

Though Smith may have joked about wanting to be delivered from artists, he also asserts the role of the arts spurring renewal.  He strongly believes that the same creativity that can imagine new paintings and symphonies, can also see potential in undervalued space and can imagine new ways of living together.  Smith and Brathwaite both recognized the importance of blended interests, talents, and uses in this and other redevelopment projects.

Perhaps the Victoria Mill should become – in addition to a landmark in the townscape, an example of a clever mixture of historic and contemporary architectural design, and a source of great meals – a physical reminder to all of us to find points of commonality and excitement.