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The Curious Case of The Hamilton City Centre

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The City Centre, formally the Eaton Centre, is an eye sore. There is no subtle way to put it. It’s ugly, it’s imposing and for such a young building, it’s aged terribly. However, there’s more to this postmodern monstrosity than what meets the eye. It’s become a part of the James Street North fabric and is worth examining more critically.

Completed in 1990 by Baltimore firm RTKL Architects, it was designed during a time when postmodernism was avant-garde in Canada. Mississauga’s City Hall was completed a mere three years earlier by architects Jones and Kirkland and for the most part, was a resounding success in a booming city. But one of the issues with postmodern architecture is it becomes dated. Quickly.

Though what’s interesting about architecture is how style is cyclical. What was once in style becomes out of style, only to be back in style again. Postmodernism has a charming braveness to it. It’s daring, confusing, whimsical, unique, and sometimes terribly executed (sorry, Michael Graves). Most buildings designed during this era of architecture look like they’ve had an identity crisis. Is it modern? Is it contemporary? Is it classical? The City Centre is no different. What is it?

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Reticles of steel tracery surround the James St N entrance, an unintentional metaphor for how it missed the mark.

The exterior is more like a barracks than a mall and could be mistaken for the James Street North Armories. It’s a fortress, with almost no windows, unwelcoming entrances, and kitsch accents. The brickwork, tacky but fun; the steel framing, odd; the pastel colours, dated; and the clock tower is one of its only applaudable statements. Overall, the exterior could do with some re-imagining.

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New glazing added to the York Boulevard facade

In 2008 Lintack Architects did some exterior and interior work, adding windows and offices along the York Boulevard streetwall. A continuation should be made to James Street North. More windows, entrances that reach further to the street, and a greater connectivity to storefronts at street level could help revitalize its appearance. There is no interplay between the City Centre and any of its neighbours. Finding ways to mirror the success of pedestrian friendly buildings is a step in the right direction.

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The inside of the City Centre is a different story. It’s a lovely example of postmodern design done right. With nods to an architectural past (the interior was inspired by the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II), the space is light, airy, and is a welcomed change compared to the abysmal, low-ceilinged bunker that is its neighbour, Jackson Square.

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Skylights pour natural light into the space through rows of arches. Detailed columns line the balustrades on multiple levels, framing the space in a gentle manner. While the food court is below grade in an atrium setting, topped with a glass dome surrounded by a frieze titled “Lineage” by artists Susan Schelle and Mark Gomes. The interior brings back nostalgic feelings to many Hamiltonians and it ought to be preserved accordingly.

This is where the fear of change lies. The interior doesn’t need much. What it needs is refurbishing. The incandescent bulbs are burnt out like an old amusement ride, paint is peeling and fading into unrecognizable colours, and the space is sorely missing tenants.

Drawing tenants should be the main concern, which will come. After all, this playful space once housed Eaton’s. World Gym is soon to move in, which should bring a great amount of foot traffic and hopefully snowball into something more.

The food court needs food, the spaces require tenants, and the tiled floors need treads walking all over them. As Jackson Square slowly claws its way back to a viable shopping destination, so too will City Centre. All it needs is some love and attention.

Let’s just hope Cash 4 Money leaves the premises, because the City Centre is better than that. Nothing deters people like a shark in the water.

 

 

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A Special Event: Hamilton Flea at Brown’s Tire – November 14th

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Hamilton Flea is back and in a new location. Last time was Treble Hall and this time around it’s the old Brown’s Tire Building.

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The old Brown’s Tire is located at the corner of Wellington and King William in a turn-of-the-century, three-storey brick building. Covered with event signage by The Story Girl and Circa Projects, the building is full of nostalgic features that are fitting for a pop-up flea.

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The exterior of the building, facing Wellington, has three floor-to-ceiling windows at ground level, decorative keystones above the upper storey windows, and an intact cornice complete with corbels. The storefront fascia is exposed, waiting for tenants to occupy the space and erect new signage.

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Inside it is magic. Original hardwood floors, layers of peeling paint over exposed brick, white classical columns, and large beams highlight the first floor. The stairs leading to the second floor are of an early modern design, with a mild steel trapezoidal balustrade and swirling banister.

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As you reach the second floor you see more of the same: exposed brick, wood floors, a row of columns, a black and white beam, and exposed joists. Numerous windows illuminate the room in a glowing harmony, shining poetic beams of light on a space yearning for more.

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The third floor is the real deal. A must see space. The ceilings are high, with subtle vaulting. All the joists, strapping, and cross bridging is open. Look through it all and you’ll see a peaked ceiling high above. There are levels to this floor, through a chorus of wall studs, worthy of investigating. The potential for the future of its space is palpable.

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Much has been found during restoration. Old signs, doors, unique solid blocking, receipts, and other little elements have appeared, showing the rich history of this old commercial building. Hamilton Flea is the newest notch on the building’s old leather belt.

The notches are many. Some of the business that have occupied the building include:

  • Farr and McManus Furniture Finishes (1925)
  • Bamford Tire Service
  • Classic Athletic Club
  • Wellington Tire Service
  • Brown’s Tire (1942)
  • HCA Vacuum

Hamilton Flea, presented by Girl on the Wing and The Academy of All Things Awesome, is an event worth applauding. Not only does it bring together local and regional vendors, it also showcases unique historical buildings looking for investment and love. Shortly after they hosted the flea at Treble Hall, the building was sold to developers wanting to do more with the vacant heritage space. Hopefully the owners of the Brown’s Tire Building find the tenants they are searching for and then some. Saturday November 14th can’t come fast enough.

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Heritage Spotlight: Victoria Hall

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Victoria Hall
William Stewart/Tran Dieu Associates
66 King St E
Completed: 1888/2008

It’s enamel white; it’s delightfully detailed; it’s in Gore Park, and it’s a National Historic Site. It’s the Victoria Hall building designed by Hamilton architect William Stewart.

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Completed in 1888 for Hamilton Lawyer Alexander Bruce, this three-and-a-half storey building sits wedged between the large Dominion Bank Building and the six-storey terracotta A.B. MacKay building.

The façade is composed of galvanized sheet metal, giving the appearance of a rich painted stone texture, but without the expense. The sheet metal is sculpted by hand in Italianate detail.

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Above the storefront, three-bay windows are surrounded by elongated columns spiraling towards the sky with decorative corbels clinging at the pointed tops as if they were the wings of a butterfly. Flanked by marshmallow-like rusticated pilasters, the high relief details draw the eyes up in a true tripartite fashion.

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The top half-story has short arched windows complimented with ball shaped voussoirs and large keystones. Capping the building is a large overhanging cornice shaped with bulbous corbel brackets and a simple frieze.

Victoria hall was designated as a National Historic Site in 1995 for a number of reasons. It’s a rare High Victorian commercial building amongst the rest of Gore Park’s building stock and Victoria Hall is also one of the earliest remaining sheet metal facades still intact to grace the skies of Canada.

The building was purchased in 2005 and the Toronto engineering firm of Tran Dieu & Associates converted the upper stories into two large residential units. Both units were occupied after the renovations, which were completed in late 2008.

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Design Spotlight: The North End Free Library

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The North End Free Library
Thier + Curran Architects Inc.
56 Macaulay St W
Completed: July 2015

Sometimes all you need is a bench and a book. Mixed with the right setting and it can be a fairytale of imagination, inspiration, and conversation. In this case, Thier + Curran Architects wrote the perfect story.

With a bench on a steel frame and a box full of books, the recently completed North End Free Library is a little community oasis on a quiet street.

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The raw steel frame is exposed with all the marks and traces of its construction. Perched atop the L-shaped boxlike frame is an ipe slat bench for the passerby to stop and read, or converse with neighbours.

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A cedar library box hangs down against the frame like a light. With a decorative resin window and self-closing hinges, the little library comfortably holds an adequate amount of books in a sealed space. It’s like finding a cupboard of educational treasures.

Designed and financed by Thier + Curran Architects, the library presides on the Scime/Curran Residence, an adaptive re-use project by TCA.

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Each book even comes with a custom stamp designed by the firm. Take a book, or leave a book.

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A Special Event: Hamilton Flea at Treble Hall

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On July 11th a very special event is happening at one of Hamilton’s most cherished heritage buildings.

Hamilton Flea, hosted by Girl On The Wing and The Academy Of All Things Awesome, is a one-day event featuring vendors from far and wide inside Treble Hall.

Located at 8 John Street North, Treble Hall is a Renaissance Revival Style building designed by renowned Hamilton architect James Balfour. Other historic buildings designed by Balfour include old City Hall, Tuckett Mansion, and The Balfour House.

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Completed in 1879, the four-storey building is delightfully detailed. The storefronts feature pilasters and columns with Corinthian capitals. A number of the storefront windows even feature leaded transoms. Above, the 18 windows are adorned with window surrounds, accented with pediments on the second floor.

Two stars are located on the second floor, between a central window, to indicate “The Secret Door” to the floors above.

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Dormer windows punctuate the roofline overlooking John Street and the cornice below is lined with corbels and dentils. The centre of the roof features an ornate relief that reads “Treble Hall” and the year the building was completed.

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Jeff Feswick, owner of Historia Building Restoration Inc, bought the building in 2010 and has uncovered layers of history hidden in the floors and walls. The interior has been gutted, exposing the framing and joists, save for a few walls with patches of peeling wallpaper. The space has sat unused for decades, until now.

Feswick wants to see Treble Hall come to life, like it used to be, as a public space. And that’s exactly what’s happening on July 11th.

The flea market features the following vendors:

Girl on the Wing
The Eye of Faith
Roly Poly Records and Retro
White Elephant
Jelly Brothers
Perk Naturals
Moulin Rouge
Academy of All Things Awesome
Donut Monster
Sweet Ice Snow Cones
Stay Home Club
No Fun Press
Yo Sick
… and many more

Young Lions Music Club will be spinning tunes throughout the day and the flea runs from 11am-6pm. Find “The Secret Door” to enter.

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Architectural Spotlight: Stelco Tower

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Stelco Tower
Arthur C.F. Lau
100 King Street W
Completed: 1973

Look up, way up. 338 feet up to be exact. That’s the height of Stelco Tower, currently the second tallest building in Hamilton. A modern tower of 26-storeys designed by Quebec architect Arthur C.F. Lau.

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The building was erected to not only house Stelco’s head office, but also showcase the company’s newest steel, “Stelcoloy,” a special steel alloy that was meant to rust slower and protect the steel from future damage. Now a rusty brown through years of oxidation, the steel was a blue-grey when the building was completed in 1973. Not as striking as the patina of copper, but the material still has charm.

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The design is minimalist, almost Miesian, an International Style tower with local flair. However, it doesn’t have the prominent vertical flanged mullions of a Mies van der Rohe skyscraper. Instead the tower emphasizes height through a repetitive grid of horizontal bands of glass and Stelcoloy. The volume of the building draws your eyes up.

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At 100 King Street, the three-storey entrance is austere. Inside the lobby it’s strictly business, with an elevator core clad in stainless steel, red granite floors, and a lonesome security desk. Jackson Square Mall is connected to the tower on the north side and it can also be accessed via the malls plaza roof. Occupancy is low since Stelco moved out completely in 2004, leaving many stories vacant.

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Currently the 21st floor is an empty space available for events, offering breathtaking views of the city.

The tower was part of Hamilton’s first urban revitalization project that plagued the city with modern, auto-centric planning as early as 1958 and included the construction of Jackson Square starting in 1968.

Don’t be fooled by the rusty façade, better days are yet to come for Stelco Tower.

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PHOTO OF THE DAY – June 1st

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Highland Secondary School (Architect: Stanley Roscoe) – Dundas

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June 1, 2015 · 9:40 pm