A look inside the building between
By Sue Tiffin
Published Oct. 24, 2017
One concrete beam at a time, Jim O’Connor and Tom Oliver are rehabilitating a building once known as “The Chemical,” honouring the original construction of the old manufacturing plant in Donald and slowly restoring it to the glory it once had.
They say it’s like a blank canvass, but they keep an image of what the building could one day look like – artist Robert Van Nood’s interpretation online showcases a restored and retrofitted state-of-the-art Eco-Innovation Centre - in their heads to keep motivated, and to help pass the time while on the job, brainstorming what it could be in the future. An opera house, a dance hall, a public gallery for car shows and art shows, a covered farmer’s market – whatever it will be, it’s designed to give back to the community.
“If you build it, they will come,” says Oliver.
In its past, it was the Donald Chemical Distribution building, the last remaining building of the Standard Chemical Company, built in the early 1900s for $1 million by Westinghouse Engineering. Now it’s considered an architectural marvel, one of just a few industrial concrete buildings in Ontario from that time left standing. In its heyday, it was Ontario’s largest industrial iron coke producing plant, and then later a wood acetate production facility, part of a plant that employed 300 people.
In an attempt to save it, O’Connor, who bought the building in 1986 intending it to be used for his glass business, partnered with Leora Berman, chief manager of the project, in 2010. She said there have been some challenges and wins, too, in bringing the building they call “The Building Between” back to life.
The pair have been building and coordinating to bring it all together – acquiring public support, rezoning the property, accessing capital funding, building a business case, gutting the building and fixing the roof to prevent further deterioration, levelling the grounds and landscaping and not giving up.
“Jim and his neighbour this year began to remove the rotten concrete, sandblast the steel supports, and with frames, re-pour and remould the concrete superstructure, completing three or four columns and the floor,” says Berman.
“We’ve torn down this side, so the next thing to do is to do that side,” says Oliver, pointing out the results of the work the men have put into the building. “Essentially, the main thing is that these columns get repaired, just for the longevity of it. I mean, it’s a strong building but it needs some love.”
Four days a week, often working all day Sunday, O’Connor, who is retired, has made the project a labour of love. He learned what he could by “talking to the old guys,” and researching to figure out how to chisel off the old concrete, treat the steel underneath, apply a protective coating for rust protection, then mix all the concrete by hand and pour it back in.
“It was neglected obviously,” says O’Connor. “But the history of the building, the history that’s been here, the coolness of the building, it’s pretty nice architecture if you look at it.”
“You realize right now, it just looks like this decrepit old building, but looking at what it can look like, the architectural features are unbelievable,” says Oliver. “As we’ve gone on and done it, you start to look around and realize how these guys actually built it. It’s mind-blowing what they did.”
The site is closed to the public while under restoration, but that hasn’t stopped passersby from pulling over to see what’s going on at the forgotten landmark they’ve driven by so many times. Some say they’ll be back to help, but Oliver laughs that that hasn’t happened yet.
“Another 60 to 80 guys would be perfect,” O’Connor laughs, saying the time to finish it would go significantly faster with more help, but that he puts in the time he can. “I do other things, too. I don’t spend my entire life doing this. Just a few hours a week. Instead of going to the gym, we move concrete around.”
O’Connor and Berman, through The Land Between, have signed another contract this year, after the past five-year contract expired.
“The new agreement also ensures that all public and private contributions will be valued in the event of the building’s sale, so that the public investment will be returned to the public,” said Berman. “It is a more flexible agreement, but also one that outlines specifically the terms of honouring the public investment.”
“This is important as it ensures that the funding from the public purse at $70,000 is honoured and not lost, and that Jim’s almost equal investment in terms of labour over the past few years too is not lost either,” she said. “It allows for Jim to use the building for an income to cover his costs, but also an agreement ensures the building’s use will be ultimately for public benefit and therefore allows The Land Between charity to access funding.”
The memorandum of understanding, or agreement, needs to be reviewed by a lawyer, and Berman would welcome a legal volunteer to help so the agreement can be reviewed and signed and more funding can be accessed for the project. In the meantime, when winter comes, O’Connor plans to rent the building as a storage facility.
While O’Connor and Oliver get their hands dirty – with help in the past from groups including high school students, Don Koppin Construction and Stewardship Rangers – Berman is doing work of her own profiling the building to historians and heritage building buffs in Toronto.
“Many professors are interested in the building given its unique constructions and heritage value,” she says. “The building has no welding, and beams in the centre are free standing – like Stonehenge. It is an engineering marvel.”
Berman says she’s still passionate about the project after all these years, and that it remains one of the “coolest buildings in Ontario” in her opinion, as well as to engineers, universities and colleagues from the Ministry of Culture and Sport.
“It is a stubborn and difficult project, as I am told restoring historical sites always are...but the building seems to have its own pace, needs and presence,” said Berman. “It has its own voice in a sense – and I want to preserve its story as a testament to this community’s unyielding stamina and successes – its entrepreneurial spirit.”
When they’re done with it, both Berman and O’Connor hope the building will stand for another 100 years.
For more information on the project or to get involved, visit buildingbetween.ca or haliburton-storage.com.