A Look at the Distillery District, including a Coffee Shop Inside a Very Old Building

Two reasons made it possible for me to get these pictures, focusing on the beautiful old buildings in the Distillery District — 1) I was there during the day on a weekday, so it wasn’t as busy as it can get on the weekend, and 2) I took the King Streetcar over. With the new “Traffic Calming Project” on King, cars are limited making way for the streetcars and bicycles, so I arrived there in half the time it used to take. This left plenty of time before my scheduled friend-date with Julie, to walk around and take pictures.

In brief, Toronto’s Distillery District is a pedestrian-only arts and entertainment area located to the east of the downtown core. It covers 13 acres and includes 47 of the original heritage buildings and the cobblestone streets and laneways between them.

The buildings were built to house what was once, by far, Canada’s largest distillery of spirits, Gooderham and Worts. They were erected in three distinct phases, between 1858 and 1895. The company was in operation right through to the 1980s, so the collection of buildings remained completely intact and in excellent condition. Today they are considered to be the largest collection of Victorian-era industrial architecture in North America.

After the distilling stopped, the area went “semi-dark” for several years and then was refurbished to be used as it is today, opening as the cultural centre in 2003. A lot of housing was added, as well, so now there are new buildings surrounding the old ones.

There are two websites for the Distillery District, this one that relates to current day and all that goes on in this transformed site, and this one that details the history of the place.

It was on the second site that I found this 48 page document written in 1988, which talks in detail about all that went on there. If you’re interested in the whole story, I encourage you to read that. If you prefer a quick synopsis, here it is …

The story of the area began with the arrival of a British miller named James Worts in May of 1831. At the age of 39, he arrived in Toronto with his wife and young children. He immediately bought a piece of land which was just on the eastern edge of what was, at that time, the established City of York (which later became Toronto). It was north of what was then a shallow marshy part of Lake Ontario, on the western bank of the Don River.

In the following months he arranged to have a brick windmill erected, which was completed by the end of November. At 70 feet tall, it was the tallest windmill in the area and ended up having quite an influence on Toronto’s waterfront, in that it became the easternmost marker for where docks were allowed to be built in the harbour, the westernmost being Fort Rouillé which was located within today’s CNE grounds. The windmill ended up being the last large one built in this province, because power generation was right at the point of changing from wind and water to steam engines.

After the windmill was built, it stood idle for 10 months without sails and machinery, awaiting the arrival of James Worts’ brother-in-law, his wife’s brother, William Gooderham, in July 1832. At the age of 42, he arrived from England with a large entourage of family, staff and at least 11 orphans.

The two went into business milling locally grown grain. Then, after less than two years, James Worts suddenly died as a result of suicide. It’s a sad story — in early 1834 his wife (and William’s sister) died in childbirth. Two weeks later, James threw himself into the well and drowned.

William Gooderham and his wife Harriet took on the care of Worts’ children, along with their own 13.

William continued the business they had begun, adding the distillation of spirits to his output in the 1837, when grain was plentiful thanks to the opening of the Welland Canal.

By the mid 1840s his sons and nephew (Worts) joined the business.

The business prospered and at some point the windmill was disassembled and whatever buildings had been built were taken down, making room for construction to begin in 1858, on the buildings that remain there today.

↑ A lithograph of the area, created before photography became widely accessible. ↑

The company was “loaned” to the British in 1916, during the First World War, to make much needed acetone. This may have been the reason for the extensive series of detailed photographs, taken during this period, of the whole operation and staff, which I found within the “City of Toronto Archives”. These, taken in November 1918 (with the exception of one taken two years earlier), seem to be the only remaining really old photos of Gooderham and Worts. I’ve inclucded a few to show you here, however, if you’d like to see them all, search the word “distillery”. Then, look for the ones dated 1918.

Rather than grouping my recently taken shots and the historical ones together, I’m going to mix them up so you can better see the “Then and Now” aspect …

↑ Approaching the historic buildings from Parliament Street on the west, walking eastward. New housing lines both sides of Gristmill Lane. ↑

↑ Turning around to look back towards downtown (westward). ↑

↑ Walking eastward, along Gristmill Lane ↑

↑ The stack is the same seen in the historic shots below ↑

↑ Some staff, including three named “Gooderham” (in the front row). They would have been the 5th or 6th generation of the founding family working there. ↑

↑ The people walking their dog, a few shots above, are walking along this lane, beside that strip of one story buildings. ↑

↑ I turned back to look westward again. The ladies in the next historical photo are working in the building on the right. ↑

↑ See the white limestone building through their windows? ↑

↑ I’m not sure exactly where this drafting office was located but it probably would have been somewhere in that building too. ↑

↑ The little dog in the previous picture is standing and looking in the same direction as I was to take this photo.

The large L-shaped white limestone building was one of the first put up, taking 21 months beginning in 1859. The walls are 3 1/2 feet thick. There’s an old Globe newspaper story about it, which states that 4 schooners were employed full-time, bringing the limestone along the St. Lawrence river, from a quarry outside of Kingston. It took 400 to 500 men to build it and cost around $150,000. ↑

↑ Taken from the southeast. ↑

↑ Taken from the southwest.

See the building with the peaked roof on the right? That’s the Fire Pump House, built in 1895 — it’s the place that Julie and I are inside of, a bit further down in the post. ↑

Julie and I were going to Balzac’s Coffee Shop, which inside the former “Pump House”, but before we go there, I’ll finish showing you the photos I got of the other buildings …

↑ Looking towards the northeast ↑

↑ The ornate wrought-iron railings are original, and can be seen in the historic shot below. ↑

↑ Julie in front of the former “Trinity Street Still Building. ↑

↑ See the “Pump House” on the far right?

↑ Taken from the northern end, looking south along Trinity Street. ↑

↑ North on the western side of Trinity Street … Spirit of York recently began using the historic building to distill spirits once again. ↑

↑ At the Pump House / Coffee shop once again. ↑

↑ Standing in front of the coffee shop and turning around, looking back to Gristmill Lane (the path I followed to get there). ↑

↑ As mentioned, The Pump House was built in 1895. It was the last of the old ones completed, specifically intended to pump water in case there was a fire. They could have used it 25 years earlier, when there was a fire that gutted the inside of the first buildings, including the limestone one. They were all quickly rebuilt and that became a blip in their history. ↑

↑ We sat upstairs, beside the inside window to the left in the shots above. ↑

The story behind the small independent chain, Balzac’s Coffee, is so inspiring. I kind of wish I was President and Founder Diana Olsen, if only so part of my job would entail collecting all the cool vintage coffee related pieces they had in there!

If you’ll be visiting Toronto, you don’t want to miss checking out The Distillery District. There are all kinds of restaurants, bars and shops to see, in addition to these fascinating old buildings. I suggest you wear flat shoes if you go, as the cobblestones are uneven!

And, of course, if you live here, you already know about this fine place, however you might not realize that the car-reduction situation on King Street West, has made getting there on the streetcar so much faster.

Thank you for reading,
xo loulou