Great Art and a Secret Garden in a Remarkable Old Building


I have a multi-dimensional post for you today, that involves two of my favourite topics : art and a historic building. Oh, and, as the title suggests, some missing balls come into play as well, but we’ll get to that at the end.

We’ll begin with the art, which was the reason we were at 401 Richmond Street West in the first place.

We went to The Red Head Gallery to see an immersive installation by Canadian Artist Sally Thurlow, called “Crossroads”.

Visitors are invited to walk amounst 64 suspended driftwood tree trunks, each one uniquely adorned to become a sculpture in itself. The show is is a beautiful thought-provoking experience, which the artist has written about in detail on her website here.

We were there on a Saturday afternoon and enjoyed the added bonus of getting to meet and talk with the artist.

The show runs until this weekend, so you have a couple more days to drop by the gallery to see it. Admission is free. You’ll find The Red Head Gallery at Suite 115 of 401 Richmond Street West, which is that long building bordering the south side of Richmond Street West, just east of Spadina.

About the Building …

If you live in the city, I’m sure you know this building, and have probably walked by it many times. What you may not know is that you’re allowed to walk right in, as it is open to the public weekdays from 9 until 7 and Saturdays from 9 until 6. The restored historic four story building is an arts-and-culture hub, home to over 140 artists, with 12 galleries and a number of shops and a cafe.

The building first housed a tin lithography factory, beginning as a small two story building in 1899. As the company grew, so did their building, expanding several times, becoming a the four story, multi winged structure it is today. There is a good write-up about the history of the place on their website here.

Restoration began in 1994. I found the description of the process quite enchanting — “Many surprise features were discovered as the renewal project took shape. Over the years, unattractive renovations had concealed the original features in most of the building: 100 year old antique wood floors were hidden beneath industrial carpeting, interior brick walls were covered by drywall, corridors were long and dark, and most of the over 800 original double-hung wood and metal frame windows were sealed shut. The new owners began peeling away the layers and were thrilled to discover the beautiful structure preserved underneath.”

While we were there we took a good look around, wandering into various galleries and admiring the beautifully architecture. We also appreciated the inherent soundscape within the old place, attributable to the very creaky wooden floors!

A special treat came with the discovery of a stunning “hidden” garden, situated in the outdoor courtyard in the centre of the A-shaped building.

What a place. I encourage you to go check it out yourself!

From the outside …

As I do whenever I write about one of Toronto’s historic buildings, I scour the city’s online archives for old photographs. For 401 Richmond I could find only a single old one, which hardly shows what it looked like. In fact, after I found it, I wondered if perhaps it had been mislabeled.

For one thing, the end wall in the old picture has no windows when the building at 401 Richmond definitely has windows there. That mystery was solved after I looked at the photos I’d taken more closely and noted that there’s a seam in the building, indicating that the second part was added at a later date. In the image, you can see a stack of bricks there. Maybe they were in the process of preparing to expand when it was taken.

↑ A seam divides two parts, built years apart. ↑

The second thing that caused me to wonder about the accuracy of the location stated in the old picture is the building across the street, specifically the ornate balls atop the concrete pillars that surround the doorway. I’d not thought to take pictures of what was across from 401, but in my mind’s eye I clearly saw that there was still a historic building in that spot, but I was pretty sure it didn’t have that same detail.

I was so curious about this, that I made a follow-up trip over, to specifically look at the building across the street. It is indeed the same one as that in the old photograph, however the two balls went missing somewhere along the way! I wonder what happened to them.

Thank you for reading,
xo loulou