Lofty ambitions for factory
Building turned into spacious loft housing
Acentury ago, the cluster of new industrial buildings on St. Alexandre St. in Montreal, represented the emerging industrial might of Canada.
The buildings housed companies that specialized in paper production and printing although one, the Gillette building, manufactured razors.
The city’s commerce was moving northward in those days from Old Montreal.
In fact, the Montreal Standard, a defunct English-language newspaper, referred to the area in a 1913 story as “the new downtown.”
That catchphrase has been resurrected by the Rose Group, a development company that is converting the Wilson Building, a former paper bag factory, into loft housing.
It’s one of the last industrial buildings in the neighbourhood, known 100 years ago as the paper hill, to be transformed into hip, urban housing.
“What makes this building unique is that it overlooks the green space around St. Patrick’s Basilica,” said Clifford Goodman, the project’s sales and development manger. “It’s a tranquil niche within a five-minute walk of the core of downtown, from Place Ville Marie, Old Montreal and the Quartier des spectacles.”
The lofts, about 10 units on each floor, will range in size from 560 square feet to 1,550 square feet, he said. Prices will range from $200,000 to $600,000.
There are six floors, each 12,000 square feet, but another four storeys will be built atop the structure. While the building does not have heritage status, it is historical and as such, cannot be altered radically on the exterior, says Quebec’s culture ministry.
As a result, says Goodman, the 10-foot-tall parapet that runs around the perimeter of the roof on three sides cannot be removed.
Window colours also must meet the ministry’s guidelines, says Oren Vered, a partner in the development firm.
“The ministry has created added value by preserving the look of the city,” he says. “We’re keeping the real feel of the building so that people aren’t just buying a condo; they’re getting a piece of history.”
Because the developer “cannot put windows in the parapet, this level will be the building’s seventh floor and it will contain amenities, such as a lounge for residents with a flat-screen TV and a gym,” says Goodman.
The three added storeys above it will contain lofts.
Goodman says the new addition will be somewhat recessed from the edge of the building to maintain the structure’s original look from the street.
The Wilson building is not the Rose Group’s first conversion in the paper hill neighbourhood.
It also transformed the nearby Gillette building into loft housing. Architect Karl Fischer, who designed the Gillette lofts, will tackle the work on the Wilson building.
“We learned something in designing the Gillette building and have brought the lesson here,” says Vered. “Instead of having a work area on the back wall of the kitchen, which is inefficient, we’ve created the work space on the island.”
The kitchen’s back wall will instead be dominated by cabinetry, while the wide stainless steel island will hold an integrated sink and cooktop.
Fischer faced another design challenge: namely how to use space in the centre of each floor that is not lit by natural light.
The solution, says Goodman, was to create storage areas on each floor rather than in the basement.
The units will be classic open lofts, without room divisions.
“People who don’t like the lack of walls can have free-standing modular closets to enclose areas,” says Goodman. “They perform like walls.”
Chantal Wilson remembers well the building where her father, Frank Howard Wilson Jr., ran the paper company that had been in the family for three generations.
“The mill that made the paper was in Lachute but the offices with the manufacturing and distribution were in the St. Alexandre St. building,” she says. “I was three or four years old when my mother used to take me to visit my dad at work.”
Wilson, 70, recalls that the building held between 300 and 400 employees and the bags they produced were used by supermarkets.
“It was a busy area and there was a lot of industry there. There was nothing fancy or luxurious about the interior of the building.”
In recent years, the Wilson building has been home to various commercial tenants who will be vacating in the months to come, says Goodman.
Once they leave, all of the interiors will be stripped down and the brick walls and concrete floors and ceilings will be sandblasted, he said.
To date, about 40 per cent of the units have been sold.
The story of how Montreal’s commercial centre moved northward from Old Montreal a century ago has an interesting parallel as the paper hill neighbourhood is being gentrified into a residential area.
“We’re attracting people from Old Montreal who want to move away from the touristy hustle and bustle in that neighbourhood,” says Goodman. “You’re so much in the core of the city here but it’s a tranquil enclave.”
Brick surrounds a window.
The six-storey Wilson Building is being turned into loft housing.
High ceilings, large windows and brick walls help create a textured, modern look in the building — once a paper bag factory.
The bathrooms in the development will be sleek and modern.