Marking time at the old watchmaker’s shop downtown
It’s a watchmaker’s shop where time stands still, a throwback to an era when time was kept by ticking mechanisms carried in vest pockets.
There’s a big green vault in the middle of the floor that looks like something an Old West outlaw might try to blow up. And behind the big wooden counter is a young man with an eyeglass carrying on the tradition.
And it’s all — everything about it — just the way that owner/landlord Robin McKee had hoped.
McKee is known for his weekend tours of Hamilton Cemetery. He’s a fan of heritage, a champion of the way things used to be.
And on Friday, he hosted a celebration of preservation — the official unveiling of a heritage designation plaque on the front of his pre-Confederation storefront at 91 John St. S.
Most property owners would welcome heritage designation about as much as a cracked foundation. But for McKee, it’s a badge of honour.
“I’m the other way around,” he said. “People think a designated property is worth less, but I think it is worth more because you are saving heritage and when you restore a building, you make it more valuable.”
McKee has waited 10 years to receive the official plaque, filing out the paperwork in 2007 shortly after buying the property from previous owner Edwin Pass. At the time, Pass wanted to retire as a watchmaker, ending three generations of a family business.
There was a time when all three generations worked in the store.
“At one point, there were five watchmakers. I remember the workbench. My father would be at one end and he could touch feet with my grandfather; they worked that close,” said Edwin J. Pass, 86, who came out to the ceremony.
Documents show the building dates from the 1820s and it was used for various businesses including bars until the 1870s, when the first Edwin K. Pass watchmaker opened the store, first as a tenant and then later buying the building. The next owner was his son, Edwin S. Pass.
The heritage plaque finally arrived last month. It says: “Mid-19th century. 91 John Street South, Two storey brick and limestone vernacular commercial. Designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.”
The designation means special approvals are needed from the city for McKee or future owners if they want to do renovations. And it’s an encumbrance for anyone who might want to demolish the building.
McKee paid $145,000 for the property and sunk another $50,000 into renovations, wiring and plumbing being among the improvements. He did most of the work himself — “I call it ‘hands on heritage’” — and can’t begin to imagine how many hours that took up. McKee says he is also pleased that he found someone to run a watchmaker business in the building to continue the tradition. His name is Vincent Cino and he calls his business V. Saint Orologi (V. Saint is a play on “Vincent” and Orologi means clock or timepiece in Italian).
Edwin Pass, left, and Robin McKee unveil the Ontario Heritage Act plaque for 91 John St. S.
Below, the original stairs leading to the second floor likely date from the 1820s.
Above, the rippled view of a wall clock through the original front windows of the business.
A small gargoyle stares out from the front of the building.