The Cot­ton Fac­tory has caught on

Prop­erty’s trans­for­ma­tion sym­bol­izes a Hamil­ton in which our his­tory is val­ued and the fu­ture is bright

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY JOHN RENNISON, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

WE TALK ABOUT our build­ing boom in Hamil­ton, but The Cot­ton Fac­tory is some­thing else again — a vir­tual one-build­ing build­ing boom.

Scratch that. The Cot­ton Fac­tory is ac­tu­ally six build­ings, not just one; a colony of five an­nexes or out­build­ings (dye build­ing, mill build­ing, etc.) clus­tered around the big­gie, which tends to mo­nop­o­lize the eyes in a first look.

The flag­ship, the cen­tral struc­ture with an im­pres­sive basil­ica-like tower, is a big-win­dowed, bricks-and-mor­tar citadel of sorts at 270 Sher­man Ave. N. From be­hind its stur­di­ness, where once tex­tile got spun into ship sails and such, Hamil­ton could look out onto a se­cure in­dus­trial fu­ture.

Well, the fu­ture isn’t what it used to be. It’s bet­ter, some would say. That tower now sym­bol­izes a Hamil­ton look­ing out at dif­fer­ent prospects, arm­ing it­self for a more cul­tural com­merce in which the stu­dio and the shared space rep­re­sent al­ter­na­tives to the shop floor, as­sem­bly mill and blast fur­nace as plat­forms of pro­duc­tion.

And The Cot­ton Fac­tory restora­tion — what Rob Zei­dler calls “adap­tive re­use” — sym­bol­izes a Hamil­ton in which our old build­ing stock is val­ued and pro­tected. Not just as func­tional

space but as “en­vi­ron­ment,” some­thing that at­tracts peo­ple to the city and helps keep it ar­chi­tec­turally oxy­genated, so to speak, the past be­ing vi­tal to the fu­ture.

Rob Zei­dler bought the build­ing (s) in 2014 for just un­der $5 mil­lion.

What he and his team have done in the three years since the pur­chase is as­tound­ing. Room by room, hall by hall, de­tail by de­tail, The Cot­ton Fac­tory is be­ing re­ju­ve­nated or, per­haps we should say, reaged, such is Rob’s com­mit­ment to restor­ing over re­plac­ing.

This al­most didn’t hap­pen. When it was up for sale, says Rob, “they were look­ing at the pos­si­bil­ity that it (would make more fi­nan­cial sense) to de­mol­ish the place and sell the wooden beams, when you worked out the num­bers.”

But Rob found the magic price. “It was ab­so­lutely hand-wring­ing. What did I get my­self into? But it’s been so suc­cess­ful. It’s 95 per cent full.”

When he takes me on a tour of the build­ings, I can see what he got him­self into — 165,000 square feet of some of the most at­trac­tive and ef­fi­cient space in the city, both by preser­va­tion and by re­design.

“One of the first things we did was open up the win­dows,” Rob tells me. “They’d all been boarded up, like a war zone.”

Now, af­ter be­ing worked up again, the win­dows are — well, I want to say — tran­scen­dent. They are var­ied in look and scale but mostly they are big, glut­tonous for light, and del­i­cately mul­lioned. The floors are equally beau­ti­ful in their own right; to­gether, they set the at­mos­phere.

Per­haps what’s most im­pres­sive is the level of ac­tiv­ity. In one build­ing when I was there, David Hind was work­ing on his barn-rais­ing pub­lic art project (since in­stalled), 5.5 me­tres high, in the TH&B Col­lec­tive space in the old Util­ity Build­ing. That’s the kind of work The Cot­ton Fac­tory can ac­com­mo­date, the build­ings have such ver­sa­til­ity.

So many ten­ants, such va­ri­ety. Black­Bird Stu­dios (fashion); web de­sign­ers; book binders like Lance Cole; Scott Martin’s amaz­ing sign­mak­ing op­er­a­tion BrushBoys (he’s done places like The Ship, Brux House, all hand-painted); Lower City Join­ery (a com­plete cus­tom wood shop); Dane Broe’s pre­cast con­crete fur­ni­ture stu­dio; The Mule Spin­ner, artists; mu­si­cians; pho­tog­ra­phers.

Many of the users op­er­ate in cowork or share space stu­dio ar­range­ments. The idea of “fac­tory” is still very much on. There is equip­ment, process, raw ma­te­rial; it’s just less “mass,” and more “art,” than the steel in­dus­try.

The Cot­ton Fac­tory was pretty busy when Rob took over in 2014 but now it’s re­plete with the most dy­namic en­er­gies. And still grow­ing. It’s rooted, in the ground and in the past, and yet some­thing about it re­minds me of a bustling space sta­tion, in the sky and in the fu­ture, full of ex­per­i­ment, chal­leng­ing Hamil­ton to rise up and meet its own to­mor­row.

Rob Zei­dler, pic­tured above in­side the artist co-op­er­a­tive space at The Cot­ton Fac­tory, bought the Sher­man Av­enue North land­mark for just un­der $5 mil­lion.

JEFF MAHONEY

A large area on the third floor of The Cot­ton Fac­tory at 270 Sher­man Ave. N. is for rent. A num­ber of ten­ants share space in the ren­o­vated build­ings.

PHO­TOS BY JOHN RENNISON,, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

The back al­ley­way at The Cot­ton Fac­tory still has ves­tiges of the past.

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