Project offers stylish living with history
CANWEST NEWS SERVICE
When Santa parks his reindeer atop Almonte’s 150-year-old Victoria Woollen Mill, he has to comply with the poop-and-scoop regulation.
It says so right in the legal condominium corporation document extending annual landing rights to the jolly old fellow.
All of which may make the venerable building at 7 Mill St. the only former textile mill in the world that’s being repurposed for stylish, riverside condo living, while guaranteeing Santa a touchdown strip.
Neighbourly gestures like these rooftop rights typify Almonte, a 20-minute drive west of Kanata, Ont., in historic Lanark County.
With its vibrant arts community (the Puppets Up! International Puppet Festival is a mustsee August event), gift and other specialty shops, picturesque setting including the Mississippi River coursing through town, and proximity to the big city, Almonte is on a growth track.
But even while grooming itself for expansion, Almonte — current population about 4,800 — is determined to hold fast to its small-town charm.
Nowhere is this hybrid of past and future more evident than in the Almonte Heritage Redevelopment Group’s resurrection of old industrial buildings, like the Victorian Woollen Mill, into downtown residential and commercial space.
The goal is affordable downtown housing and vibrant business space that’s essential if small towns are to short-circuit urban sprawl and highway commercial development that kill their centre cores.
“We’re trying to create a neighbourhood in the style of Westboro or the Glebe, where you can walk out the door and pick up a loaf of bread or a book,” says Stephen Brathwaite, founder of the group with Greg Smith.
Since 1993, Brathwaite, a nationally recognized glass artist, puppeteer and self-styled redeveloper, and his Almonte partners have snapped up historic downtown properties for major makeovers.
The Victoria Woollen Mill was the first. Backing onto a waterfall of the Mississippi River and boasting oiled wooden beams and deep-set windows, it now includes a ground-floor restaurant, art gallery and shops.
The balance of the building is mostly occupied by businesses, but those units are now available as condos, 10 in all ranging from 900 to 2,000 square feet and priced at roughly $175,000 to $385,000.
Thoburn Mill is another of the group’s “adaptive reuse” projects. It’s at 83 Little Bridge St. behind the Romanesque revival-style post office on Mill Street (built in the late 1800s and now home to engineering, law and other small businesses, the old post office has been usurped by a newer, boxlike Canada Post building, a product of the Eyesore School of Design, further down Mill Street).
A mix of commercial and residential space, Thoburn Mill will include 13 household units once rebuilding is finished later this summer or fall.
Its residential space is currently classified as apartments, but those will become condos ranging from 1,000 to 1,650 square feet and selling in the $210,000 to $350,000 vicinity.
“I can walk to so many places,” says Margaret Brunton who’s rented her two-storey, open-concept apartment in Thoburn Mill since 2005 and is buying one of the condos. “The minute I step outside in the morning, people say: ‘Hello, Margaret.’ There are young people around. It’s like a little community.”
She also praises the town’s natural beauty and how secure she feels in a place where everyone knows everyone else.
Like others, Brunton’s unit includes a generous deck overlooking the Mississippi and its cascading spillway (that proximity to the river means that the building’s old, existing turbine will be restarted, which should make Thoburn Mill self-sufficient with green electricity).
Brunton’s current home is also atop the river walkway, a public area where a romantic young man apparently popped the question to his beloved within days of the snaking walkway opening a couple years ago.
Almonte architect Peter Mansfield designed Brunton’s unit and most of the other spaces in the Thoburn and Victoria Woollen mills.
He also planned the heavily glassed barrel-vault addition to Thoburn Mill.
“It’s almost archaeological with all its different sections,” says Mansfield, referring to how the mill’s former owners added to it during profitable years.
“It was fun fusing contemporary building materials into the old warehouse structure,” he adds, referring to the glass and steel that define much of the building’s common areas, the massive wood beams traversing residential ceilings and the old brick walls that define some of the commercial space.
Along with the Victoria Woollen and Thoburn mills, the Almonte Heritage Redevelopment Group rents apartments in smaller heritage buildings in downtown Almonte and has plans for residential lots and other projects around town.
It’s also begun work on a larger historic building at 65 Mill St. Like other projects, energy efficiency ranks high on the list of planning priorities.
According to the town’s chief administrative officer, Diane Smithson, the current population is expected to grow to about 8,000 by 2026.
Margaret Brunton inside her Mill Street condo.
From left, Johannes Hill, president Thoburn Mill Inc, the developer of the Thoburn Mill Condos with Stephen Brathwaite, vice-president Thoburn Mill Inc.