Petrie Build­ing and other Guelph her­itage struc­tures ben­e­fit from cou­ple’s com­mit­ment to com­mu­nity


Kirk Roberts and Pere­grine Wood were do­ing on­line re­search from their liv­in­groom couch when they noted some­thing Roberts terms “a funny co­in­ci­dence.” They were look­ing at a fam­ily photo of A.B. Petrie, a former Guelph phar­ma­cist, busi­ness­man, city coun­cil­lor and bank pres­i­dent, when they re­al­ized they were just paces from the ex­act lo­ca­tion where the yes­ter­year photo had been taken.

The cou­ple had known for some time that their 19th-cen­tury home had once been Petrie’s res­i­dence. But the photo un­der­lined their con­nec­tions with the former ti­tan of Guelph so­ci­ety. Af­ter all, their on­line re­search in­volved a build­ing Petrie had built in the 1880s – a lo­cally in­fa­mous, longderelict build­ing Roberts and Wood were look­ing to pur­chase and save from ruin.

Roberts, 57, and Wood, 58, and their Tyr­cathlen Part­ners Inc. firm have since done much to re­store hon­our to Petrie’s best-known legacy.

In fact, their years of work to re­store the Petrie Build­ing have earned na­tional recog­ni­tion to say noth­ing of abun­dant lo­cal praise. That’s even though fin­ish­ing touches re­main to be done on the mon­u­men­tally chal­leng­ing project – by far the most dif­fi­cult and am­bi­tious tack­led by Tyr­cathlen.

“I think we both get a thrill see­ing that build­ing lit up and oc­cu­pied and ac­tive and vi­brant. I think that was our goal from day one. Just to have ac­tiv­ity hap­pen­ing and vi­brancy,” says Wood.

Af­ter reach­ing a state where the ar­chi­tec­turally sig­nif­i­cant Wyn­d­ham Street struc­ture was a lo­cal and na­tional poster site for so-called “de­mo­li­tion by ne­glect,” the site re-opened this year. It’s a jewel of a build­ing – again clad with a strik­ing metal façade and alive with a craft-brew­ery busi­ness op­er­at­ing on its main floor and a bridal shop oc­cu­py­ing the up­per two floors.

“We’re not into text­book ‘pe­riod restora­tion,’ ” says Roberts. “We’re into more re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of prop­er­ties and try­ing to blend old and new, try­ing to cre­ate in­ter­est­ing new spa­ces that will last much longer than we do. Like some­thing like the Petrie Build­ing, it’s been around for 135 years and hope­fully, with this project, the bones are there to I last at least that long again.” f that sounds like some­thing other than typ­i­cal “de­vel­oper-speak,” it’s not sur­pris­ing. Roberts and Wood, spouses and prin­ci­pals in Tyr­cathlen – a two-per­son op­er­a­tion – are atyp­i­cal play­ers in the realms of real-es­tate ac­qui­si­tion, restora­tion and property man­age­ment.

Both pur­sued en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies in univer­sity and worked for non-profit, non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions early in their ca­reers. They were both work­ing for en­vi­ron­men­tal groups when they first met – while at­tend­ing the Rio de Janeiro Earth Sum­mit in 1992.

Wood later taught en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies at York Univer­sity. For his part, Roberts be­came an ex­ec­u­tive with In­ter­net gi­ant Open Text – via what he ac­cu­rately calls a most “cir­cuitous” route. He had been a cen­tral fig­ure in a non-profit com­pany’s de­vel­op­ment of an on­line com­puter net­work “way be­fore the In­ter­net” for use by en­vi­ron­men­tal and in­ter­na­tional aid or­ga­ni­za­tions. Be­fore long, this en­ter­prise and Roberts him­self came to be com­modi­ties of in­ter­est to Open Text.

With his ar­rival among the se­nior ranks of Water­loo-based Open Text, the cou­ple de­cided to move from Toronto to Guelph – as a con­ve­nient and com­fort­able mid­dle­ground for them and their two chil­dren. But the fi­nal years of their Toronto ex­pe­ri­ence in­flu­enced what they would come to later tackle in the Royal City.

In Toronto, they had been tenants at 401 Rich­mond St., when the his­toric former in­dus­trial build­ing – once a tin fac­tory – was pur­chased, re­de­vel­oped and reimag­ined by Mar­garet (Margie) Zei­dler in 1994. They wit­nessed Zei­dler lay the ground­work for a makeover of the space. To­day, it houses an ar­ray of tenants and is an arts and cul­ture hub in the city. And, they liked what they saw.

The move to Guelph came in 1997. They pur­chased a res­i­dence a year later – the one where Alexan­der Bain Petrie and fam­ily had also lived. The 1850s-era man­sion was orig­i­nally named Tyr­cathlen – the in­spi­ra­tion W for the ti­tle for Tyr­cathlen Part­ners Inc. hen Wood and Roberts and fam­ily bought the St. Ge­orge’s Park neigh­bour­hood property – later and still named Ker Ca­van – it needed a lot of work.

“Water came in in 18 places and not through the roof, on four lev­els. We just had mas­sive water is­sues,” Roberts re­calls.

There were also other is­sues – dam­age by le­gions of carpenter ants among them.

“It was a three-year restora­tion project that Pere­grine man­aged. And, out of that, we de­cided we liked that (sort of work) – as op­posed to hated it – and, for bet­ter or worse, de­cided to keep go­ing. And, at the time, I was look­ing for a ca­reer change, so we made the change.”

Thus, was born Tyr­cathlen Part­ners Inc. “We had a vi­sion that this would be cer­tainly less than full time – and cer­tainly less than dou­ble-time. So, we did an ex­per­i­ment and we re­stored a 7,000-sq.-ft. Queen Anne Vic­to­rian eight-plex,” says Roberts.

That Ex­hi­bi­tion Park res­i­den­tial ex­per­i­ment be­gan in 2010, ended suc­cess­fully and it led to other projects.

Next was the Gra­nary Build­ing at 111 Far­quhar St. This property is Guelph’s old­est in­dus­trial struc­ture. It was erected in 1858 to store grain and has trans­formed many times since. It had last been ren­o­vated in the early 1990s and re­quired a va­ri­ety of up­dates and up­grades such as a new roof and a heat­ing and cool­ing sys­tem.

To­day, it is home to the Guelph Cham­ber of Com­merce and a va­ri­ety of other tenants. It’s also the des­ti­na­tion for mail sent to Tyr­cathlen Part­ners. Wood and Roberts have re­peat­edly set up an of­fice in the com­plex – only to meet prospec­tive tenants seek­ing just such a space and mov­ing out to al­low for its rental to them.

The deal to pur­chase the Gra­nary Build­ing closed in May 2012. As work on that project un­folded, Tyr­cathlen fi­nal­ized a pur­chase of an­other piece of Guelph his­tory – a Dublin Street build­ing that had pre­vi­ously been a host of things in­clud­ing a board­ing house and the site of the Guelph Civic Museum. The sale went through in Novem­ber 2012. On the night it closed, Roberts and Wood per­mit­ted their kids to have a parentally su­per­vised party in the site – still ar­ranged as a museum. “All of their friends talk about the ‘Night at the Museum’ party,” says Wood.

“It’s a neat property and we had tremen­dous support from var­i­ous cor­ners of the

arts com­mu­nity to ac­quire that build­ing and try and do some­thing with an arts fo­cus there,” says Roberts.

In fact, their Board­ing House Arts project that 6 Dublin St. has be­come is an echo of the Zei­dler re­ju­ve­na­tion at 401 Rich­mond St. in Toronto. It’s a place of artists’ stu­dios, non-profit arts sec­tor tenants, a law of­fice and more. It’s also home to an arts in­cu­ba­tor pro­gram Tyr­cathlen is back­ing.

To make it hap­pen took cre­ativ­ity, vi­sion and some work. The build­ing was well main­tained by the City. But it also had some odd­i­ties from its pe­riod as a museum – such as hav­ing its win­dow boxes sealed on the in­side, with con­crete and re­bar, to keep out light and to pro­tect ar­ti­facts from the el­e­ments out­side. Most of the win­dows re­quired jack­ham­mer­ing to be opened. HVAC work also came to be needed.

Th­ese projects, how­ever, even work­ing at them con­cur­rently, proved only a warm-up for what came next – and what may be Tyr­cathlen’s fi­nal project: the ren­o­va­tion of the Petrie Build­ing.

By the time they bought the struc­ture and a build­ing block ad­join­ing it to the north in March 2015, it had made Na­tional Trust for Canada’s “Top 10 En­dan­gered Places List.” Per­haps best known for its metal façade – topped with a mor­tar and pes­tle, be­fit­ting the phar­ma­cist-ser­vice Petrie pro­vided – the build­ing had not seen mean­ing­ful main­te­nance in decades. Its up­per-floor win­dows had been long boarded up. The façade was rusted, crum­bling, in de­cay.

Roberts says he as­sumed the met­al­cladding ef­fort would be the most daunt­ing as­pect of the project. He was incorrect.

“You look at a project and you al­ways have some worst-case sce­nar­ios,” says Roberts. “You know, this could hap­pen. Or that could hap­pen. Or this could hap­pen. Or all of the above could hap­pen. Plus this could hap­pen.”

That’s what hap­pened with this project. “The build­ing had great bones and struc­tures and we were able to re­tain a lot of it. But we just had mas­sive struc­tural, foun­da­tion, just all kinds of is­sues,” says Roberts.

The first nine months of the ef­fort con­sti­tuted a clean-out and de­mo­li­tion, he says.

Painstak­ingly, over months, Tyr­cathlen also man­aged to have the City of Guelph ap­prove a work plan for the site and the north-side build­ing it was at­tached to – but not aligned with. Even the floors on lev­els of the struc­tures failed to line up. Then there was the fact the build­ing was erected on sand – re­quir­ing a se­ries of pil­ings to be sunk to an­chor its foun­da­tion. It also lacked a heat­ing and cool­ing sys­tem and an el­e­va­tor – things very com­pli­cated to bring to a nar­row, uniquely crafted build­ing.

“Our mantra was one day at a time. One day at a time. That’s all we could do. Some­times we’d see the light at the end of the tun­nel and then it would go black again. We see the light now though,” says Wood.

Roberts says he and Wood have worked “full-out” on the Petrie project and more than full time on it since be­com­ing its own­ers.

“Once you’re in, you’re kind of stuck,” he says.

Fi­nal touches yet un­fold. An ef­fort is un­der­way to add a de­sign por­tion to the metal façade just above the first storey, some­thing that will stretch be­yond this year. Thought is also be­ing given to plac­ing some form of recog­ni­tion within the struc­ture of the con­tri­bu­tions of the scores of trades­peo­ple in­volved in the project.

“There are just fan­tas­tic trades in Guelph and the peo­ple we work with ev­ery day we re­spect and like and ad­mire,” says Roberts. “There’s a lot of peo­ple – par­tic­u­larly with the Petrie project – who wanted to work on the project and really cared about what they were do­ing ev­ery step of the way.”

As is the case with all their build­ings, Wood and Roberts take pride in the com­mu­nity formed within the Petrie struc­ture.

“We do all the screen­ing of tenants and part of that is we’re really look­ing for

syn­er­gies and like-minded tenants in build­ings,” says Wood. “We’re com­mit­ted to this com­mu­nity and com­mit­ted to her­itage build­ings. We have a pas­sion for them and a pas­sion for com­mu­ni­ties.”

Tyr­cathlen Inc.’s next phase will fo­cus on at­tend­ing to the needs of its cur­rent prop­er­ties.

“I think we’re pretty happy with the amount of build­ings we have right now and the cal­i­bre of the build­ings in terms of his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance,” says Wood.

“Our strat­egy really was to pur­chase, re­de­velop and hold for the long term,” says Roberts, adding that the Petrie build­ing won’t make eco­nomic sense un­less they hold it for 10 years.

“Petrie has been so over­whelm­ing that there is a long list of things to do at our other build­ings,” he says. “And . . . part of our in­ten­tion was not to build a big or­ga­ni­za­tion and a staff. If we took on a fifth build­ing, we would prob­a­bly need to change that and hire peo­ple.”

“I think we both get a thrill see­ing that (Petrie) build­ing lit up and oc­cu­pied and ac­tive and vi­brant,” says Pere­grine Wood, seen here on the neigh­bour­ing roof with her part­ner, Kirk Roberts.

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