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The Ghosts of the Distillery District
TORONTO, Ontario – The ghosts are alive and well in Toronto’s Distillery District.
Some of them you expect, of course: the beautiful old buildings themselves that made up the Gooderham and Worts complex from 1831 until the early 1990s. There is even a real ghost: James Worts, who bought this land and built the first mill here. He committed suicide on the site in 1834, shortly after his wife’s death, and he is said to haunt the area to this day.
But there are more ethereal and subtle ghosts, walking the lanes between buildings, peering through bricked-up windows, and standing on a Lake Ontario shoreline that no longer exists. As a group of us recently took the guided walking tour, these spirits gradually made their presence felt.
The Distillery District has been named a Canadian National Historic Site. In fact, no other place in North America preserves so many buildings of the Victorian industrial architectural era. So when Cityscape Holdings Inc. bought this complex in 2001, their primary goal was to develop a modern entertainment village that, at the same time, would honor the history and beauty of the distillery.
They succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Even with internal renovation and removal of the old machinery, the red brick buildings are beautifully preserved, the pine green trim on windows and doors adding an elegant accent. Inside, the original rough brick walls and wooden supports and beams are often open to view. These provide backdrops to everything from dance studios and galleries to restaurants and clothing stores. The present is built solidly and visibly upon the past.
But there is a less visible history that sits beside you in Balzac’s Coffee, looks over your shoulder when you study a piece of sculpture in The Blue Dot Gallery, or lurks beneath your feet as you stroll past artists’ studios in the Case Goods Warehouse.
Walking along cobblestoned Trinity Street in the center of the complex, you pass through a visual chronology of the distillery’s 19th century prosperity. The first plain utilitarian mill of James Worts, still braced by internal cables to keep its walls from shaking apart in the vibration of its machinery, gives way to the Cooperage, Maltings, and Smoke House buildings. The increased wealth of their time period manifests in the cupolas and other ornamentation such as the scalloped brickwork above the columns of windows.
Glance across the street and there is evidence of further, later success. The Pure Spirits Buildings are downright charming with their huge windows and French doors opening onto lacy strips of wrought iron decoration on the second level. Several decades of prosperity are illustrated within the space of a few steps along this street.
But another ghost lurks in the charm of the Pure Spirits Buildings, where the final distillation of whiskey took place. The front wall of windows was not merely decorative but designed to blow out in an explosion, allowing the force to dispel. Stand here, and you stand in the blast zone. Its echoes and repercussions underlie today’s lazy afternoon hush.
Turn along Tank House Lane, and the ghosts crowd around, thick as smoke. The workers of long-ago days bustle past you into former doors only hinted at by arched brickwork in the middle of blank walls. Others peer at you from vanished windows above sills sticking out of solid brick.
The tank house buildings on the left are occupied by theaters and dance studios (and are now the permanent home of the Soulpepper Theatre), but the rack houses on the right remain locked and unused. In one of them, a set of ground floor window shutters hangs half open. Stand nearby and you see darkness, with the hint of a large wooden frame inside. Step closer, as I did, and you may feel the rush of vertigo, as the memory of thousands of barrels of whiskey maturing for years in the lonely darkness suddenly comes flooding out between the shutters.
A long covered ramp slants past one rack house, where barrels once rolled toward the dock for shipment. At the end of this ramp, you stand in the waters of Lake Ontario. Except…not now, of course, since today’s shore is far south of here. But even when walking through the Case Goods Warehouse, where dance, theater, and arts organizations rent affordable studios, you can’t escape the ghost of water. A huge reservoir lurks under this building, built for quick pumping in case of fire in the distillery. It is still there, gaping, empty, dark, and inaccessible.
The Distillery District offers many entertainments. The Boiler House has a terrific brunch on weekends. The Mill St. Brew Pub enables you to view the brewing process while enjoying its final product; Soma Chocolate & Gelato does the same for chocolate. You can see performances by the Soulpepper Theater Company as well as dance companies and other artists. Buy everything from furniture to jewelery to auto memorabilia. And in the summer, there are the farmers’ market and festivals featuring jazz, blues, wine–the choice is almost endless.
But everywhere you go in the Distillery District, the ghosts walk with you. They stand at your shoulder and spread at your feet, reminding you that this is not merely an arts and entertainment complex housed in old buildings. This place has a long, intricate history, which still reverberates in every brick and stone.