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Don Valley Brick Works

May 24, 2016

The Don Valley Brickworks was a huge industrial hub for Toronto. The property was perfectly situated along the Don River, old Pottery Road, the Toronto Beltline Railway, and the Canadian Pacific Railway. The site was originaly used as a mill in the 1830s. It was owned and operated by John Taylor and Brothers, who also owned other mills in the area, including Todmorden Mills.  When they  found clay while digging, clay was tested and plans were made to build a quary. In 1889 the quarry and brick manufacturing plant were completed, and so became the Don Valley Pressed Brick Company.

For years the brothers invested in new kilns and equipment, enabling different processes, quality, and faster production. The Taylor brothers produced quality bricks, and tens – even hundreds – of thousands per day. The plant won an award for the bricks at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and another the next year at the Toronto Industrial Fair. The Great Toronto Fire of 1904 made for a lot of business for the plant while much of Toronto’s downtown was rebuilt. The factory was sold to its second owner, Robert T. Davies, and the name was changed to Don Valley Brick Company Ltd. It was changed again in the 20s to Don Valley Brick Works Ltd. Electricity was installed, and yet another process was added. In 1928 the property was sold again to Strathgowan Investments and took on the name Toronto Brick Company. During the second world war, prisoners of war housed at Todmorden Mills across the Don worked at the plant making bricks. In 1956 the plant changed ownership to the German company United Ceramics Ltd. They operated the plant until there was no useable clay left in the soil. In 19thrall operations shut down, and the quarry, factory, kilns, and everything else sat unused.

Today, the buildings still stand as a symbol of Toronto’s industrial past, and as a tribute to adaptive reuse. Evergreen has been in charge of the restoration since 1994, a huge job including filling the quarry, assessing the integrity of the buildings, removing hazardous materials, industrial archaeology, and renovations. A decade and $30 million in government investments later, Evergreen leads weekly farmer’s markets, tree planting and other ecological seminars, and much more out of the factory. The new site also features office space, event space, Bike Works – Evergreen’s own bike shop where you can work on your own bike – as well as the newest location of West Toronto’s and more recently the Annex’s bike store, Sweet Pete’s. The architectural design, which was done by Era Architecture, and in collaboration with Architects Alliance, could not have done a better job preserving the building. To take from Era’s concise portfolio entry on the Brickworks, the studios used “…a framework philosophy of “light touch” and “loose fit.” This framework seeks to conserve heritage fabric as “embodied energy” and intervene only when necessary to make the site safer and ready to be used.” The ’embodied energy’ is indeed conserved, with many rusted pieces of industrial equipment still about the property, sheer cuts from decrepit brick walls to clean straight lines of glass and aluminum, and much of the graffiti from the building’s time as an abandoned place still left on walls.

I am incredibly grateful to see these developments transpire, and Evergreen’s property, as well as the adjacent parks are a wonder to explore. In particular, ‘Building 16’ to this day makes me feel I am wondering through another forgotten factory. The building housed the kilns in its time, with long narrow brick hallways and rails for quickly moving large cars of brick or clay. It is now used as a contemporary venue, in which I had the pleasure of attending a beer festival, often holds semi-permanent displays covering topics from renewable energies to urban planning. The Evergreen Brickworks is a valuable feature of our city that we as citizens, Evergreen, Era, the restoration workers, volunteers, and countless other groups of contributors can all be proud of. It is a strong model, not only of practical adaptive reuse, but of the ideology behind the concept. To once again borrow from Era, the “project demonstrates clearly the deep relationships between heritage conservation and sustainable practice.”

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