As a European immigrant, historical districts always hold a great fascination to me. Over the last few years, Toronto has been enriched by the revitalization of an entire district: the Distillery District, a complex of 13 acres composed of 44 buildings, made a stunning transformation from outdated industrial relics to becoming one of Toronto’s hottest entertainment areas. I have visited the Distillery District several times over the last year, but I realized a more indepth introduction to this unique area was in order. After all, this complex is Toronto’s only pedestrian neighbourhood; it is the largest and best preserved collection of Victorian industrial heritage buildings in all of North America, a designated National Heritage site and winner of numerous awards. I knew that, as an architecture and history buff, I would be in my element and was looking forward to discovering this unique Toronto neighbourhood.
Exploring the Distillery Distric on a Segway Tour
I requested a meeting with Mathew Rosenblatt who handles media relations for the Distillery District and was excited to find out that he is actually one of the co-owners of Cityscape who together with Dundee Realty are the developers of this unique heritage area. Mathew offered to give me a personal tour of the entire complex and I was extremely excited to learn about this unique project from one of the key people behind this vision.
Gooderham & Worts – Fine Whiskeys Since 1832
We started at the foot of Trinity Street and Mathew explained that about 150 years ago the Lake Ontario shoreline was located right at the bottom of this street. The area to the south, which today includes the Gardiner Expressway, the Via Railway corridor and the new waterfront, was not filled in until much later. In 1832 the first windmill was built in this location when Toronto was home to only about 10,000 people. Mathew explained that these were vastly different times: local residents would leave dead animals on the ice over the winter, which would then contaminate the lake water when the ice melted. As a result, the demand for distilled spirits was born.
Balzac’s Coffee Shop, one of Toronto’s favourite coffee houses
Originally the distillery was named “Worts and Gooderham”, after the two brothers-in-law that started this business. But after James Wart’s wife died in childbirth, her husband was so distressed he committed suicide, so William Gooderham continued the business by himself. As a result the name “Worts” was deleted from the company’s official name. James Wort’s ghost is still rumoured to haunt the complex and the Distillery Complex is an official haunted site in Toronto. His oldest son, one of 13 children, later joined William Gooderham in the distillery business, and his name was added back in, but this time after the name Gooderham.
The immense Stone Distillery Complex
In the middle of the 19th century the Gooderham and Worts Distillery was the largest distillery in the world and provided up to 50% of tax collected by the Canadian government. The oldest remaining building is the Stone Distillery Complex, a large, limestone building dating back to 1859. All the buildings still have names that allude to their original industrial function, for example the “Boiler House Complex”, “The Case Goods Warehouse”, “The Cooperage”, The Maltings”, “The Smoke House” etc., illustrating their original function in this industrial complex.
Gooderham & Worts manufactured whiskey and various hard liquors as well as industrial alcohols and antifreeze, used in both World Wars. During WWI it manufactured acetone used for hardening the fabric wings of by-planes. Gooderham & Worts was sold to Hiram Walker in the 1920s and then sold to Allied Domecq in the 1980s as part of a corporate takeover. In 1990 production shut down and this transformed the complex into the largest film production location in North America. Among countless other big screen productions, TV and music video productions, blockbuster movies such as “X-Men”, Chicago”, “Cinderella Man” and “The Recruit” have all been shot at the Distillery District. Hollywood stars such as Al Pacino, Meg Ryan, Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rene Zellweger and Colin Farrell and many more have been immortalized here.
“Bronze Tree Root” sculpture