The red neon sign above the door draws your eye to the mother of all Toronto loft conversions – the Dominion Felt Works Lofts – carved from the remains of the old Dominion Felt factory on Shanly Street. This is where, in 1982, a renovator named Robert Mitchell had an idea. Rather than tear down the old factory and build maybe 3 houses on the lot, he could convert the ageing structure into condos and thus create 10 new homes. This would put more housing on the same lot area, and Mitchell told me that the idea of “recycling” the building also appealed to him.
Mitchell’s thoughts on reusing buildings such as the felt factory ring true even today. These buildings are already part of the streetscape, they have been part of the neighbourhood for years, it just makes sense to re-purpose them after their working life has ended. But the working life of the Dominion Felt Works begins long before 1982. In fact, it begins long before there was even a Dominion Felt Co.
It was around 1891-1892 that one Gilbert Bowen built a structure, maybe a house, on lot 35 on what was then known as Durham Street. Maybe a year or two later, another structure was built on the lot, something to the rear of the original building. This would have been around 1893-1894. The original building would have been right where the northernmost part of the current building is now. Bowen, a butcher, rented out the rear building to William McCullough, where he ran a bakery. And it was this, a bakery, that begins the most interesting part of the story.
In 1894 Durham Street was renamed Shanly Street, for reasons lost to history. Bowen and McCullough shared the property for a few years, but from 1898 through to 1908 he was the sole occupant. The long eastern portion of the lofts would have been the original purpose-built bakery, constructed circa 1906.
A few owners and occupants for a few years follow, all baking-related. And then it gets interesting. Records form 1912 show George Weston as the owner, which I find interesting, as he might have a connection to either Weston Bakeries or Loblaw. We will come to this later.
In 1913 John and Elizabeth Brown buy the property and the next year James Brown is listed as the occupant, running a bakery / manufacturing operation. A few years later we learn that James has gone off to fight in WWI, with William Brown now listed as the occupant baker. As of 1920, Elizabeth Brown is the sole owner of 41 Shanly, it seems that James never returned from Europe. But her new tenant is Loblaw Stores Ltd., and they are running a bakery. The following year, Loblaw is still there, now with William Pentland as general manager. And this is very very odd.
You see, it was Pentland (an Irishman, via Scotland and the USA) who founded the Dominion chain of stores. When Pentland and his brothers emigrated to the US in 1911, they all wound up working for the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, better known as the chain of stores called A&P. While playing golf with a lawyer friend, he happened to mention Loblaw and what they were doing in Canada, which was similar to A&P’s operations in the US.
No one knows exactly how, but Pentland ends up in Toronto in early 1919 and the first Dominion store opens at 174 Wallace Avenue – a little over a kilometre from 41 Shanly Street (the building is still there, now a four-plex). By 1920, there was a Dominion store at 985 Dovercourt, barely a block north of Shanly. And in 1922, Dominion Stores Ltd., with William Pentland as president, is running a bakery at 41 Shanly Street.
Everyone concentrates on the felt factory, most don’t even know how the building is connected to the founding of what was once the largest grocery store chain in Canada. In 1923 alone, Dominion opened 68 new stores across the country, many of which they bought from Loblaw.
It was during Dominion’s tenure that the final addition was made to the manufacturing complex. Sometime around 1926 or 1927, the bulk of the structure, the western portion, was built. So everything you see today, the building that comprises the lofts, was mainly built in 2 phases, in 1906-1907 and 1926-1927.
Dominion ran their bakery on the property until 1939, when the Dominion Felt Co. finally moved in. But, the company was founded a couple of years before. And what is truly amazing, it was founded in another building that has since been converted to lofts! In 1937, Jack Gleberzon started a felt manufacturing company, along with Joe Betel, at 6 Croft Street (later the Croft Lofts). It is possible he started it the year before, but 1937 is the first time any mention shows up in the records. He stays on Croft Street for a couple of years and then moves to Shanly in 1939.
Jack Gleberzon rents space at 41 Shanly for a few years, until he buys the property in 1942. All records mention only his name (Joe Betel seems to have disappeared in 1938) until finally, in 1946, we see the name “Dominion Felt Co.” appear for the first time. Gleberzon ran his felt manufacturing company on the site until he sold sometime in the mid or late 1970s. As with many smaller companies with large buildings, he rented out parts of the property to other companies at various times. From the 1950s through to the 1970s, he leased space to the Markey Popcorn Co., Concord Furniture Stores Ltd. And Robbins Furniture and Appliances Ltd.
Gleberzon sold the company in the mid or late 1970s, and that owner sold the property to Bob Mitchell in 1982. Incredibly, the Dominion Felt Company is still in operation, not far from Steeles and Islington, in North York. Unfortunately, they are too far removed from 41 Shanly to be able to shed any light on the company more than 35 years ago.
To say that the neighbours were pleased with the conversion is an understatement. They had been complaining to the local councillor for years about the building, trying to get something done about the emissions.
Bob Mitchell and his Mitchell and Associates won the Ontario Renews Award in 1984 for this innovative conversion of a non-residential to a residential building. Even more noteworthy, the Dominion Felt Works Lofts at 41 Shanly Street was the first legal residential loft project in the City of Toronto. This is the loft conversion project that started everything!
This original hard loft conversion offers suites ranging in size from 800 to 1,800 square feet. The lofts feature exposed brick, 12- to 30-foot ceilings, atrium windows and skylights, as well as private garages.
If nothing else, 41 Shanly Street is an example of how even the most modest industrial building can find new meaning and live happily ever after as a place for people to live.