The Merch. This is the big one, probably one of the best-known loft conversions in all of Toronto. How can you miss it, all the different phases and parts of the complex cover almost an entire city block. The Merchandise Building consists of 504 lofts, 529 above-grade parking spaces, 246 bicycle spaces, 4 loading bays, a 30,000-square-foot food store, and 35,300 square feet of retail and office space. It is a small town unto itself!
The 12-storey warehouse conversion has nine styles of loft, ranging in size from 565 square feet to 1,765 square feet. Though I am pretty sure that Deadmau5’s place is more like 2,500sf. It was completed in February 2000 by Cresford Development Inc. and is one of the best Art Deco style buildings left in Toronto – and one of only a few Art Deco lofts (along with Tip Top Lofts, Forest Hill Lofts and a couple of others).
The Merchandise Lofts is so large that it has 2 addresses – the main one at 155 Dalhousie and the smaller, not-quite-separate building at 135 Dalhousie. Plus there is even a back entrance at 108 Mutual. The massive loft conversion is split into 4 different condo corporations. The 3 phases of 155 Dalhousie is made up of MTCC 1247, 1314 and 1369, while 135 Dalhousie is condo corp 1565.
When entering the Merchandise Lofts, you take one elevator from street level up to the 4th floor, where you then head off to the phase you are going to. Then you take another elevator to your destination loft. This is when you start to understand the size of this old warehouse.
As the building is so large, the lofts tend to be deep, long and skinny with a window only at one end. The hard lofts in the Merchandise Building have 12-foot ceilings with exposed duct work, polished concrete floors and mushroomed concrete pillars – evidence of the building’s roots. Open plans and modern finishes, with light through massive windows, provide a feeling of spaciousness even in the smaller layouts.
As with most loft conversions in Toronto, there is little in the way of outdoor space. Old factories and warehouses just didn’t have balconies… But there are some private balconies at The Merch, though they open into an open air atrium of sorts, a courtyard, and do not look outward. But there is a huge rooftop common area, possibly the best in the city. It has great views, is a very social place, and has BBQs for residents to use. There is even a dog walk area on the roof!
This landmark industrial complex was built in stages between 1916 and 1950. Over the course of the twentieth century the buildings functioned as the administrative centre and warehouse for the Simpson, Simpsons-Sears and Sears Canada mail-order business. Orders were processed and goods sent from this site (as well as from smaller facilities in Regina and Halifax) to customers across the country. In the late 1990s the building started to be converted to lofts, a process that took many years. It was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1997 and Heritage Toronto in 2005.
The original building was designed by Chicago architect Max Dunning and the Toronto firm of Burke Horwood and White. In later years, matching additions were built to the north. The section of the complex fronting on Dalhousie Street – an extension of the earlier building behind it – was designed by Frank S. Corley in 1949 in the unadorned International Style. Its facade was changed to match the older Mutual Street side when the complex was converted to lofts.
The Merchandise Building is a classic example of the renowned early 20th-century industrial Chicago School architectural style. It is a loft conversion of a historic warehouse located in downtown Toronto on Dalhousie Street, next door to Ryerson University and close to the Eaton Centre. Built in various stages from 1910-1949 for the Simpson’s department store, and later owned by Sears Canada after Simpson’s demise, the Merchandise Building at over 1,000,000 square feet is one of the largest buildings by floor area in downtown Toronto.
This building is larger than life, and residents could survive without ever leaving the building. There is a Metro Supermarket on the ground floor, an indoor basketball court, a fully equipped gym, a meeting room, games room, sauna and spa. The rooftop offers a swimming pool, party room, BBQ area and dog walk area. The social life in the merchandise lofts is another wonderful selling feature.
The oldest part of the site is a six-story manufactory built in 1910 at 135 Dalhousie Street for Simpson’s delivery business. Behind it, on Mutual Street, the growing company added the “Robert Simpson Co Ltd Mail-Order Building” in 1914, a large distribution warehouse. Further expansion occurred in the years 1931-1949, tripling the size of the building, yet still conforming to the clean lines of the original design. The main architect was Max Dunning of the firm of Burke, Horwood and White. This noted Canadian firm’s other work in Toronto includes the Bell Media building (what most of us know as the Much Music Building)on Queen Street West and the Simpsons (now The Bay) flagship store at the corner of Yonge and Queen Streets. Contrary to popular belief, Dunning and his firm were not responsible for the Tip Top Tailor building – although sharing many design aspects with the Merchandise Building, it was produced in the year 1929 by the firm of Bishop & Miller.
The Robert Simpson Co. Ltd. Mail-Order Building incorporated many features, that while commonplace today, were relatively novel at the time – a steel structure, reinforced, fire-proof concrete, well-positioned emergency stairwells, and large windows for natural light. The building’s water needs were assisted by a 40,000 gallon rooftop water tower (which I wish had remained).
In 1953, Simpsons joined forces with Sears-Roebuck & Co. of Chicago in forming a 50/50 ownership in a new company, Simpsons-Sears Limited. The new firm took control of Simpson’s catalogue and mail-order business and would open new Sears-style department stores in markets not already served by Simpsons. It was seen as better-suited to compete with the strong T. Eaton Co. catalogue business and to use Sears marketing principles to expand into smaller Canadian rural and suburban markets.
The Toronto Mail Order Building complex – which eventually came to be known by the less cumbersome name of “the Mutual Street Building”, continued to serve the needs of Simpsons-Sears. In 1971, the complex was connected to the department store chain’s new head office building at 222 Jarvis Street. (The Government of Ontario chose 222 Jarvis Street as a model to show that older buildings can be retrofitted to significantly reduce a building’s carbon footprint. The building achieved LEED Gold status for the building and now houses four ministries: Ministry of Government Services, Energy and Infrastructure, Research and Innovation, Economic Development and Trade, and Training, Colleges and Universities.)
In January 1979, the venerable Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) bought Simpsons Limited in a hostile takeover, following a stalled and subsequently failed merger attempt between Simpsons and Simpsons-Sears. Simpsons-Sears continued to operate on its own, out from under its former parent, until 1984, when its name was changed to Sears Canada Inc. In 1991, HBC retired the Simpson’s brand, either merging the remaining (Toronto-area) stores into the Bay banner or selling them off to Sears, depending on the location.
The Sears catalogue business continued after the Simpsons sale to HBC and Sears Canada continued to use the Mutual Street Building as a warehouse until the 1990s, before moving out and consolidating all its GTA catalogue operations at new distribution/warehouse logistics centres in Belleville and Vaughan. Sears then sold the Mutual Street property for development.
Luckily, the new mayor of Toronto, Barbara Hall, had relaxed zoning restrictions in certain areas of the downtown core, allowing redevelopment of under-used or empty 19th and 20th century factories and warehouses. At one point there was talk of converting the warehouse into public housing, but the City wound up selling the property to Cresford Developments. Back in the mid-1990s when this all started, the project was one of the earlier and by far the largest warehouse loft conversions in Toronto. It is still the largest loft conversion, by far.
The ambitious plan to completely modernize the building was delayed by a general construction strike and a spectacular 3 alarm fire, started when a worker tossed a cigarette butt into one of the old freight elevator shafts, landing on a massive pile of debris. The huge pile burned for hours, but the building did not, testament to the original designer’s intent in 1914 to create a structure as fire-proof as possible.
Among the many modernizations is a green roof and coated windows to reduce energy loss. The roof is landscaped with a prairie meadow growing in two green roof plots. The green roof proper is approximately 10,000 square feet and is surrounded by an additional 15,000 square feet of hard surface concrete pavers. The total redesign and regeneration of this 1,070,000-square-foot complex is believed to be the largest of its kind in North America.
Other environmental upgrades include a “Tri-Sorter” recycling chute that accommodates 3 types of waste. The entire building is wired with fibre-optic cable, has a rooftop pool, patio, and dog-walking area, and all the usual amenities in a large condominium. The noted interior design team of Simone-Ciccone and the award winning designer Brian Gluckstein produced between them nine different loft layouts with over sixty variations. Notable interior features include 8-foot sliding barn doors, 12-foot concrete ceilings with support pillars, and ten foot windows.
When it was finally completed in the late 1990s, the project garnered several awards including a commendation from Heritage Toronto and awards from the Greater Toronto Home Builders Association. The conversion even pleased the notoriously critical architecture writer for the Toronto Star, Christopher Hume, who gave the project an “A”. The Merchandise Building was one of the first large redevelopment projects east of Yonge Street, and sparked other projects in the area such as the conversion of the Toronto RCMP Building into the luxury Grand Hotel, the old CBC building on Jarvis Street into the new headquarters of the National Ballet School, and the storied Maple Leaf Gardens into a Loblaw’s supermarket and Ryerson University athletic centre.