The Tannery Lofts is a hard loft conversion of a 1913 red brick factory building that was formerly used for industrial purposes. As with many converted lofts, the name and myth don’t always match up to the actual history. The Tannery Lofts was designed and built by one of Toronto’s best-known architects, John M. Lyle, it was originally used for manufacturing and storage by the Adam Beck Cigar Box Manufacturing Company.
The Tannery Lofts is located at 736 Dundas Street East, just east of River Street near the Don Valley Parkway. Some units are located in the original three-storey structure and have the awesome 13-foot wood ceilings, brick walls and exposed posts and beams. Blending in with the old building is a new two-storey addition with a brick facade and warehouse-style windows. You almost wouldn’t know there was an addition if you didn’t look too closely.
The developer of the Tannery Lofts was the Walsh Development Group (who also completed the conversion of the old Gillette razor factory on Adelaide Street East into the Liberty Lofts – https://jeffreyteam.com/info/liberty-lofts/). With the Tannery Lofts, the company waded into a neighbourhood where two other experienced developers had pulled loft projects from the market because of poor response. Can you imagine a time when loft conversions got a “poor” response?
Demand for the Tannery Lofts was pretty crazy at the time – lines formed and excitement grew. Some people were filing out contracts on cardboard boxes! While others waited their turn, it was not unusual for prices to rise by $5,000. Crazy… The lofts range in size from the smallest, a 443 square-foot unit, to the largest at 1,300 square feet. On a square-foot basis, the prices are pretty good, probably because of its location next to Regent Park. But once that redevelopment is complete, expect prices to jump nicely.
Before being turned into the Tannery Lofts, the building was always more famous for being a cigar box factory. Not a tannery. This former industrial building was designed by the prominent Toronto architect John M. Lyle. Its owner, the Hon. Adam Beck, was a businessman and politician, and an influential advocate for a publicly owned electricity supply in Ontario.
Beck was born in Baden, Ontario to German immigrant parents. He attended school at the Rockwood Academy in Rockwood, Ontario. As a teenager he worked in his father’s foundry, and later established a cigar box manufacturing company in Galt (now Cambridge), Ontario with his brother William. In 1885 he moved the company to London, Ontario, where it quickly flourished.
Beck was an early and prominent advocate of publicly owned electricity grids, opposing the privately owned companies who he felt did not adequately serve the needs of the public. He convinced the Ontario premier to create a board of inquiry on the matter, with him as chairman. The inquiry suggested creating a municipally owned hydroelectric system, funded by the provincial government, and using water from Niagara Falls and other Ontario lakes and rivers. In 1906 Premier Whitney appointed Beck the first chairman of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission.
As principal founder and guiding genius of Ontario Hydro, Beck helped establish the public enterprise tradition in Canada, though his methods did little to render such enterprises more politically accountable. The Sir Adam Beck Pump Generating Station on the Niagara River in Queenston is named for him. He was knighted by King George V in 1914 for his promotion of electricity and development of transmission lines.
Before cigars, the property was first developed in 1910 when a single-storey tannery was built for Harry B. Johnston, a tenant to Adam Beck. Apart from his political activities, Beck was a prominent businessman whose company manufactured cigar boxes. Seems that Beck owned a large lot, the entire strip from River Street to the Don River, the southtern half between Beech/Wilton/Dundas and Cornwall Street to the north. The tannery was a long and low building east of where the Tannery Lofts stand now. The Lexus dealership stands where the tannery would have been 100 years ago.
Johnston must have rented part of the land from Beck upon which his tannery was built. You don’t want to know what kind of awesome old building was there in the early 2000s, the one that could not generate enough interest to be converted… The little building between the Tannery Lofts and the Lexus dealer is all that is left. And that little box probably dates back to the tannery and might be the only authentic “tannery” anything on the block!
Very little out there about Mr. Johnston and his tannery. Best I can find is that he lived at 740 Spadina Avenue in the early 1900s, as noted in the 1913 City Directory. He married Winifred in 1906 and she gave birth to little Howard Eckardt Johnston in June of 1911. The birth notice mentions that Harry B. Johnston is a “leather wiper”, but not that he owned a tannery. They must have been somewhat important, though, as they warranted a listing in the 1913 Blue Book (noting that they received visitors on the 1st Tuesday of the month). Ominously, he does not appear in the 1921 City Directory.
Back to our loft building. Completed in 1913, the plans for Beck’s factory were prepared by the notable Toronto architect, John M. Lyle. While Lyle is more famously associated with Union Station and the Royal Alexandra Theatre, he also designed several power stations for Ontario Hydro (I’m guessing Beck liked his work). Lyle’s plans for this site worked around Johnston’s Tannery on the east side of the lot. Significant for its association with an important historical figure, the Adam Beck Cigar Box Manufacturing Company Building is architecturally important as a well-designed early 20th century industrial building.
The heritage attributes of the cigar box manufacturing building are found on the exterior walls and roof. Rising three stories, the structure features a long rectangular plan. The building is clad with red brick and trimmed with brick and precast stone. It was designated heritage by the city in 2005.
Lyle designed Beck’s factory in 1913, as well as the tannery for Harry B. Johnston & Co. in 1910. Some say it used to be a soap factory, many say that was the original use. But, it cannot be, as Beck had Lyle build it for him. It started out making boxes for cigars.
Lastly, the Tannery Lofts used to front onto Wilton Avenue, which used to be Beech Street. Wilton became Dundas East between 1913 and 1924. It was Beck who championed the construction of a Toronto branch of his cigar box company on the extension of Wilton Avenue (later Dundas Street East) near the Don River Bridge.