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Distillery District in Toronto Marks 190 Years with Eye to the Future [Interview]

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Celebrations for The Distillery Historic District’s 190th anniversary kick off Thursday September 29 and run for a month and a half, celebrating the stories, people and iconic architecture behind one of Canada’s most beloved destinations.

“When we submitted our proposal to purchase the venue to the City of Toronto back in 2001, we made a promise,” said John Berman, one of the partners in the development. “Our vision was that The Distillery Historic District would be a centre for arts, culture, dining and entertainment; a space for independent business owners to be supported and succeed. We committed to building community over profit. Twenty years later, we are very proud to say, we’ve kept that promise.”

The Distillery Historic District opened in 2003 and is today widely regarded as Canada’s premier arts, culture and entertainment destination. It’s a national historic site, originally founded in 1832, brimming with creativity and creative people that can inspire dreams and help them come true. The 13-acre walking district is a dramatic fusion of old and new. An inspired blend of the largest collection of Victorian Industrial architecture in North America and stunning 21st century design and creativity. The result is an internationally acclaimed village of one-of-a-kind stores, shops, galleries, studios, restaurants, cafes, theatres and more, which was named one of The Coolest Shopping Districts Around the World by The Guardian, according to the District.

Visit www.thedistillerydistrict.com for more Information.

The Distillery Historic District (Image: Dustin Fuhs)

The District is owned by DREAM and Cityscape. Berman is a partner and owner of Cityscape. Cityscape purchased the Distillery in December 2001 and DREAM purchased half of the Distillery in October 2004.

“The area was a completely dilapidated site. It had never really been updated since the days of the liquor company and even then the buildings were more or less the same shape that they were in the late 1800’s. It had no services to the buildings to speak of,” explained Berman.

“It had a completely antiquated sprinkler system that was run originally through one of the old buildings on site. There was no sewage on site. The first toilet when we flushed it emptied onto one of the streets. The streets were muddy. There weren’t bricks on the street as people think . . .  The buildings weren’t up to code and they were completely run down. But they had the beauty to them. They had never really been touched.”

The Distillery Historic District (Image: Dustin Fuhs)

At the time, Cityscape, which was in the film business, was told by an old film scout that the company should take a look at the site which is now the Distillery District. Berman had lived in Toronto his whole life but really knew nothing about that area. 

“It was gated off with wire at the top of the gate so you couldn’t get into it. And it was a rough area at the time,” he recalls. “There was nothing around it. There were needles on the ground. It was not an area you would want to walk in at night, put it that way. And as we walked through we were amazed.

“We had done a lot of heritage development at the time and that really was our expertise. We walked through and we found 47 heritage buildings one after the other – just gorgeous, gorgeous buildings. We saw all the potential. We walked one to another and my partners and I said wow can you imagine this as an art gallery, next one, can you imagine this as a restaurant. And we kept on saying that over and over again.

“It was really at the end of the tour that we came up with the vision for what’s now the Distillery District. We just thought this gives us the opportunity to build a whole centre for arts, culture and entertainment. Something completely unique for Toronto. Something that Toronto didn’t have and still doesn’t have – any walking areas. It was large enough to allow us to have that. It was large enough to allow us to have an entertainment area where we could have events outside and shows inside and animate the streets. We looked and we saw that restaurants could bleed onto the streets and animate the area. We saw galleries where you could have huge exhibitions and installations.”

The Distillery Historic District (Image: Dustin Fuhs)

The idea was an immediate hit with tenants who came aboard. There was a huge momentum and public spirit to work with the group to make the vision become a reality. 

“When we first purchased it we said we were going to create the centre for arts, culture and entertainment. We’re going to have boutique owned stores, we’re going to have unique restaurants, we’re going to have galleries, we’re going to have entertainment spaces,” said Berman.

“That is what we have today . . . Looking back when we first undertook this work, we had no idea at all what a big undertaking it would be, we had no idea of the challenges, we had no idea of the issues we would run into and all the hidden costs and all of the other issues, we were almost fortunate in that we didn’t understand how big a challenge it was.

The Distillery Historic District (Image: Dustin Fuhs)

“Cityscape is relatively a small development group. The reason that the large, large development groups shied away from the Distillery, and weren’t interested in taking it on, was because it was a massive task but it’s something we really approached with enthusiasm. Virtually every tenant on site is a tenant that we found. That I literally cold called tenants saying we really want to bring you down. We would never let a tenant come down and see just the one space we wanted to show them. Every tenant we would make take a mini hour tour with us, seeing every building and understanding the whole vision – because they weren’t just renting the space, they were becoming part of the community. It was that community spirit that really started the Distillery going.”

To commemorate the anniversary, The Distillery Historic District is launching Distillery 190: Across the Ages, including a larger than life birthday bash outside under the canopy lights along Trinity Street and a new, curated, outdoor archival photo exhibit.

Follow The Distillery Historic District on social media for live updates on all celebratory activities: @DistilleryTO, #distilleryTO, #distillery190.

The Distillery Historic District (Image: Dustin Fuhs)

“As much as this we’re marking a milestone, more importantly, Distillery 190 is our way of saying thank you to the people of Toronto,” said Rik Ocvirk, Director of Experiences and Events.

According to the District, in 1832, James Worts and his brother-in-law William Gooderham emigrated to Upper Canada from the United Kingdom to establish a flour milling business on the shore of Toronto Bay. Their 70-foot tall windmill became a symbol of the new City of Toronto and their business grew to become an economic powerhouse and the largest distillery in the world. 

It is one of Canada’s most recognizable tourist destinations, with 65 one-of-a-kind shops and award winning restaurants and cafes, and home to a vibrant art community.

Go Tours at The Distillery District (Image: Dustin Fuhs)

EVENT GUIDE: How Canadians can join in celebrating The Distillery Historic District’s 190th anniversary: 

  • Distillery 190: A Photo Exhibit Across the Ages: To celebrate 190 years of the National Historic Site known as The Distillery Historic District, the founders have curated 25 sets of archival photographs to visually tell the story of this 13-acre collection of Victorian-era industrial buildings. From the architecture, to the businesses, to the fascinating people who worked here and roamed the streets, journey back in time and see the incredible transformation this space has undergone since it was founded in 1832 by distilling company Gooderham and Worts.

To book a 30-minute guided tour of the exhibit with GO TOURS visit.  www.gotourscanada.com/distillery-district-190th-anniversary

Tours available: September 29 – November 16, 2022

Tours start at 5:30 PM on weekdays and 2:30 PM on weekends

Price: $12+ HST per person.

Free tours to the first 190 people to sign-up, using code ATA22. Or, you can visit the online gallery of images and tour the exhibit at your own pace – available September 29. The exhibit launches Thursday, September 29 and runs until November 16.

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior News Editor with Retail Insider in addition to working as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training.

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