‘We shape our buildings: thereafter they shape us.’ How a local couple is writing poetry on the streets of Guelph through re-purposing, rehabilitation & remembrance

by Chris Tiessen, Manager of Marketing & Communications, Guelph Chamber of Commerce

Kirk Roberts remembers the first time he took note of the historic Petrie Building as a local monument whose future seemed destined to hold as rich and colourful a history as its storied past. It occurred during a pre-purchase inspection tour of the space when Roberts, along with life and business partner at Tyrcathlen Partners Peregrine Wood, arrived at the building’s fourth floor — accessible only by a work ladder the top of which had seemed to them to disappear through a hole in the ceiling of the third floor.

Roberts recollects: ‘When I climbed the ladder and stuck my head up through the hole I was simply awestruck by what I saw. The single beam from my work light revealed, through dust and gloom, soaring twenty-foot ceilings and exposed stone and brick walls.’

When Roberts made his way across the room and peered out of a hole in the massive windows (long boarded up), the view — of the Church of Our Lady soaring up over the cityscape below — confirmed that the best chapters of this historic building had yet to be written.

Not that the chapters already written haven’t been interesting. On the contrary, evidence of historical remains are inscribed onto — and into — the building top to bottom, inside and out. From the formidable stamped galvanized metal and zinc façade with mortar and pestle relief to the boxes of formaldehyde (that hearken back to the building’s pharmaceutical origins) concealed inside basement walls; from the crude graffiti of topless women scrawled on original raw plaster walls to the dozens of dated messages that reach back over a century; from the third floor cloakroom adorned with rows of coat and hat hooks to the still-operational peep holes in the cloakroom doors that evoke the building’s mysterious chapter as a home to the Order of Oddfellows; from the dirt and grime and broken glass that speak to the building’s neglect over time to palpable signs that this was once a magnificent structure — the Petrie Building remains a monument to our community’s past.

A monument that Roberts and Wood are eager to preserve.

As Wood notes: ‘The process of rehabilitating any historic building is a seemingly eternal balancing act of preservation and revitalization. It’s about offering glimpses of what once was as well as what’s still to come, in an intermingling of design elements that ultimately drive emotions equal parts nostalgia, remembrance, delight, and exhilaration.’ Wood continues: ‘While the next chapter of Petrie will most certainly highlight more current minimalist aesthetics, it will also feature details from the building’s past — from original design elements to decades-old graffiti.’

And some really cool new businesses that promise to make a big impact in Guelph. (There’s already been much buzz around the community about prospective Petrie uses — from the promise of a brewpub on the first floor to hints about the most incredible 4,000 square foot space on the third and fourth floors — replete with those aforementioned sky-scraping ceilings and amazing views.)

Like Roberts’ and Wood’s past rehabilitation projects — including the former Guelph Civic Museum (now Boarding House Arts) and Granary Building (now home to the Guelph Chamber of Commerce, Innovation Guelph and a host of other local community benefit organizations and businesses) — the development of Petrie will focus on, as Roberts notes, ‘community-building.’

Details from the Petrie Building; Kirk Roberts getting his hands dirty somewhere on the second floor of the historic building

Community that has already been created and sustained inside each of Roberts’ and Wood’s buildings — for arts and culture in Boarding House Arts; business, innovation and entrepreneurship at The Granary Building; and (we wait for this) ‘lifestyle’- and ‘entertainment’-focused initiatives at Petrie. And community that continues to transcend these buildings’ walls and re-vitalize our city’s centre. John Ruskin, in The Poetry of Architecture, observed that great architecture will lead folks ‘as much to the street … as to the temple and tower’. Indeed.

Roberts notes: ‘We believe that one of Guelph’s greatest strengths is the number of historic buildings that have survived in the downtown core. These buildings are a key element of Guelph’s identity. While some have come down, others remain — we feel that it’s imperative that we care for the ones that are still standing.’

As our downtown core continues to grow and evolve, and issues of current and future vision and implementation are discussed, we might reflect upon poet John Hollanders’ observation that while poetry is ‘platonically real’ and texts ‘durable,’ structures of stone ‘are transient and subject to the ruin of time’ — and be mindful of and grateful for creative souls among us committed to preserving the poetry of architecture.

Versions of this article first appear in Issue 6 of col.lab.o.rate, the Guelph Chamber’s quarterly sustainability publication, and the Late Summer / Early Fall issue of the Chamber’s Moving Business Forward magazine.

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