Sympathetic Deconstruction: The Timeless Material Company
BY CHRIS TIESSEN
When I was a kid growing up in Kitchener, my dad used to pile my brother and me into the back seat of our ancient 1971 Mercury Marquis Brougham (a true ‘land barge’) and drive us downtown. Not to hit up the park for ice cream. Or to go to the movies. Instead, he’d tour us around the outskirts of the core – pointing out the old factories and historic buildings that had once played a prominent role in the city’s rise to fame as an industrial powerhouse.
To be sure, these semi-regular urban pilgrimages generally hit a somewhat celebratory note. Of past glory. Of grand industrial architecture. And occasionally they acknowledged future potential, too. However, often enough our excursions would take on an almost elegiac tone, given that my pops would, without fail, also grieve those empty lots where a good number of our region’s most impressive edifices had been demolished. He drew our attention to ‘buildings gone missing like teeth,’ as Winnipeg band The Weakerthans would come to sing.
Looking back, I see how these excursions of lament profoundly affected my sense of a community’s identity and my understanding of how delicately intertwined its history is with its architecture. In fact, these tours made me acutely interested in architectural history and preservation – and in the historical dynamics that shape amazing adaptive re-use projects such as those undertaken by local superhero developers like HIP, Perimeter, Fusion, Skyline and Tyrcathlen. And by another local business that has been preserving our region’s historic treasures in its own unique way: The Timeless Material Company.
‘It’s more than an irony that Timeless, which is essentially an extension of a demolition company, would take historic preservation so seriously,’ Kirk Kieswetter tells me. ‘Yet we do; it’s literally in our DNA.’ He continues: ‘When my dad [Ken Kieswetter] started working for the family business, Kieswetter Demolition, back in the early ‘60s, he honed an uncanny ability to find value in almost anything he found inside – and outside – the buildings his crew tore down. And so he saved it all.’ And continues to save it all. And send it here – to this massive barn and adjacent buildings at the north end of Waterloo, where Kirk is touring me around.
Reclaimed timbers. Flooring. Wall cladding. Vintage windows. Lighting. Entire staircases. Church pews. And almost everything else you can imagine that once comprised some of our region’s greatest edifices. Canada Barrels and Kegs in Uptown Waterloo. The Globe Furniture Company – also Uptown. Biltmore Hats in Guelph. The Caledonia Mill. The St Jacobs Market. And so many more. All taken down by Kieswetter. And salvaged, too, for display and sale at The Timeless Material Company.
‘We’ve managed to accumulate so many incredible materials here at Timeless,’ Kirk remarks, ‘because my dad started salvaging stuff from demolition sites way before it was in vogue to do so.’ He adds: ‘While many other demolition crews were indiscriminately tearing down buildings, my dad made sure that Kieswetter focused on cautious deconstruction instead. He recognized that older buildings especially had been constructed with materials that could – and should – be used again.’
And so the vintage materials arrive here – at Timeless. But not before going through an intricate (and expensive) process to get them from job site to showroom floor. ‘This place really has to be seen to be believed,’ I remark to Kirk as we head upstairs, past rows of relics from our region’s past. We pause in front of what looks to be an old church staircase – propped up as though still inviting folks to climb it. ‘Don’t do it,’ Kirk says with a chuckle. ‘It doesn’t lead anywhere.’ True. But here it is, striking its sensational pose. Like it belongs in some sort of maniacal funhouse.
We continue walking the barn, each nook and cranny more fantastical than the last, finally making our way to the basement, which is devoted almost entirely to reclaimed, re-milled flooring and wall cladding. ‘The bulk of our business,’ Kirk says, nodding towards the seemingly endless stacks of wood. ‘Recovered, kiln-dried, de-nailed, re-milled, and finally brought here where it’s displayed ready for installation – again.’ He goes on: ‘Not a day goes by when we’re not providing mill shops, architects, builders and retail consumers with the most incredible local reclaimed wood and building components.’
Some white shiplap boards catch my eye. ‘From the old Biltmore Factory in Guelph,’ Kirk tells me, alluding to the renowned hat factory that until just a few years ago had an imposing presence on Morris Street in Guelph’s ‘Ward’. My neighbourhood. ‘We’ve got a ton of it,’ he adds. I imagine my own century home re-floored with some of the stuff.
When we exit the barn, the old Ali Baba restaurant sign lying beside the parking lot catches my eye. Boldly patinated and covered in dust, it brings back a flood of memories.
Of how things used to be around these parts.
And I’m drawn back again to those childhood trips I used to take with my dad, when he would mourn the buildings that had vanished. And it occurs to me that while many of those architectural treasures have disappeared, they endure. Not only in memories, or in old black and white photographs. But here. At The Timeless Material Co. And in projects around the region that have re-purposed materials salvaged by Kieswetter Demolition.
Like ABE ERB in Uptown Waterloo, whose bar is built out of a structural beam from the St. Jacobs Market, still boasting singes from the market fire of 2013. And Crafty Ramen in downtown Guelph, whose shiplap board wall came from a Guelph gymnasium floor. And the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ souvenir shop, whose board stock décor also came by way of Timeless. And Starbucks, Roots and Whole Foods stores across Ontario. And so many other projects that have mined Timeless for material culture remnants of community identity.
I look around the parking lot one last time before bidding Kirk adieu, half imagining that I might ride away from this assemblage of our region’s bygone antiquities in an old Mercury Marquis Brougham. In the back seat. With a local guide.
Now that would be something.