WORDS & PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN
When I was a kid growing up in Kitchener, my dad (also born and raised in the city) loved driving my brother and me past the many landmark buildings that helped grow – and define – our hometown. The Arrow Shirt factory on Benton Street. The AR Kaufman factory at the corner of King and Victoria. The Electrohome structure on Shanley. The massive Krug edifice along Breithaupt. As we cruised past these imposing historic monuments (either in my parents’ second- hand Mercury Marquis Brougham or their used Lincoln Continental MkV – a combined thirty-eight feet of automobile) my pops would entertain my brother and me with tales of the industrialists who built these factories, reminding us that Kitchener had, at its height, been an industrial powerhouse in the British Commonwealth.
These tours inevitably included driving past sites where a number of Kitchener’s historic buildings had at some point existed but had since been torn down in the name of ‘progress’. The plot on Weber where the Smiles’n’Chuckles factory had once stood. The spots where Kitchener’s old Market building and Central Fire Hall had once existed. And, of course, the location on King where Kitchener’s grand original City Hall had been erected and then demolished – an act that my dad still calls ‘one of the city’s great tragedies.’ (The building’s clock tower can still be visited at its new home in Victoria Park – a sort of monument of erasure.) Exploring these vestiges of history taught me much about Kitchener, and still having many of these landmarks around today – restored, repurposed, re-invigorated – adds layers and texture to the city’s stories.
It may not be the easiest (or most efficient) task to try to save an old building, to make the effort of breathing new life into it, but it’s a noble undertaking. And one that Joe Woodhouse, CEO of Kitchener’s long-standing Woodhouse Group, has been tackling head on, one project at a time. Indeed, during the past while Woodhouse Group has worked collaboratively with local developers and architects to restore and repurpose several historic downtown Kitchener sites – including, among others, 27 Gaukel Street (also known as the old Schreiter’s building and now occupied by Google), 1 Queen Street North (kiddie corner from The Walper Hotel), 132 Queen Street South (a one-time auto shop that’s now home to Alert Labs Inc).
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it’s the adaptive reuse projects that are currently defining Woodhouse Group. As Joe tells me: ‘For the past few decades, Woodhouse was primarily run as an independent insurance restoration company, restoring properties after damage caused by fire or flooding. About a decade ago, the business branched out to include general contracting, real estate management, and environmental services. Adaptive reuse projects are a perfect fit for us because they incorporate all of the skillsets the company has honed over the years.’
The rehabilitation of 17 Benton Street in downtown Kitchener is a perfect example. This historic three-storey building, the original century-old red brick façade of which had been hidden from view for almost forty years, is currently being restored and reimagined for a new future. In the process, Woodhouse is developing new boutique office space surrounded by discrete units of public parkland and anchored by a future restaurant tenant – all with a view to enlivening this pocket of the downtown core.
‘Before Woodhouse purchased 17 Benton,’ Joe remarks, ‘the building was owned and occupied by Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest.’ I remember the building’s Oktoberfest era well. Its ornamental turrets. Plaster parapets. Black- painted trompe l’oeil ‘windows’. A nostalgic faux-castle design meant to evoke particular sentiments. Not my cup of tea (or, in this case, stein of beer), but a distinctive Kitchener landmark, nevertheless, that carries significant meaning for a segment of Kitchener citizens. I can imagine the public scrutiny Joe and his team must have faced when they dismantled the building’s iconic Oktoberfest castle skin.
‘There were a few people who didn’t want to see the Oktoberfest castle pulled down,’ Joe tells me. ‘We have made sure, in the redevelopment process, to pay homage to this particular chapter of the building’s long life.’ He explains: ‘The Kitchener firm NEO Architecture Inc, who works closely with us on many of our ventures, has designed a pattern emulating the striking checkerboard Bavarian emblem that was a hallmark of the Oktoberfest structure; that emblem will be incorporated onto the Charles Street wall where it will extend beyond the original building’s roofline and serve as the exterior facade of a new fourth floor.’
And who will occupy the upper floors of the Benton Street project? ‘Brightpath Capital and Montfort Capital will occupy the third and fourth floors, while Woodhouse Group will retain the second floor for their growing real estate team.’ And the ground level floor? ‘We’re hoping to fill that space with a fantastic restaurant,’ Joe remarks excitedly. Joe continues: ‘Whoever ends up taking the space will have the opportunity to work with us to build it out to their custom needs.’ The location is definitely ideal for a great nosh spot. Nestled directly across from the Charles & Benton Parking Garage, and just feet from the ION light rail tracks, it would see lots of traffic. And with room for a sweet outdoor patio facing Charles (and directly underneath the Bavarian- patterned exterior wall), it would attract lots of attention from passersby as well.
‘What we’re trying to do at 17 Benton,’ Joe tells me, ‘is to remain true to the building’s earliest roots while re-energizing a corner of the downtown.’ He explains: ‘Seeing the potential in older buildings and redeveloping them for new futures is one way we aim to contribute to the ongoing evolution of the core as a vibrant commercial hub, business district, and community destination.’
My dad, who to this day takes me on car drives of Kitchener’s landmark buildings, would certainly be keen to join me in embracing the mission Joe and the team at Woodhouse Group is giving voice to – their commitment to restoration, adaptation, and stewardship. Just what every city needs.