By Kim Kerr-Dearsley
There’s an old proverb that says, ‘What goes around, comes around’. Although most often used to refer to a person's actions – good or bad – the saying was also once used to suggest that something’s status will eventually return to its original value after completing some sort of cycle. It’s the kind of thing that probably goes through a town planner’s mind when they see a long-empty, derelict building suddenly take on a new lease of life.
Collingwood’s certainly no exception to such phenomena. In recent years, this popular vacation spot on Georgian Bay(and also one of the best places to visit in Ontario) has seen some very forward-thinking developers step up to the plate and not just revitalize, but rescue, historic buildings from the wrecker’s ball.
One such example is the stunning $1 million Tremont Hotel project completed a few years back. Inspired by projects like Toronto’s Distillery District and Gladstone Hotel, this landmark building in Collingwood’s historic downtown core was, upon completion of its renovation in 2010, awarded the best in its field in the ‘Building Rehabilitation and Conservation’ category by the National BIA. Entries in this category were credited with exemplifying excellence in the comprehensive rehabilitation of a single building (public or private) in a BIA (business improvement area).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, owners Richard and Anke Lex were justifiably lauded by the community at large for a job well-done, and for saving a classic example of a three-story, stand-alone 19th Century hotel from the fate most such buildings face.
Tremont House: A Little Historic Perspective
Now home to a bustling restaurant and a number of art studios, the Tremont looks better than ever. Built in 1889 by John McCormick, Tremont House was one of 16 hotels once located in the downtown core – all built at a time when Collingwood was gaining a reputation as a shipbuilding town.
The building is the last remaining 19th Century hotel in the Collingwood Downtown Heritage Conservation District, and is rated as ‘exceptional’ in the district's Inventory of Buildings. Erected during the extremely active period that took place after the 1881 fire that devastated a large part of the downtown area, the building was completed in just three months during a time when many of the town's wooden structures were replaced by brick structures.
The proximity of the hotel to the railway station made it a popular destination for travellers, including the first vacationers in the early 1900s – wealthy Americans looking for cooler air during the balmy summers in their hometowns. The property remained operating as a hotel right up into the 1980s – although more a low-end tavern and nightspot – and is widely regarded as an important historical link to Collingwood's booming railway and shipbuilding era.
A wonderful description of the hotel still survives from an advertisement placed in a newspaper in 1894 – a description that in some ways is still appropriate today after the renovation:
"Large and commodious, the rooms are airy and furnished in the most approved style. Visitors to the hotel will find it pleasant and convenient and the rates reasonable. The proximity of the hotel to the GT Railway station is an advantage not to be overlooked. The proprietor is always on hand to see that every attention is paid to his guests."
The Ultimate Fixer-upper
Thinking about fixing up an historic building is one thing… doing it is quite another.
The process for the Tremont project was a complex balance of preservation, restoration and revitalization of a landmark designated building. The yearlong restoration project began in June 2009, and incorporated sustainable and environmental measures along with heritage preservation. These included keeping tons of refuse out of landfills, using salvaged materials (or donating them to Habitat for Humanity), introducing a roof garden, and placing an emphasis on using local labour and natural materials.
The restoration of the building’s attractive façade was crucial to the project’s success, and has been protected for future generations by a heritage conservation easement agreement with the Town of Collingwood. Inside, too, the attention to detail is remarkable. Evidence of a major fire that occurred in the 1920s is still to be found in the burn marks still visible on the buildings carefully preserved original pine flooring.
The Tremont still receives accolades across the province. Not long after completing the project, the developers were presented with the prestigious Peter Stokes Award for Restoration at the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario annual awards in recognition of their work restoring a significant heritage structure. It's a fitting tribute for the couple, given that Stokes – one of the first full-time heritage architects in the province – was involved in the early days of designating Collingwood's downtown as a heritage district.
There’s little doubt Tremont project raises the bar for the restoration of heritage architecture across Ontario and will no doubt serve as a model for others seeking to preserve small-town Canada’s architectural heritage.
Tremont House Bookstore & Studios
Since reopening way back in September of 2010, the historic Tremont House on Simcoe Street in Collingwood has attracted a variety of interesting (and successful) businesses as tenants. Walk through the beautifully restored main entrance with its heavy wooden door and you’re presented with an option to enter the delightful The Tremont Café on one side – one of the top restaurants in Collingwood – or artists’ studios and a bookshop on the other.
The exquisitely designed and furnished Tremont Café – home to one of the best patios in Ontario – features a full lunch and dinner menu. A brunch menu has also been added, and a fine selection of baked goods and espresso coffees – along with alcoholic beverages – are always available.
Also on the main floor, the Elihu Book Room (a bookstore) offers a broad selection of hard-to-find magazines, art and architecture books… and, of course, classics from the world’s most recognized authors.
Upstairs, a series of studio spaces have been created for area artists to practice and demonstrate their craft.
For more details, visit The Tremont Café website at www.thetremontcafe.com.
Contributor Kim Kerr-Dearsley is a frequent visitor to Collingwood and The Blue Mountains.