At the intersection of Riverside Drive and Devonshire Road stands a four storey building that’s been there for almost a century. It looks like something that grew up out of the earth and now the earth wants it back. Its brick is overrun with vines and ivy that goes from green to red to green again, and in some places where windows were broken by people who find value in breaking things without purpose, the colour has curled its way inside.
Everyone and their brother and me has been calling this place the Old Peabody Building as long as I can remember. But that isn’t what it is. The Peabody Building stood just to the west of this one, beside the Peabody Bridge, which was used for shipping and receiving and lasted until the 1990s when the rail lines were removed from the riverfront. The Peabody Building itself lasted almost as long. It was bombed during the First World War by Nazi sympathizers, survived, and went on to become the base of operations for various engineering and pharmaceutical companies before it was demolished by the city in 1985.
There’s a mystery tied in with this part of the city.
In the summer of 1854, fifty seven Norwegian immigrants died of cholera after getting here by train, packed into windowless freight cars. They were on their way to Chicago via Detroit. They didn’t make it across the border.
Today our population is well over two hundred thousand. In 1854 it wasn’t even eight hundred. There was no hospital, and only one doctor. He did what he could, but he couldn’t save those people.
The Great Western Railway Company promised to pay for coffins and the burial of the immigrants. Then they broke their promise and didn’t pay for anything. They gave the doctor a gold watch.
We didn’t have a cemetery or a church then. No one knows what was done with the bodies. None of the names of the dead are on record. Some people believe they were buried beneath the Peabody Bridge before the bridge was there, but no amount of digging has ever turned up anything definitive.
The building that still stands — the one we call the Peabody Building without knowing we’re naming a ghost — is the Walker Power Building. It seems to have been designed in 1911 by three architects whose names read like a law firm and built in 1923 by Albert Kahn.
I was never able to exhume much of any reliable history. From what little I’ve been able to piece together, it started out doubling as industrial space and a power source for the buildings Hiram Walker owned, later became office space, and then slipped into its most interesting and varied life around the turn of the century, when the ivy was already taking over.
What I’m left with, then, is my own personal history with the building. That only stretches from 2001 to 2002, with one little blip four years later that almost doesn’t count. Still, there are some vivid snapshots.
First there was recording Gord and Tyson’s metal band.
It seemed like half the bands in the city were renting a room at the Neon Shop when I was just getting out of high school. That was another name people called the Walker Power Building, because on one floor there was a business that sold neon signs. There were stairs, and there was an old freight elevator. You had to pull a rope to close it, and you had to check the floor to make sure it was level before you pressed a button to take you where you were going, because if it wasn’t level you were going to get stuck between floors.
I trusted that elevator with most of the equipment I had at the time and recorded the only proper “studio” album that metal band ever made over two days in November, in 2001. I monitored with headphones and some tiny powered speakers Tyson brought for me to use. I was wearing leather pants and a blue dress shirt.
Their space was littered with empties and trash. Brandon’s drum kit was so decrepit the snare drum’s top skin was falling off. But damned if that kit didn’t sound good with a few microphones on it.
For only getting paid twenty bucks and working in a genre of music I’d never recorded before, I think i did a pretty solid job. It still surprises me how good the album sounds for what I had to work with. We recorded most of the instrumental tracks live, running the bass and guitars direct to cut down on bleed. Tyson overdubbed guitar harmonies for one track while his father grinned with whiskey and weed in his eyes and said, “It’s like an orchestra!”
Then there were keg parties I didn’t go to. Some of them got so out of control the cops showed up. There were punk and metal shows. I saw video footage of one of them. I remember a guy who kept breaking empty 40s of Olde English over his head until he started bleeding from a cut on the bridge of his nose. He dipped one of his fingers in the blood and flicked it at the camera.
One of these parties got Gord, Tyson, and the rest of the band locked out of the room they were renting. They spent the better part of an afternoon taking turns trying to convince me over the phone to rent out a new room in my name so they could get back in there.
The idea was for me to move in my equipment. Then I could record them whenever they wanted, and everyone’s gear would be accessible to everyone else.
“Brandon loves Pearl Jam,” Tyson said. “I’m sure he’d love to jam with us.”
Our music sounded nothing like Pearl Jam.
It might have seemed like a decent plan if I cut my head open, plucked out my brain with some heavy duty salad tongs, and chucked it in the river. With my name on the books, if there was any trouble at all, I’d be the one on the hook for it. And I had a great recording space at home. Setting up shop somewhere else made no sense at all.
I said no, and nothing happened there.
There was the night an Adam whose last named rhymed with “hustle” passed out drunk and pissed himself on Tyson’s brother Rick’s couch. They were renting a different room by then. When Adam was sober enough to stand they threw him out. Somewhere there’s a videotape of him demanding to be let back in, screaming, “I’ll pull a Pesci on you! I’ll kill you all!” until Rick walks over and punches him in the face to shut him up, and then punches him again, and again, and again.
“He looked like the Elephant Man for about a week after that,” Gord told me not long after it happened. “Rick fucked him up.”
There was the time I jammed with Gord in the new room and he told me to be careful where i sat on the couch, because that was the one, that was the famous couch, and even though it had dried months ago, well, you never can be too sure with piss stains.
He had long hair then. He has short hair now. We’re still friends.
And there was the time I got a call from a friend because she knew I was looking for work. She told me she was working on the fourth floor of the Walker Power building with a few other people, and there was one position still available if I was interested. It was light assembly work.
The Imagination Factory. That was the name of the business. That was May 2002.
I went in for an interview that wasn’t really an interview. Kate was the name of the boss. She had blonde hair that was turning grey and looked like it was grey hair turning blonde. She explained what the job was. It was putting together these kits that would be sold in stores — replicas of some of Leonardo Da Vinci’s inventions. We were putting together something for someone else to put together. I liked the loopiness of that.
She asked me a few questions, and then she told me I had the job, and then I did the job for as long as the job was there.
It was one of the more enjoyable jobs I’ve had. We listened to WDET, back when WDET still played music. I got to listen to Nick Drake and jazz and Iggy and the Stooges while I was making boxes and counting out parts and talking to the other people working there.
There was Ken. Ken had a ponytail. Ken told me about Steve’s Music in Toronto and talked to me about Tony Iommi. There was Kate. She was a little testy sometimes, but mostly nice. And there was another woman. I remember her face but not her name. She told me when she was a little older than me she had a brief, doomed romance with someone who looked just like me, only he had blonde hair. He was a heroin addict on a methadone program, trying to put his life back together after his child had fallen out of the crib and died while he and his girlfriend were high.
One day, on our last break, I went outside with the friend who got me the job. We took the elevator down and sat together in the tall grass. After a while she laid herself down on her back, so I did the same. We lay together there. I thought about kissing her pretty face, didn’t think she’d want me to, didn’t do it. I wouldn’t have known how if I tried. She pulled a leaf out of my hair when we were back inside and smiled at me.
She had long hair then. She has short hair now. We’re not friends anymore.
The job only lasted about a month. That was all the work there was. But I got a call from Kate inviting me and my dad over for a barbecue at her place on the Fourth of July that year. Kate’s common-law husband was there too.
They had a funny dynamic, those two. They would jab and prod at each another, but you could tell they were having fun with it. That was just their way. You could almost see the history of their whole relationship in one of those little spats they had.
They were comfortable. They were lived-in. They were them. It was nice.
Later we watched the fireworks from the roof of the building we’d worked in. Some stairs got you up there, and maybe there was a ladder at the end. I can’t remember. But it was the perfect place to be.
More people showed up. One of them was someone I’d worked with at a different summer job three years before. She was a little older than me. She was wispy, with a deeper voice than you expected when you first met her. She had perfect long brown hair, straight as any I’d ever seen. I had a crush on her but figured I was too young, she was too cool, nothing was ever going to happen there.
As she was leaving, she went to kiss me without telling me a kiss was coming.
It would have been the first kiss of my life. It would have been just right, except she was so drunk she could barely walk, so it happened like this:
She leaned in to kiss me. I tried to prepare for whatever I was supposed to do. The wind from our leaning blew my hair and her hair in our faces.
That was what we kissed. Hair. There were no lips. There was no spit. There was no me into you and you into me, and she was so far gone she couldn’t even tell hair was all we got, and I didn’t have the guts to tell her. By the next day I knew she would forget all about how we almost kissed, and how she’d been the one to almost make us kiss.
As missed opportunities go, that one was a real asshole.
Then there wasn’t much of anything, until I dropped in on Josh and Mark a few years later. I didn’t trust the elevator anymore. I took the stairs. Gord wasn’t there that night, but he was in their band.
Their jam space was a lot nicer than the other ones I’d seen. neater. Pretty spacious. I dropped off some music, hung out for a while, and left.
That was the last time I was inside.
A year after that, whoever owned the building (maybe a new owner…I’m not sure) got the idea to kill whatever made it what it was and carve it into condos he could sell. When he found out how much money it was going to cost him to get the place up to code with the fire department, to get the zoning he needed, and to get the polychlorinated biphenyls out of the ground, he decided it wasn’t worth it and just evicted everyone and walked away, leaving the building to be condemned.
Local band Yellow Wood elbowed their way inside to shoot a music video for a song off of their final album, 2009’s Son of the Oppressor. And it remained a popular spot for photographers, whether someone wanted some interesting wedding pictures or they just wanted to grab some compelling images of a sleeping structure.
Bands were born there. Artists had lofts there. Small businesses got their start there. There was a vintage bicycle shop. There were print shops. There was a sheet metal fabrication shop. Raves were held there.
This building could be a place for artists and small business owners to thrive. Just like it was in those last years before it went dormant. You want to stimulate a city with an economy that’s bottoming out? Here’s a place to start.
For a long time it just sat there and went on becoming more evergreen than brick. Someone bought it last year, but no one thought anything would come of it. Now comes news that it’s being renovated and redeveloped into a business hub. There’s an artist’s rendering of what the redesign is supposed to look like. It’s so sterile and depressing, I can’t bring myself to put it here.
The shape of the building will remain more or less the same, but they’re going to strip it of all its quirks and transform it into just another faceless husk, no different from any other commercial building, ignoring how it grew into something much more than that. Then they’re going to sell whatever might be left of its soul to the highest bidders.
There’s talk of putting a Starbucks in there, not thirty paces from Taloola, where they serve you real coffee and tea, and not the fast food equivalent. What I guess you’d call the new owner’s statement of intent calls this part of the city “trendy”.
That probably tells you everything you need to know about where their heart is.
Everything about this is wrongheaded. People will call it a useful advance. A rebirth, even. It’s not. Once the renovations are finished, what was once the Walker Power Building will be as dead as the building that owned the name we borrowed when we didn’t know what this one was called, that died two years after I was born. And though its bones will still stand, its face will be a garish mask it never asked to wear.
And another piece of history will be gone. Not just the city’s history. Mine too.
I wanted to get some pictures of it today while it still looked like itself. They’ve already knocked out some of the windows, and by the time the ivy springs to life and lets it colours loose again, they’ll have ripped all that out and thrown it in the trash. At least you get some small idea of its crumbled majesty.
A lot of the pictures here aren’t mine, but these last four are, along with the one of the grass and the very first image. Click on the second one in this group to enlarge it and you’ll see some wall graffiti, with a season misspelled. Some folks must have been squatting there for a short time when things were in limbo.
Here’s how I’m going to remember the Walker Power Building — as a living work of art — knowing it will never look anything like this again.