It is the finest door on the Gore. Immense, some 850 pounds of Brazilian cherry, swinging smoothly on a single pivot.

It’s a door that says you’ve arrived at a place different from the rest. Any day now you’ll be able to see this door for yourself. Finally, the boards are set to come down at 95 King East.

And beyond that door, where strippers used to toil, Hamilton has created a house of art. There will be a gallery here. Artists will work here, and live here too. 

It’s been five years in the making, and the total cost will exceed $4 million. But it’s a beauty.

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Otto Fein, construction superintendent, tries out the mighty door at 95 King East. (Reg Beaudry/urbanicity)

Much history has come ahead of the art. A hundred years ago, Mills Hardware opened a store at this address. Business prospered, the hardware store grew to a chain, and the building grew too. The hardware business lasted until the 1960s.

Before that decade was done, the address had another life altogether. An immense sign went up on the old hardware store – Diamond Jim’s Tavern, with a top-hatted, mustachioed dandy two-storeys tall inviting you to stop awhile.

Girls on the ceiling 

Tiny Tim played there. And the Platters. And there were the girls, on ceiling swings. Diamond Jim’s was our little Vegas.

In the late ‘70s it went down a notch or two and became Bannister’s, where strippers ruled. There was a period when management tried to lure couples too with feature acts like Fernandez the Hypnotist and Marsha Mallow, 450 pounds of fun and fluff.

And Liz ‘The Lip’ Lyons, age 74, raunchy enough to make a sailor squirm.  The Spec sent me down to cover her matinee on a slow-news day in the summer of ’84. I watched a pasty-faced guy in the front try to heckle her. Liz scorched him. Not one word of that show fit a family newspaper.

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Diamond Jim's Tavern took over the building on King East that was once a hardware store. Then came Bannister's and a stageful of strippers. (Local History and Archives, Hamilton Public Library)

Bannister’s limped along, changed names once or twice. And then it went under. The city saw that as a chance to rid the core of a cancer. In 2008, CityHousing Hamilton bought the strip club under power of sale for about $700,000.

All along, the idea has been to create a genuine artists’ colony, to bring some of the James North buzz to the Gore precinct.

That’s not like just opening a shoe store, and there have been some detours along the way. But now it’s nearly done.

Showcase the building

CityHousing CEO Brenda Osborne says they’re holding a by-invitation open house in two weeks for the arts community and people involved in housing services in Hamilton and Toronto. “We want to showcase the building,” she says. “It’s a unique concept in this area.”

There are 12 apartments on the top two floors, and you’ll need to be an artist to get one. CityHousing will soon take applications and tenants could be moving in by December. 

The units are to be at market rent – affordable, but not geared to income. Originally, the target was $650 a month to live in the building. “But it’s exceeded my expectations,” Osborne says. “It’s beautiful.”  She’s thinking $800 might be more in line.

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Raunchy Liz Lyons played everywhere, including Bannister's in downtown Hamilton. (Album cover, 1979)

The look and feel of this building has much to do with the designs rendered by Bill Curran, principal of TCA Architects, offices in a reclaimed furniture store on James Street North. 

He’s the guy who chose about 30 quotations for the doors and hallways of the King project. Van Gogh, Emerson, Gandhi.  And this one, from Winston Churchill: “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.”

“This building is a catalyst for downtown,” he says. “It has to be better than ‘good enough.’”

Off the Art Crawl route

But how much of a difference can one building make? This is King East, well off the Art Crawl route.

“Is it a couple of blocks too far?” Curran says. “I don’t think so. The hope is this building will have its own sense of place.”

The gallery on the first floor has great expanses of exposed brick and a ceiling 16-feet high. Beyond it, there are big studios, with clerestory windows that look up to a world of 1879, Treble Hall. There are more studios downstairs.

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Architect Bill Curran shows CBC Hamilton one of the apartments. This one faces Gore Park and the Royal Connaught. (Reg Beaudry/urbanicity)

The apartments upstairs are condo quality. Parquet floors. Big windows. Old steel beams, some that still say Hamilton Bridge and Tank. “That makes my heart flutter,” Curran says.

The decision on who will manage this complex and make it a true artists’ hub is still in the works. Curran hopes the project can be truly inclusive. 

“I hope there are poetry classes and dance and painting. I hope there are two-year-olds and 82-year-olds. I hope this building gets used by as many different groups as possible.”

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca  |   @PaulWilsonCBC