Paul Wilson: Hamilton's oldest puzzle is made of stone

Three years ago they tore down the Thomas Building, beside the Lister Block on James North. The facade is now in a thousand pieces, but will rise again. Why can't that method work for the buildings under threat on Gore Park?
This postcard view shows the Thomas Building between the two utility poles. To the right is the old Lister Building, destroyed by fire in 1923 and replaced the next year by the Lister Block that stands today. (

Right now Hamilton is trying to coax a developer to save the facades of some buildings on Gore Park that are older than Canada itself.

The city has come up with about $1 million, but David Blanchard says his costs could be twice that. And he has demolition permits in hand. So we wait and worry.

Meanwhile, a couple of blocks away on James Street North, a historic piece of Hamilton’s streetscape is ready to be saved in a way that’s never been done in this city before – a way that could work on the Gore too.

The James North project involves a thousand-piece jigsaw of sandstone that used to be the front of the four-storey Thomas Building.

The Thomas Building was empty for years. In 1961, a renovator smashed off the window hoods and cornices on the northern portion of the building's face. (

It used to stand beside the Lister Block. The Thomas Building is not as imposing as the Lister, but it’s many decades older.

The name comes from architect William Thomas, 1799 – 1860, prolific in every way. He was father to 10 children, and to buildings by the dozen. A few examples: in Toronto, the St. Lawrence Hall and Market; in Queenston, the spectacular Brock Monument; in Hamilton, St. Paul’s Presbyterian, still a showpiece on James South.

Just two left

He built fine homes in this city too, like Ballinahinch, at the foot of the Mountain. As for commercial buildings by Thomas, there are just two that survive here. One is the 1840s Kerr building on Gore Park, the very structure that’s now at risk. 

The other, the 1855 Thomas Building. The city designated it under the Ontario Heritage Act in 2008, so had some bargaining power with the owners. They would be the Hi-Rise Group, which in partnership with the LIUNA labourers union, restored the derelict Lister Block and then sold it to the city.

The city told Hi–Rise they could take down the Thomas Building as long as they saved the facade. And it would need to go back up when the developer built something on that property. 

This fall the Hi-Rise Group unveiled plans for a 16-storey $35-million condo tower to rise behind the restored Thomas Building facade. (Hi-Rise Group)

We found out in October that there are plans in place. Hi-Rise said they want to build a 16-storey $35-million condo complex. It will rise behind the facade. Sales start in the spring.

Isn’t that going to be tricky, putting all those chunks of old stone back together again?

“It’s done in other places all the time,” says Carolyn Samko. “Just not here yet.” 

Bring it down right

Samko now works for the city, responsible for making sure structures like Dundurn Castle and Whitehern are looked after. But several years ago, she was a heritage consultant. And she had the job of making sure the Thomas came down right.

A mason named John Laundry, whose restoration work includes the Parliament Buildings, helped her with a plan for the job.

Samko went up on scaffolding with a computer-generated map of the facade, eyeballed all that old stone. She took pictures and did a condition report for every piece.

Carolyn Samko mapped the facade of the Thomas Building and guided it down. Now it's up to Shawn Marr to get it back up. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Then disassembly began. The top edge of each stone was cleaned, and painted with latex. That gave Samko a surface on which to number the pieces with an indelible marker.

Each stone was then removed with slings or padded scissor claws, placed on skids, protected with castoff carpet. There are between 1,000 and 1,250 stone pieces in all, on 46 skids. They are in a rented warehouse under lock and key, stored with the inventory sheet and map that tells how to put them all back together.

Some pieces missing

Unfortunately, like that old jigsaw puzzle up at the cottage, some pieces are missing. In the early 60s, somebody decided it would be a good idea to smash off the projecting pieces of stone – the cornices and the window hoods – so they could hammer on some metal siding. 

New pieces will have to be made. And they won’t be from that same sandstone. “It’s not available anymore,” Samko explains, “nothing that looks like it or has the same texture.” 

With Samko otherwise occupied, Hi-Rise will use heritage consultant Megan Hobson to direct putting the puzzle back together.

The facade came off the Thomas Building three years ago, and then they knocked the place down. (Courtesy Joe Mielko)

“But make no mistake, we will still be driving Carolyn crazy and making her come and take a look at things,” says Shawn Marr, director of operations with Hi-Rise.

“I’ll want to,” Samko says. “It becomes your baby.”

Abundant light

Over the years, this building housed tailors, watchmakers, clothiers, billiards, a hardware, the Model Cloak & Suit Company, the H & F Silk Woolen Company, and the popular Clark’s Business College, which declared its premises offered “abundant light, commodious rooms and perfect ventilation.”

In short, the Thomas Building represents many generations of Hamilton life. And at least  the part of it we all see from the street will be saved. 

Any good reason why the facade-by-numbers method couldn’t work in Gore Park?

Clark's Business College was proud of its premises at the Thomas Building, which included "commodious rooms." (Local History & Archives, Hamilton Public Library)

Marr of Hi-Rise isn’t going to comment on that. “However, I will say that while there’s a significant premium to put the Thomas facade back up, it’s not a deal breaker.

“People like history, so there’s a payback,” he says. “Whoever thought that being next to Lister Block would one day be a positive?”  |  @PaulWilsonCBC

To read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson, click here.



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