Paul Wilson: Old Hamilton Dairy building gets funky retrofit

In 1907, Hamilton Dairy moved into new quarters downtown. It's been gone for generations. Now Peapod Studios, born in Calgary, is moving into the bunker on Vine.
Nicolle and Alistair Morton used to come to Hamilton from Toronto for an interesting day out. They've just moved their communications business into a 106-year-old building on Vine. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

She’s five-foot five. He’s six-foot seven. Yet they are, as the saying goes, two peas in a pod.

Nicolle and Alistair Morton are Peapod Studios, a marketing and communications agency born in Calgary and now reborn in a rock-solid, triple-bricked, two-storey bunker on Vine, a block north of Copps Coliseum.

There are two front windows on the second floor, a letter in stone under the arch of each – one H, one D. That would be Hamilton Dairy.

In the late 1800s, milk was often unhygienic and diluted with water and chalk. So when Hamilton Dairy opened this building in 1907, they promised healthy milk, safe and pure. And they brought it to your door, in clean bottles, a horse pulling the wagon.

Ancient history, but the Mortons just love it. They have rooted around for the old stories, want to know all they can about the building that is their new home, want to know about the ghosts that may linger here.

"The spirits of those who came before can make you feel a little more creative," Nicolle says.

He kissed, she left

She and Alistair met a long time ago. He kissed her on her 19th birthday back home in Calgary and she promptly took off to Vancouver for a decade.

When she came back, she was running a communications business. Turned out Alistair was in the same line. He was an art school dropout, played guitar in a band called Gaudhed and turned his hand to graphics – illustrating menus, doing band posters.

Nicolle and Alistair got married, decided one company made more sense than two, and Peapod Studios began.

And what’s an ad agency without a slogan?

Home was Alberta, they love meat and they were fooling around by the BBQ. Out it came: "A rare medium, well done."

They’ve been using it ever since.

Big oil gets boring

Calgary is going great guns, but Big Oil can be boring after awhile. The Mortons wanted a change.

They landed in Toronto, got consulting work, and Peapod went on the shelf for a time. But they soon discovered it’s more fun running your own show.

Meanwhile, they were doing what no real Torontonian ever dares to do. They were making day trips to Hamilton.

They would sit on the patio of Locke Street’s Bad Dog Cafe and get into debates with locals about whether Starbucks would kill the street.

And they would drive along Aberdeen, gawking at the big houses made of all that gorgeous brick – a rare sight in Calgary. One thing led to another, and they started looking at real estate here.

About three years ago, they bought a six-bedroom home on St. Clair. The porch, they say, is bigger than their house in Toronto. The price, well, they couldn’t believe it.

They moved Peapod Studios into a second-floor office on James South near Bold. But space got tight.

Same family for generations

Last year Nicole spotted the old dairy, 98 Vine, in the online real estate listings.

Hamilton Dairy got swallowed by Borden’s around 1930. Not long after that, the building was purchased by the Rochwerg family – still prominent in this city’s scrap metal sector, and still owners of the building.

Their tenants, since 1948, had been the Auto Service & Supply machine shop. For a time, they had shared the building with La Salle Cabinets.

The Mortons took a walk through.

"I saw machines and grease," Nicolle says. "And I saw Hamilton and I saw history."

"This is a Hamilton building," Alistair says, "square as the day it was built."

A deal was struck in the fall, a long-term lease with an option to buy.

City Hall 101

The Mortons did learn a little about City Hall.

"There are frustrations getting things done in Hamilton, fighting with the old guard," Nicolle says.

They do credit councillor Jason Farr with helping them run a rezoning obstacle course.

And this month, they moved in.

They pay the property taxes, about $1,600 a month. And they pay for all the improvements, which will be about $200,000 before they’re done.

There are about a dozen staff at Peapod, working in a big, airy, dog-friendly space on the second floor. There are stairs up, but it’s more fun to ride the ancient wood-gated elevator.

Renovations to the main floor, where the ceilings are 20-feet high, are just getting started. It’s going to be a park. There will be turf, a big tree that looks real, a swing set, a long boardroom/ picnic table. In this space there will be focus sessions, kick-offs, training workshops, client meetings.

Nicolle says Toronto clients – Peapod’s list includes U of T, Metrolinx, the Broadbent Institute – will be directed into town "the pretty way," along York Boulevard. Once at Peapod Park, all are free to remove their shoes for better brainstorming.

From an old dairy to a place that paints with pixels – Nicolle says it’s just part of the natural order. "This is a byproduct of a funky, cool city."

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.