Some people thought the $2-million restoration project underway in an 85-year-old building on Wentworth Street near Barton was pure folly.

"I can’t tell you names," says Barry Coe, director of community relations for Mission Services, "but people said, ‘Tear it down, you’re wasting your money.’"

Mission Services, however, doesn’t work that way. They take old landmarks and respectfully make them new. They have done it again and again.

This time, with zero public dollars, they’ve saved a three-storey brick structure built in 1927, once the Ontario Training College for Technical Teachers. Home ec, manual training, shop, sewing, dressmaking – thousands of teachers from across the province attended this facility.

During the Second World War, it was soliders and airmen who learned here, about 4,500 of them.

They used to make clothes in Canada

And in the years before all clothing was made off shore, the building had another incarnation as the Provincial Institute of Textiles. It had spinning equipment, knitting machines, weaving looms, a dye house, testing labs.

By 1957, a new name went up over the door – Hamilton Institute of Technology. And that evolved into Mohawk College.

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Barry Coe of Mission Services loves the marble, the hardwood floors, the soaring ceilings. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Mohawk is going great guns these days, but has precious little activity in the lower city of old Hamilton. They walked away from the building on Wentworth North a couple of years ago.

Meanwhile Mission Services was looking for a new home.

Its activities had been centered close to the James North corridor right from the beginning. And that was in 1956, when a Mennonite farmer and feed mill operator near Elmira named Eno Bearinger sold his property. He’d had a message from the Lord to help men who were down and out.

Three hots and a cot

So he spent $25,000 on a candy factory on James North and turned it into the Harbour Rescue Mission. The concept was simple – food and shelter, or  "three hots and a cot." Plus a side order of salvation, of course.

Projects since then include the infamous Bayview Tavern, at Bay and Stuart since Confederation. After more than one bawdy house conviction there, the prostitutes moved out onto the street, working in parked cars, behind trees, down stairwells. The neighbourhood was up in arms.

In rode Mission Services. It bought the tavern and turned it into a thoroughly modern shelter for women called Inasmuch House.

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There have been many names over the door on Wentworth North, but for the sake of history Mission Services is going to leave this one in place. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Next, Mission Services took over an old tavern at James and Barton, known first as the International , then the Jamesville. When Mission Services was done with the place, it featured a big dining room for its men’s shelter next door and clean rooms upstairs.

Mission Services had also been operating just a couple of blocks away in the old McIllwraith school on Murray, where they ran career training, trusteeship programs and an emergency food bank.

Follow their clients east

But the organization realized that as the James North area gentrified, the people who needed the help of Mission Services were living further east where rents were cheaper.

So the school was sold last year for $750,000 to the developers now building the glass-topped Witton luxury lofts. And Mission Services went shopping for a new headquarters.

It searched up and down Barton East and stumbled on the empty Mohawk building. It’s 45,000 square feet, twice what they had on Murray, and it cost $350,000, less than half what they’d sold their old place for.

Mission Services knew there were expensive renovations to be done, but they had plenty in their back pocket.

That’s because a group of doctors who should have stuck to medicine decided in the mid-‘90s to become developers and erected a $7-million medical centre on Wellington North, right across the street from the Hamilton General.  It was a bust.

A very good sale

Mission Services picked up the place a decade or so ago for $50,000 and turned it into centre for community services. Last year they sold that same building to Hamilton Health Sciences for $2.1 million.

Mission Service’s Barry Coe credits their executive director, Pastor Ed Raddatz.  "Ed’s really good," he says. "He’s a business guy, runs a tight ship."

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Style in stone: Mission Service's new home was built in 1927.

So they’ve had the money to make the building on Wentworth new again. Wiring, plumbing, heating, air conditioning, windows all around. This building has hardwood floors that now gleam, and terrazzo and marble too. There are soaring ceilings and tall windows.

There is still work to do. But this Thursday, with the mayor’s help, they will officially open the Mission Services Community Opportunity Centre.

There is no shelter here, but the building does house a food bank, a clothing bank, a money management program, an addiction treatment centre. And Mohawk has signed a 20-year lease for part of the building," Coe says, "to provide some sort of program that supports what we do."

They don't want Sanford torn down

Mission Services has its heart set on one more project on the block.

Just across the way is the magnificent 80-year-old Sanford Avenue school, empty for two years. It’s as long as a football field. It is as grand inside as it looks outside.

"Pastor Ed sees that school as a place where the seniors in the area could live in dignity, near the area that they’re familiar with," Coe says. "This would not be social housing. It would be inclusive, for everyone. I think it would be a great legacy project for Bernie Morelli." He’s the city councillor who has served that ward for more than 20 years.

But when Mission Services contacted the Hamilton-Wentworth school board, they learned it plans to knock the building down for a soccer field.

The city’s Heritage committee hopes the board can be persuaded to reconsider, and so does Mission Services.

For a look at Sanford Avenue school, click here.

 

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca   |   @PaulWilsonCBC

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.