Rebuilding Hamilton, one architecture tweet at a time

Blogger Thomas Allen features iconic and hidden Hamilton architecture on his blog and social media.

Blogger: 'It has always had a stigma, but there's a lot of beautiful buildings in this city'

A series of Rebuild Hamilton photos posted to Instagram show a post-modern parking garage, a concrete apartment building, a public washroom, a view of the North End and the decor of a cafe. (Rebuild Hamilton/Instagram)

Thomas Allen is obsessed with finding out the stories we'd hear if Hamilton's buildings could talk.

Allen's the man behind Rebuild Hamilton, a blog and accompanying Twitter and Instagram streams highlighting iconic Hamilton buildings and hidden gems, weaving together details he learns from research and observations he makes from the street. 

He does it from a premise that the city can be better, as the "rebuild" name implies.

But spend five minutes on his Instagram feed, or in CBC Hamilton's case, walk around downtown with him for an hour, and you can feel the love for what's already here in Hamilton's built environment oozing out.

"It has always had a stigma," Allen said of his hometown. "But there's a lot of beautiful buildings in this city." 

Thomas Allen is a student of Hamilton's built environment and shares what he's learned on his Rebuild Hamilton blog and social media accounts. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)
He's not just a cheerleader. He'll tell you when he doesn't like something, like Jackson Square, for which an iconic city hall was torn down: "There are a lot of spaces in this city that didn't quite make the mark." 

Walking around downtown, Allen stops every few feet, rattling off architect names or the year something was built.

Hamilton's deep history and investment in its core is unlike some other Ontario cities like Mississauga and Brampton, Allen said. 

"This is an old downtown, with a lot of old buildings, built by a lot of big architects," he said, looking up.

And then, just a few feet later, the awe has been replaced by disappointment.

A wall on King St. covered with corrugated steel with no windows above a sign reading MY LIQUIDATION CENTRE. The falling-down buildings along Gore Park.

"It's awful," he said.

'Tacky pastiche'

Rebuild Hamilton featured a newly unveiled rehab project on James Street North, the Central fire station and a sequence of iconic Hamilton downtown buildings. (Rebuild Hamilton/Instagram)
If weighing in on architecture requires developing a fabulous vocabulary, Allen is on his way. He calls the downtown City Centre "tacky pastiche" but adds, "I think it's pretty charming." Especially compared with Jackson Square, which Allen describes as "dark" and "abysmal." 

Still, he's the opposite of snooty about his passion.

He marvels at the number of people who come in and out of the oft-maligned Jackson Square every day; the building has the foot traffic architects dream of. The atrium of the adjoining City Centre, he says, is one of the most photographed buildings in Hamilton. 

Allen, 28, has a day job at a service company in Dundas, a carry-over from his summers in university. He did a history degree at McMaster University and a journalism certificate at Mohawk.

In school there, he heard journalists and teachers telling students to find a niche they could become an expert in to distinguish themselves in a tight job market. He'd always loved the buildings in Hamilton, and the blog was born. 

Now, on the weekends and in his off hours, you can find him reading architecture books and photographing interesting juxtapositions around the city. He came up reading blogs like Raise the Hammer and articles by Graham Crawford about Hamilton's history. 

Rebuild Hamilton has been picking up some buzz lately. When the Ontario Association of Architects conference was in Hamilton a couple of months ago, the association president gave Rebuild Hamilton a shout-out. 

"It's nice for them to see what Hamilton is about, rather than just smokestacks," Allen said. 

'Pigott gets a lot of love'

From left: Brutalism on display, Gore Park, the green wall at the Hamilton Public Library (Rebuild Hamilton/Instagram)

He has a soft spot for buildings that don't get their due.

The Pigott building gets photographed a lot, he said — that's one way he knows when childhood friends are back in Hamilton, when they post a photo of that on Instagram. 

"Pigott gets a lot of love," he said. "So does Landed Bank." But lesser known is the building between them: The Federal Life Assurance Co., the story and missing cornice of which Allen recently featured in his blog

Allen can muster respect, even affection, for buildings once he learns a little bit of their story. Perhaps that's a motivation for his work: to share that feeling with others.

Take Hamilton Place, for example. The whole concrete complex is an overwhelming example of Brutalism, which is an aptly named, bunker-ish, windowless architectural style. (It's the same style that sparked a redesign of the Art Gallery of Hamilton by acclaimed architect Bruce Kuwabara.)

But Allen loves it. 

And once he discovers who built something, he looks for other things by that same architect elsewhere.

Like Trevor Garwood-Jones, architect of Hamilton Place: Allen found a strip mall on King St. that he designed. Stanley Roscoe, who designed Hamilton's modernist gem of a City Hall? Also designed that city building on Barton St.

Sometimes it leaves him flummoxed: That architect did this?!

"It's still a strip mall, you know what I mean?" he said. "It's something you wouldn't picture someone who built three of the most wonderful buildings in Hamilton doing."

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett