One of Kitchener's oldest buildings gets new life

Developer Stephen Litt is overhauling the northeast corner of King and Queen streets downtown, hoping to attract high-tech tenants and boutique restaurants to Kitchener's American Block.
Developer Stephen Litt purchased the building at the corner of Queen St. North and King St. West in downtown Kitchener. He will turn the top two floors into office space, while the bottom floor will eventually see a new restaurant. (Andrea Bellemare/CBC)

One of the oldest buildings in downtown Kitchener will be getting a makeover — or at least part of it.

Stephen Litt, of Revel Development, has purchased a section of the American Block on the northeast corner at the intersection of King and Queen streets. He says he wants to attract high-tech tenants on the upper floors, and eventually, boutique restaurants on the ground floor.

"That, in my opinion, is the key corner in downtown Kitchener," said Litt in an interview with Craig Norris on The Morning Edition Wednesday. 

"We dug up into the old history books and what we purchased includes The Cash Store on King Street and all the way up Queen," said Litt.

Litt says technically the American Block also includes stores east of The Cash Store, up to Niko Niko Sushi, but at some point the block was fractioned and the parcel he bought is limited to what borders Queen Street. 

The current ground floor tenants include The Cash Store, Civilian Printing, and Caper's Sports Bar.

History of Kitchener's American Block

"Based on some research it's actually the oldest building in downtown Kitchener, circa 1860, built by the Breithaupt family," said Litt. "[At that time] that side of King Street was the only side you could develop on, The Walper side was actually marshy," said Litt.

"There's historically older houses that have existed in that area, but that's the first building building, three-storey, right on the street."

"It's called the American block, not too sure where the American concept came from, but each of those buildings downtown had block designations," said Litt

"The American Hotel — which is what most lovingly refer to it as — operated from 1862-ish to, from what we can tell, the mid-1960s at the very least. So [for] a minimum [of] 100 years, a hotel operated there, which is pretty cool," he said.

The building was listed on the city of Kitchener's heritage registry in September 2010, and includes the addresses 1 Queen St North and 4-30 King Street East. 

According to the City of Kitchener, the oldest building in the city is the Joseph Schnieder Haus and Museum.

Downtown revitalization

Litt's building is just the latest in a series of downtown Kitchener buildings to attract developers looking to renovate.

A group including Perimeter Development Inc,. Zehr Group, David Strucke and CK Atlantis Ltd, bought the The Walper Terrace Hotel earlier this year. The group plans to renovate the hotel and lobby.

Perimeter also owns 305 King St. West, which will be home to mobile payment startup Square, along with Gilt, a wine and tapas bar, and Pure, a cafe and juice bar.

Litt has similar plans for the American Block. He purchased the building earlier this spring and has already started renovations.

"We've actually gone in and gutted the top two floors. The ceilings were about 7'8'' when we went in there, they were dropped, and we removed all that. Now we're glorious 14-foot ceilings, giant timbers, lots of character, post and beam and we're in the process of replacing the windows, doing some minor structural updates," he said.

Litt says he hope a tenant will move in by the beginning of September. 

"We're going to be retrofitting an elevator to make it accessible for everyone," he said.

As for the ground floor, Litt says he has an idea of what he'd like and it includes "smaller retail boutique food spots." 

"I frequent the Duke [Street] food block all the time and there's incredible demand for those boutique, smaller, retail restaurant uses. And this is just around the corner, so you could actually almost continue that boutique food block up Queen.

Litt said that Caper's, the bar, would continue to occupy the space for the "time being."

Litt noted that across the street, the building currently housing the CIBC was once a brewery, and suggested that a microbrew brew pub would be a great use of the ground-floor space in his building.