The views from the rooftop of the 11-storey Club Lofts in Walkerville are spectacular. Panoramic views of the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair and the leafy historic neighbourhood of Walkerville are on offer year-round. The buildings in the centre of this photo are in downtown Detroit. A former whisky barrel warehouse for Canadian Club was transformed into the Club Lofts, a 69-unit condo building with two-storey apartments boasting 17-foot ceilings.

Why Hiram Walker's historic 'model town' of Walkerville
has lured MyNewWaterfrontHome.com to Windsor

In Old Walkerville, what’s old is new again, bringing fresh life to the historic Windsor neighbourhood that distillery giant and entrepreneur Hiram Walker founded as his model town in 1858.  

A walk around the neighbourhood — an eclectic collection of cafés, pubs, restaurants, one-of-a-kind shops, B & Bs, apartments, historic brick rowhouses and stately manors on quiet tree-lined streets — provides proof that the American-born Hiram Walker built something very special here when he set up shop on the Canadian side of the Detroit River a century and a half ago.  

Were the founder of Canadian Club whisky alive today, he no doubt would be pleased to find that the solid red brick semi-detached homes he built for his managers on Devonshire Road are today sought-after heritage residences, and that the commercial buildings he commissioned to house banks and other services necessary for a self-sufficient, flourishing town are as busy as ever, still serving the public through reinvention as restaurants and law offices and hair salons.  

Still here, too, are the 15-acre park and 36-room Edwardian mansion named Willistead that Hiram Walker’s second son, Edward Chandler Walker, had Albert Kahn build for him in 1906, along with the surrounding Arts and Crafts homes also by the same architect. This is the upscale, leafy neighbourhood where Paul Martin, the former prime minister, grew up in. A flower garden dedicated to the memory of Paul Martin Sr. can be found on the estate, which was donated to “the people of Walkerville” in 1921 (it is now owned by the City of Windsor). Nearby is the attractive St. Mary’s Anglican Church, built in 1904 to honour the memory of Hiram’s wife, Mary.  

Away from the quiet residential streets, the Walkerville of yesteryear was referred by some as the “Birmingham of Canada” for its smokestacks — Hiram Walker believed in diversification and welcomed other enterprises, including the automotive industry, with Ford Motor Company of Canada setting up shop here in 1904, thanks to the railroads and ferry developed by the distiller. Today, only a smattering of evidence remains of Walkerville’s industrial past. 

Home of the world-famous Canadian Club whisky

The most visible is the distillery complex, which takes up several blocks of waterfront land on Riverside Drive, near the Walkerville train station, which is being replaced by a modern $6-million VIA Rail passenger centre now under construction. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, a whiff of hops can be detected in the air for several blocks, serving as a reminder — not that anyone who lives here would ever forget — that Walkerville was born a company town. (Take the guided tour of the Canadian Club Brand Centre, a magnificent building that features turn-of-the-century Italian architecture and rare marble. Along with a glimpse into Hiram Walker’s working life, included in the admission price is a film on the whisky-making process, a visit to the art gallery, which houses a handful of original works from the Group of Seven, and a whisky tasting.)  

While some of the distillery operation’s nearby unused buildings have already been transformed into apartments and offices, two new projects — the Walkerville Club Lofts and the resurrection of the old Walkerville brewery — have the old town buzzing with excitement. There’s a new sense of optimism in the air here, a feeling that Hiram Walker’s model community, hit hard by the recent recession, is back on its feet, soon to be better than ever.  

First, the Club Lofts.  

Looming on the horizon as you approach Old Walkerville from the east, the Club Lofts sits at the gateway to the historic neighbourhood, just off Walker Road at Wyandotte Street East and Monmouth Road. The 11-storey building, with its 17-foot windows and rooftop patio, was once part of Hiram Walker’s distillery works. Residents who call the chic two-storey loft condos home can boast they are living in a former whisky barrel rack house for the famous Canadian Club brand, then the world’s most sought-after oak-aged whisky.   

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Spiro Govas, one of the developers, says of the offering by Walkerville Club Lofts Inc., which fought off the 2008 recession to complete the dream project conceived more than two decades ago.  

The 69-unit Club Lofts welcomes residents and visitors into a striking modern lobby accented by original monumental concrete columns, which are carried throughout the wide corridors and into each condo unit, sweeping the eye up to the top of the two-storey windows, where a concrete ceiling adds another touch of industrial to the kind of residence you would expect to find only in big urban cities — like Toronto or New York.  

Govas, a structural engineer, credits the late contractor Henry Marentette with planting the condo idea, which he and fellow developer Luigi Albano, who together have 100 years of construction experience, pursued. “We expanded on it and developed the vision together,” Govas tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com during a meeting in the glass-walled Celebration Room on the rooftop of Club Lofts. “We visited developments like it in Toronto, Detroit, Chicago. This is the only building in Windsor you can do that with (two-storey loft condo), especially one located in a historic town like Walkerville. They won’t be making any more of these old buildings.”  

Boasting the most soundproof condo building anywhere, the Club Lofts is built to last, thanks to the tank-like structure erected back more than 60 years ago to age that famous Canadian Club whisky. The rack warehouse was built to withstand whisky-fuelled explosions and to contain any resulting damage between floors, thus the reinforced high-strength concrete found between the floors — the kind used today to “build nuclear power plants and large span dams.” With the original walls and floors reused in the Club Lofts, the building has been engineered to carry 350 pounds per square foot, compared to 60 pounds found in most modern condominium buildings. The end result is a solid structure that keeps out the street noise, as well as your neighbour’s stereo. 

Retrofit posed special challenges

The Hiram Walker property was purchased in 1993, and site preparation began in 2004, after the city, with backing from the neighbourhood, approved a rezoning. The easy part was removing a bridge and two of the site’s three buildings from where the large surface parking lot now sits (owners also have a reserved underground spot). The hard part was preparing the inside of the barrel warehouse, with all its super-strong concrete, for two-storey condo living. There was also the no-small matter of what to do with trenches and pipelines that once flowed with whisky, and acid-washing the entire interior. On the outside, the barrel warehouse’s brick cladding had to be removed (the only windows in the original building were on the stairwells), a replacement found to blend in with the neighbourhood, and two-storey windows installed.  

Ric Albano, the developer’s son and the project’s construction manager, loves talking about the “revolutionary” brick-inlayed pre-cast panel cladding that was installed on the exterior of the Club Lofts. “It’s the first of its kind in Windsor,” he says, “and there was a lot of preparation involved.”  

The cladding undertaking was named “Project of the Month” in 2009 by the Canadian Precast/prestressed Concrete Institute, which agreed the retrofit nature of the job “provided several challenges.” Among them was how to hang the column covers. “The precaster ultimately had to drill and epoxy just under 1,000 rods into the building, an undertaking complicated by the fact that there was no as built drawings for reference; subsequently they encountered a lot of rebar in the existing concrete, significantly lengthening the whole process,” the CPCI story reveals. When it came to the pre-cast thin-brick installation, there were challenges in aligning everything just so, so that even the corners were perfect, giving the appearance of real brick, but with the added bonus of a water-tight and insulated wall.  

“Between the revolutionary pre-cast and the glazing, that set us back about a year,” Albano says.  

It was 2006 before the inside was ready for “new” work. A couple of years later, the real estate market crashed. “That’s when we made the decision to take our time until the market came back,” Govas says.  

Since the first unit was occupied in January 2010, sales have picked up, with 20 out of the 69 units sold and eight reserved. The units are large — from about 2,100 square feet to 2,800 square feet — and range in price from $200,000 on the first floor to $442,000 all decked out on the top floor.  

“With the improving economy, they should be fully occupied soon,” Govas says. “These lofts are for any person who doesn’t want to keep a house and wants space and everything taken care of. That could be a young professional, a retired person or a family.”  

Albani is a strong believer in Walkerville, and says the Club Lofts are helping to strengthen the neighbourhood. “We are all rebounding together,” he says.  

Which brings us to the brewery, whose history is also tied to Hiram Walker.  

New life for old Walkerville brewery

Chris Ryan and Mike Brkovich are teaming up to revive the old Walkerville brewery in a former whisky storage warehouse on Argyle Road, north of Wyandotte Street East. The original brewery, founded by Hiram Walker in 1885 and operated until 1956, was located at the corner of Walker Road and Wyandotte (the building was demolished in 1962). It was brought back to life as a microbrewery by private owners in 1998 at the Argyle location, but went bankrupt and closed down in April 2010.  

Plans for the building include a retail beer store, tours and tastings, and a reception area that will be rented out for community events. While the partners are mum on the new name for the brewery, they promise it will contain “Walkerville,” in honour of the neighbourhood’s history. Borrowing a chapter from the Hiram Walker playbook, the partners plan to source locally grown ingredients, including hops and blueberries, and use whisky barrels for limited-edition batches of craft beer. Watch for the beer store to be open on site in late spring.  

With its creative urban vibe, it’s no surprise that Walkerville is a magnet for artists of all stripes — from painters to designers to musicians. Indeed, the heritage high school on Richmond Street (circa 1922) is home to the Walkerville Centre for Creative Arts, which teaches secondary courses in everything from dance to vocal music to studio arts to guitar and digital animation. Over the years, many of those former students have taken up residence in Old Walkerville above shops and in warehouses, bringing a unique cultural flavour to the neighbourhood.  

A love of the arts in Walkerville goes back to the Hiram Walker days: the town’s father — some would say dictator — provided everything his workers and managers would need, including a music hall and library. It is fitting that the annual Art in the Park event is held in Willistead Park in the heart of Walkerville. Held the first weekend in June, the festival attracts thousands of visitors each year, with more than 245 artists signing up from around Ontario, Quebec and Michigan. The event has contributed more than $1 million over the past 30 years for the restoration of Willistead Manor and its beautiful gardens.  

Albeit on a smaller scale, Walkerville — with its lively arts scene and historic mix of restored and reinvented residential, industrial and commercial buildings — brings to mind Toronto’s Distillery District. Once an industrial wasteland, the district has been transformed into a walkable village of brick-lined streets and restored Victorian industrial buildings filled with galleries, pubs, boutiques and live theatre. The heritage buildings formed part of the former Gooderham and Worts distillery, founded in 1832 and later bought out by none other than Hiram Walker Co.  

What makes Old Walkerville unique is that its prime residential neighbourhood is sandwiched between its commercial/industrial borders, making walking to work and play a reality, but also creating a quiet, treed street to come home to. Another bonus is Walkerville’s proximity to the Detroit River waterfront, where more than five kilometres of walking/cycling trails begin, taking you along the riverfront through flower and sculpture gardens, with the downtown Festival Plaza, home to Windsor’s summer festivals, at the centre of it all.  

It is a yearning for the energetic urban lifestyle created by Hiram Walker 150 years ago — one that many communities the world over have tried, and failed, to re-create — that prompted MyNewWaterfrontHome.com to move from the waterfront in Leamington to Windsor in January. We have traded our rural setting and Lake Erie views for the convenient urban lifestyle that condo living/working in Walkerville affords, happily tying on our walking shoes and getting out into the neighbourhood to soak up the history and meet the people who call this place home. When we are not out exploring, you can find us up on the roof taking in the panoramic river and city views, and giving thanks to Hiram Walker for his amazing vision of what urban living is all about.  

MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — February 2012