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National Post (Toronto), January 24, 2001

Walls come tumbling down

Bloor West's old mill ruins have been taken apart to build a hotel, spurring an outcry from preservationists and city officials

Peter Kuitenbrouwer
National Post

The stone remnants of the old grist mill, near where Bloor Street West crosses the Humber River, held a storied space in Toronto history. The last of four mills that stood on the site, the structure caught fire and burned in 1881. Since then, the walls of the building have stood as a ruin.
      Generations of locals have tied the knot at The Old Mill, a Tudor dinner and dancing emporium adjacent to the site. Anne Murray had a concert inside the walls of the mill itself, which has stood as the backdrop for countless wedding photos. It was a link to Toronto's past -- its oldest industrial site.
      Today, the ruins are gone. In the past six months, a construction crew hired by George and Michael Kalmar, who own The Old Mill, has taken down the mill, stone by stone. They sorted the stones by size and put them on skids and in wire cages, and will use them in the next few months as they put up the Old Mill Inn, a two-building boutique hotel set to open in the fall.
      The Kalmars promise that the western building of the hotel -- home to a lobby, bar, and 13 luxury suites renting for up to $695 a night, with fireplaces and jacuzzis -- will be a beautiful recreation of the old grist mill. But many in Toronto's heritage movement are enraged, saying the project has ravaged a key piece of the city's past. City officials also express dismay.
      At the site on Monday morning, George Kalmar, 78, is sitting in the dining room of the Old Mill with his son, Michael, 43. Each is wearing a Disney tie and a shirt monogrammed with his initials, and each is speaking with pride about the 60-room boutique hotel that about 100 workers are busy constructing just outside the French windows.
      George Kalmar, a Hungarian immigrant, made his fortune transforming an airport motel into the 900-room Regal Constellation Hotel, which he sold in 1988. In 1991, he bought The Old Mill -- great spot, he says, but lacking one thing: a hotel to house the wedding parties and the business people who populate his gracious dining and meeting facilities.
      "The boutique hotel is the only market to get into these days," George Kalmar says. "Baby Boomers are looking for something more individualistic. This is a better opportunity for the future than those big huge monstrosities like the Constellation."
      The old grist mill was the obvious location for a hotel, but it was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act. The Kalmars went to the then City of Etobicoke for permission to build, and Etobicoke consulted the province.
      "Our advice revolved around maintaining the old mill and its facade intact and as it was as much as possible," says Malcolm Horne, a heritage planner in the province's Ministry of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation.
      The approved plan involved building within the existing walls of the mill. But the Kalmars say that when they started construction this year, they found the walls could not be left up.
      "There was no mortar left," Michael Kalmar says. "It was just sand."
      Chimes in George, "They were three-and-a-half-foot-wide walls, but they couldn't hold a nesting bird."
      Today, just one storey of the original mill remains, with the poured-cement floors of the new building rising from inside it. That storey will be buried below-grade when the building is complete, and the hotel's new walls will be cloaked with the old stones.

Elizabeth Ingolfstrud approved the Kalmars' plan for the old mill in the mid-1990s, when she was chair of the Etobicoke Historical Board.
      She later moved to Port Dover and didn't know the mill had been taken down.
      "Oh no," she said. "The whole thing? That's amazing. I'm very surprised."
      However, she says the Kalmars did the best that could be expected. "We [Etobicoke] were lucky when the Kalmars acquired The Old Mill because they could see a way of keeping it and making it work."
      Others are furious.
      "Disaster, full tilt, has hit," says Jane Beecroft, chair of the Society of Heritage Associates, which counts about 4,000 members. "The Humber has been designated as a Canadian Heritage River, and here we are losing its heritage."
      Lise Ferguson, an archeologist who lives near the old mill, is furious that governments did nothing to preserve the site.
      "What's lost is the most important industrial site in the province, a site of historical importance," Ms. Ferguson says. "The ruins themselves became unimportant and the stones became a building material."
      Peter Milczyn, city councillor for Ward 5 in Etobicoke and a member of the city's Preservation Board, wants answers.
      "I'd like some assurances, to see if there's anything the city can compel them to do," he says.
      "Promises were made as to the preservation of the structure and now it seems those promises have evaporated. There are specialists in architecture and history and conservation and they should be involved to make sure the new structure is done properly and they don't cut corners on materials."
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