How the Mill came to be restored and adapted to a new use.
After passing through several owners, the vacant and deteriorating Mill was acquired in 1988 by Jack Grant, entrepreneur, social activist and founder of Seaton Group, a land developer that works in small towns around the GTA.
Hit by the early ‘90s recession, Jack’s sons Jordan and Jeremy Grant, who took over management of the company at the time, struggled to find either a suitable use or a buyer for the property. The highest offer they received was $150,000 and the real estate agent advised them to demolish the building as the underlying land had a higher value. But for them, the attraction was the building and they hung on, concentrating on other priorites to re-build their business.
Finally in 1999, Jeremy was approached by a local woodworker, Carl Borgstram, who said he would love to have his shop in the mill and thought there would be demand for studios by other craftspeople and artists. So the Grants worked with Carl to convert the east section of the mill, which was newer and in better condition, into a woodworking shop and six studios. The first tenants moved in at the end of the year.
Having established that there was consistent demand for the studios, the Grants, in collaboration with Jefferson Mappin, then president of the Headwaters Arts Festival, developed a broader vision to turn the whole building into an arts and heritage centre that would serve as a hub for the arts in the Headwaters Region. The idea was to create a unique mix of art studios, workshops, galleries, offices for creative professionals, specialty retail, special event space, and a restaurant that combined would act as a tourist destination and help revitalize Alton.
But the numbers didn’t work - the estimated cost of the restoration was far greater than could be supported by the income that could be generated by the projected uses. Instead of dropping the idea, the Grants pursued public funding to help bridge the economic gap. In 2005, after having had the building designated under the Ontario Heritage Act and placed on the Register of Historic Places in Canada, Seaton and Headwaters Arts obtained committments of up to $774,500 from the provincial Rural Economic Development (RED) fund and up to $1,000,000 from the Commerical Heritage Properties Incentive Fund (CHPIF), administered by Parks Canada. Unfortunately for other projects, the CHPIF programme was not renewed or replaced after its expiry in 2006.
Seaton Group, who’s real estate development business had recovered by that point, bit the bullet and committed to pay the rest of the cost to complete the project, then estimated at $4.8 million including the pond and the Annex.
One of Parks’ Canada requirements was that the rehabilitation process be done in adherence with the "Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada", which are very onerous. In order to ensure that this condition be met and to establish high standards for the design of the project, the Grants retained Catherine Nasmith to act as architect. Cathy’s primary architectural practice to that point had been custom homes, but she was also a tireless advocate for heritage preservation, then serving as the Vice-President (subsequently President) of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario ("ACO") and publisher of Built Heritage News.
Cathy leaped at the opportunity - this was a chance to put what she was preaching into practice. Cathy in turn introduced the Grants to J. D. Strachan and Associates, a construction firm specializing in heritage restoration that she knew through the ACO.
The design approach was to retain and/or restore as many of the heritage attributes of the building and the landscape as possible, and to insert modern building elements that would compliment, but be distinctive from the designated features. What was old should remain as it was, and what is new should look new. Great lenghts were taken to ensure the structural elements of the buildings remain unobscured (eg. walls are offset from the column and beam lines, and partitions end at 8’ with glass above.) New structures, such as the fire escapes and waterfall viewing platform, were designed as striking architectural features in their own right.
Construction began in the fall of 2006 and continued until the spring of 2009. First step was an extensive abatement program to remove black mould, animal feces and asbestos. It required sealing the building and creating negative pressure while blasting the mould with dry ice pellets.
As with most restoration projects, many decisions were required and details decided upon along the way. There was greater structural damage than originally anticipated, and quite a few columns, beams and sections of floor had to be replaced. Part of the millrace had collapsed and some column footings were undermined and had to be replaced. We decided while we were at it, to lower the basement floor in order to make the lower level more useable.
There was a constant battle against water entering the lower level, which ultimately resulted in an intricate system of exterior and underfloor drains leading via one-way valves into the millrace. The stonework required extensive repointing; and to stem further deterioration of the Annex, it was decided to restore its walls as well, with a concrete beam poured along the top to help weatherproof and stabilize them. The top of the chimney had to be removed for safely reasons and the budget didn't permit it to be fully replaced. So careful measurements and photographs were taken for possible future restoration, and it was capped off at a lower level.
The Tower roof and large sections of flooring were replaced (including all of the main floor) using materials and methods that were similar to the original. Modern high-efficiency heating and ventilation systems were installed throughout including air conditioning on the second floor. A few windows were restored, and new energy efficient, operable double-hung windows that visually were replicas of the originals were installed on the rest of the upper two floors.
Floodproofing requirements meant that non-operating metal windows were installed on the lower level - designed to withstand the pressure of floodwaters. Floodproofing also required the Waterfall Courtyard walls to be repointed and grouted in order to ensure they would be sound enough to act as a flood-protection wall. As the driveway dips down and is predicted to be inundated in the event of a catastrophic flood, a new bridge had to be installed across the river in order to provide safe egress at all times.
After an extensive internet search, we located a used Bailey Bridge that we moved by truck from a Northern Ontario logging road. New bridge abutments were built to suit, wider apart than the old ones in order to lower the level of potential flooding against the building upstream of the bridge.
Careful attention has also been given to protecting both the the historic character of the site and the environment. After being presented with precedents from other jurisdictions, the Town of Caledon bent its rules and permitted parking areas tucked into the woods connected by steeper-than-normal ramps. This allowed the sloping terrain to remain largely undisturbed, and extensive areas of trees to be preserved. The section of the Bruce trail that runs through the site was relocated to maximize hikers' experience of the site. Stormwater was directed to a huge underground infiltration pit to filter and absorb the water before it gets to Shaw's Creek.
Between the site measures, preserving the stored energy already inherent in an existing building and adding modern enegy-conservation features, the Alton Mill complex is both attractive and “green”. Financially, the original budget was exceeded somewhat, but without completing the Annex or the pond restoration, which remain future projects. Seaton Group sees the project as a long-term investment yielding benefits that cannot be measured in dollars.