Repurposing Train Stations for Modern Business

HOW CANADIAN BUSINESS IS CONNECTING OUR FUTURE TO OUR PAST

 
Railway termini are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return. - E.M. Forster
 

It’s interesting how the journeys of Ellipsis Digital and Engine SevenFour have, of late, become entangled with trains and the buildings that connect them. Our long-anticipated move into the London Roundhouse was the start of the journey for us. Our roundhouse, London’s sole remaining one, was built in 1887 as a Michigan Central Railroad steam locomotive repair shop; the 7,500 square foot building had gone through a number of incarnations since its original use, but had been empty since late 2007.

Shawn Adamsson, our VP Strategy, worked with the owners of the Roundhouse, Slavko Prtenjaca and Patrick Ambrogio of Creative Properties, and John Nicholson of Nicholson Sheffield Architects, to create the brick and beam beauty that is our new office. Much of the transformation was captured on the London Roundhouse blog at http://londonroundhouse.com/.

David Billson, our president and CEO, is entirely delighted by the end result. “It’s an open, creative space that’s perfect for Ellipsis and Engine 74—it enhances the collaboration between our team members, and fits the way we work and interact. I love the idea that we’re connecting digital communities the way the original occupant connected physical communities.”

We’re also finding ourselves connected with the occupants of other former train facilities. A serendipitous meeting at the Elgin County Railway Museum between Shawn and Serge Lavoie, the president of On Track St. Thomas, led to a collaboration between our two organizations. Lavoie and the On Track team are the driving force behind the St. Thomas Elevated Park (STEP): converting an iconic railway bridge, an engineering marvel when it was built in 1929, into Canada’s first elevated park, joining similar structures such as the High Line in Manhattan and the Boulevard Plantée in Paris.

Ellipsis Digital has supported their vision the way we do best: with branding, including a logo design, and STEP’s website. “The St. Thomas Elevated Park project will require strong community support and Ellipsis Digital showed leadership at the outset with this generous donation of their creative services,” states Lavoie.

The connections keep coming. Las Chicas Del Café, a coffee roastery and long-time Ellipsis client, recently moved into a new space in St. Thomas in the CASO (Canada Southern) Station… a building that was preserved because of the efforts of On Track St. Thomas.

Maria Fiallos co-owns Las Chicas with her sister, Valeria Fiallos-Soliman. She talks about their search for a new home for their roastery, which had outgrown its former London location. “We really wanted a space that suited what we wanted our coffee, our company, our roastery to portray, so we didn’t want to just move into another industrial space. We wanted it to be a spot that had some character, that would have a story, and we found all that at the CASO Station. We absolutely love the space—it’s absolutely gorgeous. It just felt like home the moment we walked in, and we thought, yes, that’s what we were looking for.” They have incorporated many original fixtures from the days when the CASO station was still operating as a train station: some shelving, and some counters, and even a table that’s made out of the old doors.

Maria’s fascinated by the history of their new home. She says that at the same time the station was being built, in the early 1870s, her family was beginning their history in coffee, planting their first coffee plantation half a continent away, in Nicaragua. (Ellipsis Digital Relationship Manager Brett McKenzie visited the Fiallos’ Nicaraguan coffee farm earlier this year; you can read about his trip here.) Maria loves the idea of the parallel lines of 140 years of history intersecting at this point. She also loves hearing from customers who remember the original station. “I’ve had a few people say, oh, I remember taking a train from that station to New York, out that door…”

Serge knows about those trips. He says that at one point, St. Thomas was a major rail hub, and if you wanted to go to Chicago or New York from southern Ontario, you went to St. Thomas and hopped on a high-speed train.

The CASO Station, the St. Thomas Elevated Park and the London Roundhouse are only a few of the examples of train facilities that found new lives. Just a few miles away from the Roundhouse is the London Station Keg Steakhouse on Richmond Street. Nicholas Hillman, the general manager, has been with the Keg since they moved into the station at the end of August 2002. As with Maria’s experience, they were also looking for a unique location, but specifically in the north end of London, and the former train station was “a unique site that fit the bill.” And also like Maria, Nick hears from visitors who recall the building’s previous incarnation—”I used to work here” or “I came into London here”—and are delighted that the station is still in use.

Nick describes the building as “a pretty cool place,” but admits that there are challenges to putting a restaurant into this kind of heritage building. “It’s not an ideal layout for a restaurant—if you were going to build a restaurant, you’d probably build it with some rooms, and some fireplaces, and those kind of things. This restaurant is two floors, so putting a fireplace on the ground floor, for example, you can’t just throw chimneys up through the middle of the kitchen. It’s certainly more about the uniqueness than the layout.”

He says that there are a few similar locations in the Keg chain, for example, the Kamloops, BC, location is in an old CP rail station.

BC, specifically Vancouver, boasts another unique repurposing: another Roundhouse. It’s of a similar vintage to ours: the original ten-bay roundhouse was built the year after the London one, in 1888. As the western terminus of the CPR, the Vancouver Roundhouse was the largest facility of its kind in British Columbia, and included a number of expansions over its rail history. However, with the end of the era of the steam locomotive, the buildings in which they had been housed and serviced slid into disrepair, largely forgotten except by special interest groups. When BC’s provincial government announced the purchase of the CPR rail yards in 1980, plans for the Vancouver Roundhouse became clear—they intended to demolish it. Fortunately, only part of the demolition occurred, thanks to the efforts of heritage and train buffs and the Vancouver residents who refused to see this historic building disappear. In 1984, plans were made to bring the Vancouver Roundhouse up to the standards of current building codes so it could be used as a theme pavilion for the World Exposition, and the Roundhouse proved to be a favourite of the crowds at Expo 86.

Currently, this Roundhouse is an arts-oriented community centre for the citizens of Vancouver, and features a black box performance centre; an exhibition hall; woodworking, pottery and dance studios; a full-size gymnasium; a cafe area; and various multi-purpose spaces. It’s also the home of Engine 374, the first passenger train to enter Vancouver, on May 23, 1887. Like the Roundhouse where it now resides, Engine 374 was rescued and restored for Expo 86. After a major fundraising campaign, the train found a home in the glass pavilion attached to the Roundhouse, where it is a designated heritage monument.

Then there’s Toronto's roundhouse. The current one was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1929, replacing an earlier roundhouse built in 1897, again to service steam locomotives and passenger cars. The John Street Roundhouse was much bigger than its counterparts in London and Vancouver: it originally had 28 stalls, with four more added in 1931. In the 1950s, the John Street facility was converted for maintaining diesel locomotives and railcars. The railway closed the facility in 1988 and donated it to the city of Toronto for use as a railway museum. In 1990, John Street was declared a National Historic Site, as it was an “architecturally and historically important surviving reminder of steam technology and the role of rail transportation in the city of Toronto.”

Currently, the Toronto Roundhouse houses the Toronto Railway Museum and Steam Whistle Brewing. Like so many other people who work in these repurposed train spaces, Sybil Taylor, Steam Whistle’s communications director, is enthusiastic about her Roundhouse. “We feel very fortunate to be in this building. The atmosphere is so wonderful with the vaulted ceiling, natural light and to know of the historic significance of the place. When we opened, it was a little-known and previously inaccessible part of Toronto because it was on the railway lands but nowadays we’re right in the hub of the city’s tourist centre and what is called the new ‘south core’ of the city with dozens of office towers and condo buildings. The place is very alive.”

Serge says that his city saw the destruction of two roundhouses in the 1990s—one was about five times the size of the London Roundhouse, and he admits that it might have been too big to be supported by a town the size of St. Thomas. But he says that many of the buildings remain. “You can still see these assets, you can look around and see the vestiges of the rail, and you can see the station, and they’re cool old buildings and you don’t want to lose them.”

For Serge, and Maria, there’s a romance to the old steam era. “There’s something elegant about the old days when people would go on a train to Chicago… people like Lucille Ball and Jack Benny, and all sorts of entertainers of the day routinely found themselves in downtown St. Thomas having some sort of bleary-eyed meal in the middle of the night in the train station restaurant.”

For David Billson, it’s the intriguing parallels between the railways and the Internet: “They’re both cutting-edge technologies of their time, technologies that connect people, diminishing distances and closing the gaps between them.”


Is your organization looking to connect with people, using cutting-edge technologies? Then start by connecting with us…


 
 

Laurie Bursch is Ellipsis’ copywriter. Until she sprouts a set of wings, her favourite mode of transportation is the train, closely followed by one of her bicycles.

 

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