The recent demolition of Hamilton’s former Kresge Store revealed a cross-section of local history hidden for more than a century. A newly-exposed wall, shared by Kresge and its neighbour to the east, is a document in brick and stone. Parts of this appear to date back to the 1850s or even earlier. It reveals the often-idiosyncratic process of developing downtown Hamilton..
Shared walls, known as “party walls”, were common in the nineteenth century. They can be seen in early photographs rising above the roofline of connected buildings. Many early building codes required that they do so, ensuring that owners could readily identify a wall upon which their neighbours as well as themselves depended.
When Hamilton’s Kresge store closed its doors in 1994, it was the last Canadian survivor of the North American discount chain founded by the Sebastian Spering Kresge in 1899. The newly-exposed party wall helps unravel the tangled history of the site.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, the northeast corner of King and Hughson Streets was home to a row of seven narrow stores with stone facades. Many such stores were built in downtown Hamilton in the 1840s and 1850s, using stone from local quarries. They were typically simple in design and utilized a combination of dressed stone, rubble, and sometimes brick. They often included residential quarters “above the shop.” With time, most of them were either demolished or incorporated into larger buildings. Only a few survive in something close to their original form.
By the late nineteenth century, stunning economic growth had equipped Hamilton with a downtown commercial district which was richly ornamented, though rather compressed, owing to the smallness of the original lots on King and James Streets. East of Hughson Street and the Gore, the north side of King Street was noticeably less fashionable. The occupants of the block where Kresge’s later appeared included the YMCA, before its elegant stone-trimmed building was opened on James Street South in 1889, along with a saloon, a manufacturer of cabinet and undertaker’s hardware, a dentist named Figliano, the Maccabees Hall, a private bank, and a public bathhouse.
In 1930, the corner site was developed as the Kresge store. In 1949, it enlarged was refurbished in a style favoured by the Kresge chain – buff brick with art-deco ornaments. Porcelain-enamel panels depicted the fountain on the Gore. Unfortunately, the colour scheme of apricot and lemon soiled quickly when exposed to Hamilton air, and the artistic panels were eventually painted over. The building aged badly and periodic suggestions that it be declared a heritage site were never adopted.
To the east, other members of the old stone row were incorporated into another block, which rose two stories higher than the Kresge store. Its best-known occupants were the Adams Department Store and later, Arliss Shoes.
Fully revealed, the party wall which separated Kresge’s and the Adams Building shows us the way that buildings were enlarged and combined over many generations. Small stone and brick buildings were later extended and joined together. Stories were added and a sloping roof disappeared under a flat roof. Most puzzling is the remnant of a stone building, clearly visible in the lower north part of the exposed wall. Probably the oldest segment of the wall, it appears to have been a home, with a low gable roof and two chimneys. Its position is particularly curious; although we cannot be sure, it appears to have faced north toward the alley which once joined Hughson and John Streets. Why someone might have built a stone house facing on an alley in the 1840s or 1850s remains a mystery.
The party wall is soon to disappear as LIUNA’s new development takes form. The project comprises twin towers set back from the street and rising above commercial buildings compatible in scale and character with their older neighbours. Although this project represents exactly the kind of development which downtown Hamilton desperately needs, it is difficult to see the under-appreciated Kresge Building pass entirely away without a slight sense of regret.
Bill King lives in Hamilton. He is the author of Buchanan of Auchmar.