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Built to Last, Not Impress

 

Built to Last, Not Impress

It’s the plain design that makes the building at 91 John Street South so poetic and endearing. Likely built in the 1850’s when the population of Hamilton would barely fill the smallest arena, 91 John survives with quiet integrity.

Retired veterinarian John McNally bought the building three years ago from Hamilton history advocate Robin McKee.

McNally just liked it.

“I walked by it a few times when I was younger, i used to meet some other vets for lunch near there, and I just found it interesting,” McNally says.

John McNally, owner of the heritage building at 91 John Street South
Kathy Renwald photo

He doesn’t consider himself a saviour of heritage, yet he hired Alan Stacey of Heritage Mill to put the face of the building back to its original beauty.

“We were taking apart the front window for repairs, when we found evidence of the original,” says Stacey who believes the facade was altered in the 1920’s. “So we had to reverse engineer it, hand turning and carving wood to match the original.”

Front window of 91 John South restored to the original
Kathy Renwald photo

Now the modest building shows its character. Just two stories tall, the upper level has two plain, but endearing windows. On the ground floor, the restored front display window has an elegant delicacy that contrasts with the rest of the sturdy, unembellished stone and brick construction.

A landmark of history

In 2015, 91 John Street South was designated by the City of Hamilton. It’s cultural heritage value was recognized in the Georgian details of its design, and the snapshot it offers of Hamiltons’s prosperous commercial vibrancy in the mid-1800’s. An enduring piece of the building’s history is its long association with the Pass family who made and repaired watches there for over 100 years. To this day a safe embellished with the Edwin Pass name anchors a corner of the interior, and Vincent Cino now carries on the tradition of making and repairing watches on site.

We don’t hear enough about John Street these days and its inventory of notable buildings. Unless walking, it’s easy to miss 91 John South. Buses are barreling along the street, traffic seems frenzied, businesses come and go, glamour and prosperity is in short supply.

Cherry wood cabinets, and etched glass in the fine interior
Kathy Renwald photo

But take time to peer in the watchmakers window and see the cherry wood cabinetry, the etched glass and geometric tile floor. History is as precious in a modest, enduring building as it is in the finest church or grandest home. Against the odds, caretakers of the past, like Robin McKee, John McNally and Alan Stacey are preserving Hamilton stories, and Hamilton’s past, while so much of it disappears without a trace.

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