Hamilton office building, closed 30 years, is being transformed. Its first tenant is an architectural firm

It’s colder in the former Canadian Westinghouse head office building than it is outside.

It’s -12 C on Sanford Avenue on a December day, yet the four people leading us on an icy tour of the long vacant building are so optimistic about its future they radiate warmth.

“The space in this building is phenomenal because it has incredible history and architectural details,” says architect Joanne McCallum.

The Westinghouse office building, at 286 Sanford Ave. N., is being reborn and McCallum Sather Architects have signed on as the first anchor tenants. They will occupy the 10,000-square-foot second floor, with a move-in date set for June 1.

It’s been at least 30 years since there were desks and switchboards here, and business being conducted in this building. Yet evidence of its grand history is visible behind the boarded up windows and shackled doors. The terrazzo floors with marble borders live under layers of dust. The ornate pillars, the panelled office of the president, and the decorative ceiling in the auditorium remain.

It’s this history that attracted Meir Dick and Ray Hutton to the lonely building north of Barton Street East. They are partners in the financing, design, construction, and management of the building on behalf of the investors.

“For us, we always try to retell the story of Westinghouse,” Dick is saying as we tour the light-filled second floor where banks of windows, at least 40, are being replaced. “The Westinghouse story is its long history as an economic industrial power and major employer of 11,000 people in Hamilton alone.”

The Canadian Westinghouse head office was built in 1917, designed by Prack & Perrine, the predecessor to Prack & Prack, designers of the Pigott building and Lister Block.

The five-storey brick and stone building (two more storeys were added in 1928) became a landmark in the Barton and Sanford area.

The large, arched windows of the ground floor and decorative keystones and cornices were key elements in the building’s dignified design and projected a proud corporate image.

Nearby, the Westinghouse plant was evolving from making railroad air brakes to becoming a major manufacturer of gas turbines, transformers, water wheel generators, circuits, stoves, toasters, and refrigerators.

The Westinghouse success story and its place in Hamilton history is a major reason Ray Hutton, a native of Hamilton, got involved in the project.

In the only heated space in the building he shows images of the original blueprints for it and talks of discovering old photos in the Ontario Archives and McMaster Library.

There are photos of elegant dinners in the Westinghouse boardroom and of the ornate auditorium complete with projection booth. His family, through the Hutton Foundation, is providing a portion of the financing for the redevelopment.

“The project is significant to our family as Hamiltonians, because we see it as having the potential to be a catalyst in the revitalization of the Barton commercial corridor as well as the community at-large.”

The Westinghouse office building faces the big open space of Woodlands Park. It’s close to the community minded 541 Eatery & Exchange and the Barton Public Library. The area is changing and the plans for the building, the partners believe, fit right in.

There is 50,000 square feet of commercial office space, and about 30,000 square feet available for food or event space. That space could be used to bring the community in and contribute to the revival on Barton.

“When the building is full, there are so many windows here, we will have eyes on the street,” McCallum says.

McCallum Sather is already working on plans for their office space, but they are also the architects and mechanical and heritage consultants for the entire project.

“We are aiming for net zero carbon,” says architect Greg Sather.

Sustainable systems will be worked into the building, and for their space they are designing the office of the future.

“There will be no assigned desks,” McCallum says gleefully.

In Hamilton, there is no shortage of vacant office space, but class A space like what the Westinghouse headquarters will have to offer is in short supply, according to McCallum.

Hutton and Dick say that two more prime tenants are close to signing.

Twenty years ago Siemens bought Westinghouse, but by 2010 it had moved the Hamilton gas turbine jobs to the United States. Now, Empire Steel occupies portions of the 620,000-square-foot plant.

It took much longer to find a purpose for the elegant office building.

In 2001, the city took possession of 286 Sanford for tax arrears. They estimated it would take $5 million to repair the heritage designated building. It was put up for sale as surplus property and bought for $200,000 in 2003.

The new owners are not saying how much it will cost to bring back the Westinghouse headquarters building but their commitment is on view at the job site. Many of the 300-plus windows have been duplicated and replaced, and rubble and refuse cleared.

“This office building was their crown jewel,” says Dick. “We want to celebrate the Westinghouse heritage and bring it back.”