For many years, the vibrant blue, white, and pink of the Global Backpackers Hostel had become an eyesore at the intersection of King Street West and Spadina Avenue, but a recent project by Allied Properties REIT has restored it and the linked buildings to the north to their former glory, and provided a new lease on life for the quirky structures. The restoration work on the listed heritage buildings, headed by Gensler, is nearly complete and should be ready for occupation in the coming months. UrbanToronto had the opportunity to tour the site and take a look around, led by Hugh Clark of Allied Properties and Michelle Park, project manager from Gensler.
Allied purchased the property at 460 King West in August 2014 after the Global Backpackers Hostel permanently closed its doors. The two structures have had a complex history, undergoing numerous renovations over the past 140 years. Originally constructed in 1873 as a two-storey house by Samuel Richardson, the building was converted to the Richardson House Hotel in 1875, which saw a third storey—the iconic mansard roof—added to the Tudor-style base. The hotel was expanded in 1885 and 1887, when the four-storey brick structure, built in two sections, was added to the north of the building. Since then, the hotel has undergone several reincarnations under various names and subsequent renovations, eventually becoming the Global Backpackers Hostel which it was commonly known as until just recently.
Over the past year, the exterior of the building has been meticulously restored to its original appearance. After stripping away layers and layers of accumulated cladding—so much so, Clark says, that the edge of the sidewalk along the east facade had been absorbed into the wall of the building itself—the original Tudor design was reinstated onto the southern portion of the building, and the original mansard roof fully restored. The refurbished buildings feature sleek new windows and their original brick, exposed after sandblasting and stripping off the layers of garish paint.
On the west facade, a new three-storey glass-clad addition serves as the main entrance, located at the junction of the two buildings. Park explained that one of the challenges in redesigning the property was to unify the two separate structures, a task that is aided by the new shared main entrance. Once completed, the three-storey entrance will feature a suspended light sculpture, which will bring attention to the building from the street and create visual interest along the largely unadorned brick facade.
Plagued by serious structural issues, the foundations and exterior walls needed to be stabilized, while the interiors were completely gutted and rebuilt. Clark described some of the curiosities discovered while removing the interiors, including old newspapers from the 1930s used as underlay for the flooring, remnants of fake rugs (possibly fabricated from linoleum or a similar material) underneath the layered floors, and even a secret room between the two buildings that contained some of the only remaining traces of the original Tudor cladding.
Moving to the interior, the newly rebuilt rooms present some remarkable spatial qualities, visible even before many of the final finishes are put in place. The third floor of the south building has been removed, creating a spectacular double-height space featuring exposed (new) glulam beams and the original wood frame ceiling above. This space will become the sales centre for Allied, Diamondcorp, and RioCan's The Well project, before eventually being leased out to a new tenant.
The remainder of the building will be leased to the Konrad Group, a multi-city technology innovation company, who will transform the north portion of the building into office space and an innovation hub. The ground floor of the south building will become a cafe and event space for the company. The four-storey north portion has also been gutted, with exposed brick walls and a timber structure throughout allowing for open spans flooded with natural light. The interiors are currently being designed by Reflect Architecture, and have not yet been revealed.
To the west of the building, a new courtyard will occupy a portion of the parking lot. Imagined as an auxiliary space to the future cafe, the courtyard will become a new social area serving both the tenants and the public. The courtyard as well as the adjacent lot, also owned by Allied, are viewed as potential future development sites that will densify the area. But Clark assures us that for now, the lot will remain vacant, and the historic buildings will be the sole occupiers of the property.
Allied Properties is no stranger to heritage preservation in Toronto. Owners of a slew of historic buildings both locally and elsewhere in Canada, they have become experts at converting derelict historic properties into remarkable urban spaces. Down the street from the Backpackers site is 485 King Street West, a property acquired by Allied in November 2014 that is currently undergoing restoration and rehabilitation. The building will become new offices and retail, adding to the rich urban culture along King West. Also in the area, Allied has partnered with Westbank Corp to redevelop the string of properties from 489-539 King West, a project recently announced to be designed by Danish starchitects Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG).
As Allied and Gensler put the finishing touches on the revitalized building, we look forward to the grand opening of the historic property. For now, we can be assured that the gaudy colours and haphazard cladding of the Global Backpackers Hostel are a thing of the past, and the rejuvenated site at 460 King West will once again proudly stand in all its former glory.
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