The File Factory: A Unique Heritage Industrial Site in Port Hope

Compiled by Susan Layard.

An Encumbered Past; a Dramatic Future
(An adaptation of Bruce Bowden’s deputation on behalf of ACO Port Hope to the March 19th, 2024 Special Meeting of Council).

Feature photo: The Globe File Manufacturing Co. circa 1899. The Port Hope Archives.

As Phil Goldsmith told a large audience during his presentation last Fall at the Capitol Theatre, “the building complex, known as the File Factory, has a long history.” It began as one of many mills that were built along the river to take advantage of the water power of the Ganaraska and has been expanded many times since. It was established as a flour mill by Francis Beamish in 1853, and then a plaster mill was added in 1855. In 1888, when mills were disappearing, Frederick Outram from Montreal adapted the Beamish Mill site as the Globe File Manufacturing Co., choosing the property for its water power, and its access to the railway and the harbour. In 1899, Building 1 was constructed in an east-west orientation, incorporating parts of the Beamish mill complex and including a wing to the north. In 1901, the site was purchased by the Nicholson File Company of Providence, Rhode Island, USA which made a substantial addition to the south of the building in 1901, followed by further expansion in 1935. In 1972, Nicholson was taken over by Copper Industries, but by 1994, it was time for the File Factory to close its doors.

Since then, the File Factory has troubled Port Hope. Its rundown condition has deteriorated into the appearance of a semi-ruin.  It is a brick factory, and no-one built such factories to be beautiful. People still think of it as a single building, presenting an image along Cavan Street of one long continuous structure in two obvious sections. Only if one risks turning one’s ankles on a slippery trail across the river can one easily discern that the building is not a single entity. Yet, until Phil Goldsmith made his presentation for the Library, who knew that there are actually 20 attached sections that began with the Beamish Mill? How ironic would it be for this town to preserve the Beamish House, but then discard the Beamish Mill which began this factory site.

At least the façades of this mill, with its original extension to Cavan Street, merit an effort to seek their retention. Port Hope’s industrial past was one that had major exports to New York State, and through Montreal to England and Europe. This is our only remaining large factory. Files and rasps were a specialized market, but this building was the largest producer of them in the entire world, according to Phil’s presentation. Who today can imagine, the largest anything coming from Port Hope, other than a crazy spring river festival, Float Your Fanny Down the Ganny? These buildings are the last physical reminder of this town’s industrial energy.  

The File Factory buildings also live on in a time when elsewhere, all across the eastern continent, the beauty of industrial buildings has been recognized – the textile Mill factories of New England, the garment factories of New York, the Brickworks of the Don Valley, the Sugar silos of Toronto. Many have been re-occupied by colleges, by an Architecture Faculty in Cambridge Ontario, by readapting discarded arenas and armouries, by opening their spaces into combined indoor-outdoor public attractions. Repeated studies have shown that the combination of relaxed sightseeing amid old sites creates repeated visits, daily local use, and energized events.

Like such industrial sites throughout North America, the File Factory too presents opportunities for re-use. Indeed, the integration of new building design into the old could be a spectacular centre in this town, and the combination of indoor institutional or commercial space with outdoor relaxation space along the river would certainly be a highlight of the Town’s riverwalk.

With public-private sector joint planning, the File Factory in Port Hope could have a dramatic future. Let’s seize the necessities of this moment to re-adapt this unique heritage site.

The Nicholson File Factory circa 2011.

Demolition by Neglect

The phrase “demolition by neglect” refers to the practice of permitting a property to fall into such a state of disrepair that demolition of the buildings on the site becomes the only option. It is a strategy often used by developers to allow them to justify the destruction of a heritage building.

Chris Wallace noted in his communications with Council that owners of the File Factory over the last 20 years have been guilty of demolition by neglect and that anyone who had been inside the buildings during that time knew that this property was at risk and should have been dealt with long ago. While some of the buildings were stable and reusable, others were deteriorating to the point where considerable repair, restoration or reconstruction were necessary.

During this past winter, the roof of Block 2 and the floor behind it collapsed, leaving the exterior west wall virtually without support. An emergency demolition of at least some portions of that block became essential in order to address public safety.

Much could have been done years ago to prevent this from happening. Port Hope does have a Property Standards By-Law to ensure that owners address the condition and structural soundness of their buildings. Unfortunately, as one can see throughout Port Hope, this has rarely been enforced. The File Factory was further protected by a Part IV designation under the Ontario Heritage Act, but Port Hope had not passed the by-laws required by the Act to enforce that protection. Fortunately, the Municipality is now considering enacting a stronger Property Standards By-Law which will also include Ontario Heritage Act provisions for designated properties. Needless to say, this will be too late for Block 2, but one might hope not too late for the other buildings on the File Factory site. Vigilance of enforcement will nevertheless still be the key.

In the meantime, contending with a File Factory Block that exhibited a substantial risk of collapse had become an urgent necessity for the Municipality. On Tuesday, March 19th, 2024, a Special Meeting of Council was held to deliberate approving a demolition permit for Block 2 of the industrial site.

Phil Goldsmith and Chris Wallace, along with Bruce Bowden, made deputations to the Special Meeting that night, arguing for a more limited demolition. Phil Goldsmith gave an abridged version of his Fall presentation at the Capitol Theatre and was also very specific in delineating what of Block 2 could be saved. Chris Wallace commented that he had no doubt that the professional engineers who were consulted about the condition of Block 2 responded diligently to the question they were asked. But what question were they asked? Were they asked to take down everything that was not structurally perfect at this time, on the grounds that it’s of little value? Or were they asked to take down only those elements that are a clear, current danger to the public, and preserve the rest, on the grounds that this is a designated heritage structure which, by law, must be preserved? Given the engineers’ recommendation, one suspected the former.

In the end, all three deputations seemed to have a strong impact and while Council approved a Heritage Permit allowing the demolition of Block 2, they directed staff to authorize a municipally contracted engineer to oversee the demolition process. This oversight was meant to ensure compliance with the heritage permit but also to prevent the demolition of areas deemed non-threatening to public safety.

A computer generated image of how a redeveloped File Factory might look.

Phil Goldsmith’s Reimagining of the File Factory

As Chris Wallace noted in his comments, the entire File Factory “is not falling down.” No matter what happens in the near term, there is still a future for this striking complex of buildings.

There have been many recent projects that have brought heritage industrial buildings back to life, and Phil Goldsmith has been involved with several of them, including the Evergreen Brickworks in Toronto. In fact, the Brickworks has many parallel characteristics to our File Factory. It was abandoned for 20 years, it is a site with many buildings of various sizes, and the buildings’ condition varied from good to near collapse. The Brickworks are also in a flood plain, which made them, like the File Factory, unsuitable for housing. Yet, with financial backing from three levels of government, the Brickworks have been transformed into a world-class city park in which the buildings have been restored and opened by Evergreen as an education centre that focuses on the environment, culture and community.

Phil Goldsmith believes that the Evergreen Brickworks demonstrate the possibilities that exist for the File Factory if a similar private-public partnership were to be formed, and he is proposing a new concept for the File Factory heritage industrial site. He is suggesting that the complex be re-purposed as a creative centre such as an arts-and-crafts-based facility, an incubation hub or an educational institution combined with a public riverwalk component in the form of a landscaped passage through the restored buildings which would contain interpretive signage about the river’s history and ecology, along with cafes, restaurants, an indoor market and a market garden.

Repurposing this interesting space on the Ganaraska River, as a mixed-use complex for recreational, commercial, and institutional purposes would be of enormous benefit not only for the Municipality’s residents but also for visitors from far and wide. It would most certainly become the centrepiece of Port Hope’s riverwalk enhancements. Phil Goldsmith strongly believes that the Municipality needs to provide leadership in realizing the potential of this opportunity. Otherwise, Port Hope will not only lose a significant part of its heritage and character, in particular, the original 1853 Beamish Mill, it will also lose an irreplaceable space for learning, creativity, innovation, light small industry, restaurants, markets and many more uses we have seen around the world in reused historic industrial space.

There is no question that this will be a difficult undertaking. There is much to clean up, restore and reconstruct. Yet, the File Factory is a unique heritage industrial site with extraordinary potential. We must work together to resurrect this significant Municipal asset.