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Alton Mill: Preserving heritage, art, and family ties

Posted on Wednesday November 07, 2018

The vacant and deteriorating Mill was acquired in 1988 by Jack Grant, entrepreneur, social activist and founder of Seaton Group. Sharing the same love for the heritage that their father had, sons Jeremy and Jordan Grant took over the management of this ‘jewel in the rough’ in the early 90’s

Alton Mill Arts Centre is a heritage building that has been preserved and nurtured with architectural precision while keeping its promise to the past to maintain its rustic and quaint qualities. A vibrant arts centre featuring some 20 artists and artisans in working studios, 4 art galleries, a fiber art and fashion market, hand-crafted jewellery, a heritage exhibit, and café, Alton Mill is a place for anyone who wants to appreciate the beauty of art, creative use of space and history.

We met Jeremy and Jordan Grant to ask them about Alton Mill Arts Centre and their future plans:

Tell us about yourself...

Jordan: Our father started the development business back in 1950’s. Jeremy always wanted to get into the field of development because he had studied planning but I got into this field in the early 90’s when one of the projects was facing some problems. We have been working together as a team since early 1990’s.

Jeremy: The company had worked on projects in smaller communities outside Toronto. Even though our father was from Toronto, most of his company projects included places like Uxbridge and Unionville, which now are suburban communities.

Jordan: What we do is community development in smaller regions but we got our first taste of major development in Woodbridge where we worked on a mainstream heritage building. The business has evolved but we focus on smaller infill projects and we have branched into related real estate projects. We also have land in Belize where we operate tourist resorts.

Both of you restored an 1880's stone mill and converted it into the Alton Mill Arts Centre with studios, galleries, shops and event spaces, what inspired you to take this step?

Jordan: Initially, we didn’t have a business plan to open an arts centre, our father owned this property and it fell into our laps as a vacant derelict building. It was a jewel in the rough and the question was what can we do with it? We looked at a lot of different options during the early 90’s recession. We tried to sell it but the offers were too low and a real estate agent advised us to demolish the building as the land had a higher value. Our father had feelings for heritage buildings and so did we. We decided to take a different route and focused on other priorities to rebuild our business.

Jeremy: We did look at several different uses like seniors home, rental housing, residential condominiums, residential, arts and even a craft market hall. The building was zoned industrial so we looked at several industrial uses for it. The building was without electricity and heat, stripped out by vandals, and the well that had served the property was contaminated. There were many issues that had to be resolved.

Jordan: A local woodworker Carl Borgstram approached Jeremy and wanted to set up his art shop here. He thought there would be a demand for studios by other artists and craftspeople. We decided to give it a try. After converting the east section of the mill, he set up his woodworking shop in the building and we created six studios upstairs.

Jeremy: That really was an evolutionary start at the time. We were approached by those who wanted to be here. We literally put two walls in place and then others came. The six studios were a test at the time and it took a year to set it all up. We still have three family members from those original shop owners and tenants.

Tell us about the restoration process of the Alton Mill. Did you convey your vision to the architect Catherine Nasmith? What sort of design contributions did you make towards the process?

Jordan: When Jeremy got involved with Headwaters Arts Network, we started to develop a vision to create a space for arts. At the time, there was economic development money that could be allocated towards a space for arts so we got on board, applied for funding and started the process. Catherine Nasmith was an architect I knew who had experience with heritage buildings. We engaged Cathy and developed the plan and vision for Alton Mill. We received grant money that totalled 1.875 million and our total budget was 5 million.

Jeremy: The whole architectural approach was drastically different and the influence of an architect was substantial. The design approach was to retain and/or restore as many of the heritage attributes of the building and the landscape as possible. What was old should remain as it was, and what is new should look new. Building structure and ducting was kept exposed and visible; other mechanical components contributed to something that was far more beautiful than having an industrial building. Without the influence of Catherine Nasmith’s architectural influence, the end result could've resulted in one more industrial building without any character. When we saw her plan for Alton Mill, we said yes.

Jordan: She was amazing, she brought in contractors who specialized in heritage buildings. They had incredibly skilled craftsman on their staff who had previously worked on the parliament building. The federal funding came with strings attached and the heritage department had certain rules that we needed to follow and we did.

Jeremy: Because of the stringent set of guidelines, there was a certain level of workmanship and approach that had to be met. There were inspectors and architectural specialists who ensured that. The overall approach elevated the end result so Alton Mill was at a national level without altering or changing any historic elements.

Both of you are active in the urban planning and development field, what potential do you see for Caledon’s future growth?

Jeremy: I often try to envision myself as if I have just arrived here as a tourist or a new resident. When I travel and come back, I ask myself what is it like to be as a visitor, is what I always think. The physical beauty is apparent and geographically it’s located in close proximity to huge markets, and there is a strong desire to maintain the beauty of Caledon. Most businesses share that sentiment.

There is a strong tourism opportunity here and most businesses are trying to protect what’s great and at the same time, they are trying to bring people in.

Can you share one (or some) of your most memorable moments at the Alton Mills?

Jordan: The day the bailey bridge arrived. We went through a whole process through the conservation authority to install the bridge.

Jeremy: Jordan is a master at finding stuff on the internet [laughs]. When he was a kid he used to love watching war films so that military design sense is in him.

Jordan: I found this bridge in the Town of Spanish, I went there to inspect the bridge, and the person who found it for me said the council meeting was taking place and that I should go make an offer. I told them why I was interested in purchasing the bridge. They said you and the mayor can work out a deal [laughs].  The Bailey bridge was shipped as a whole, not unassembled. The day it arrived they had to close the road here and neighbours sat on lawn chairs to watch the arrival. It was a spectacle!

Jeremy: The first time we had a public musical event was in September 2009  and it was a highlight for me. It featured a Rockwood musician called Ian Reed. It was a moment of pure joy to see the public in the building with live music. This building lends itself to music beautifully, it was wonderful.

Another memorable moment is when the first wedding took place here. The couple had stumbled upon Alton Mill. They walked through the forest and we got talking. We discussed the opportunity and they booked a winter wedding. I remember the tenants and myself had our heads out of the window and took pictures to capture the beauty of that event.

Jordan: We always wanted to hold private events here. We have had 40 weddings till now but it’s a huge undertaking because you need a dedicated staff as its an important event for people. We can’t afford to make a mistake at such events. Parallel to that, it’s been a challenge to maintain a reality that Alton Mill is an art centre and not a banquet hall. The distinction needs to be there at some point and although it’s been a struggle, we have put a cap on the number of events.

It may be hard to pick one, but is there a particular piece of art at the Alton Mill that’s close to your heart?

Jordan: I know that Jeremy likes the head in the water and the pregnant lady (diamante).

The head in the water gets the most attention but the pregnant lady sculpture has a special place in my heart. My wife and I came across that sculpture and decided to place it at the Mill. It’s a pregnant woman, wearing the frilly dress, totally comfortable with her body and her state of pregnancy. That sculpture denotes total joy and comfort.

Jeremy: We have a few stone pieces that Jordan is really fond of. There is a stone bench object where stones were built in the wall, they protrude out, and they function as a bench. You can sit on them or lie across and you can’t see the stones because it’s an optical illusion.

What are your future plans and vision for Alton Mills?

Jeremy: There is a missing component to the business that we want to achieve and complete. We plan to put in place a full-service outstanding restaurant at Alton Mill that overlooks the mill pond. It will be completed in a year.

Along with the distillery themed restaurant, we want to include a recreation and trail component to the design and allow for reinstatement of Bruce trail with Alton area. Combined with the public art component, we consider this plan to be a special project. 

What is it like working together as a family?

Jeremy: It has worked out remarkably well. There is an inherent trust that's ingrained in the family.

Jordan: We know what each others strengths and weaknesses are and it’s been a successful journey. Our respect of family has contributed to this healthy relationship.

Jeremy: We are like an old married couple [laughs].

Alton Mill Arts Centre is located at 1402 Queen Street West, Alton.

Phone: 519 941 9300

For more information, please visit: www.altonmill.ca