61 Charles Street: Industrialization to education

Photo by John Cook

UOIT's building at 61 Charles St. has a long and storied history.

At lunchtime inside 61 Charles Street, one of UOIT’s buildings in downtown Oshawa, students cluster around glossy beige tables and window-side couches. They sip coffee while they work on assignments, or chat with friends about whatever they’ve been watching on Netflix.

Inside the same building, more than 100 years ago, a different band of people would have eaten lunches and made conversation with friends—underwear factory workers.

The history of the building at 61 Charles Street is rich and varied, and reflects a broader history of the city and its downtown core.

By the end of the 1800’s, Oshawa had begun to establish itself as a local industrial hub.

The city was close enough to Toronto, had developed a harbour providing access to Lake Ontario, was adjacent to several major railways, and labour was cheap and readily available.

The city had its fair share of powerful industrial tenants by the start of the twentieth century.

There was the Pedlar family’s massive sheet metal factory (Pedlar People Limited), Robson Tannery (one of Canada’s largest leather producers at one point), and of course, Robert McLaughlin’s highly successful Carriage Works (which would eventually birth General Motors Canada).

In 1903, 61 Charles Street became home to another factory owned by a Canadian manufacturing giant—the T. Eaton Company.

Like many other buildings in Oshawa’s downtown, it was originally constructed for industrial purposes, in sharp contrast to the current, repurposed facility UOIT operates today.

At the time the first workers were brought into the building, the T. Eaton Company was quickly becoming Canada’s leading department store, with a booming mail order business and a sprawling retail store in downtown Toronto.

However, the majority of people today would be more familiar with Eaton’s (recently doomed) parent company—Sears, who purchased the brand in 1999.

Eaton’s operated the building as a textile factory, manufacturing mainly ladies’ clothing items, including bras and undergarments.

Women made up most of the work force at Eaton’s underwear factory, which operated until 1917, according to historical records. That year, it was sold to the William Millichamp’s Oriental Textile Company to serve as a space to manufacture fabrics for automobiles.

By this time in history, General Motors had become a permanent feature of the local economy. Hundreds of jobs and businesses depended on the auto maker to be profitable.

Again, 61 Charles St. was no exception and many of their fabrics went toward manufacturing seats for the company. As recent as December 2017, UOIT has fostered partnerships with General Motors, so the trend of collaboration continues even today.

After just one year of operations under the Oriental Textile Company, a fire tore through the building, completely decimating the interior. Historical records show the blaze occurring in April of 1918.

Undeterred, Millichamp rebuilt the factory and, by 1921, had achieved moderate success. A photo from that year shows Millichamp among other prolific Oshawa industrialists including Col. Robert Samuel McLaughlin and J. D. Storie (founder of Fittings Limited, which specialized in iron pipe fittings).

By the early 1930’s, Oshawa had begun to feel the effects of the nation-wide economic depression.

Several local businesses, even some that had been thriving until the Great Depression, declared bankruptcy.

Oriental Textiles Company fell victim to the economic crisis, and ceased operations at 61 Charles St. in 1934. The building began to represent the economic decline of the area, and

Oriental’s former workers felt the burn of unemployment which had scorched the nation. The building, once again, had become a icon representative of the times.

The building remained vacant for some time following the closure of Oriental. It was bought and sold a handful of times to various enterprises, each with little success.

In 1939, for instance, the building at 61 Charles St. was purchased by a Pennsylvania-based company that manufactured glass bottles—Knox Glass Company.

According to records, Knox operated the company for just over a year, manufacturing “a number of wine, soda, vinegar, sauce and mayonnaise bottles.”

The company’s supply of bottles quickly surpassed demand for them, and the property was sold to the Dominion Glass Company, who “continued to sell the existing stock of bottles until 1942.”

When Canada entered the Second World War, General Motors Canada halted regular production at its factories, instead they manufactured war vehicles to assist the Allied forces overseas. Oshawa had become an integral part of the Canadian war effort.

As the war raged on, 61 Charles St. was purchased by General Motors. The facility played a role in making parts for General Motors vehicles such as the Otter armoured car, used by the Canadian and British forces, thus becoming part of the effort.

When the war ended, General Motors was ready to sell off wartime assets like 61 Charles St. In 1946, on the precipice of the post-war economic boom, Alger Press Limited opened a printing and bookbinding company in the building.

Alger would be the longest tenant of the building, operating there until 1993.

The Alger Printing Company had existed in Oshawa long before the printing machines first wailed inside the great brick building on Charles Street. It functioned as a publisher at first, later performing bookbinding and printing services.

Materials printed in the new, so-called “Alger Press Building” included local newspapers, periodicals, advertising materials, textbooks, and novels.

Margaret Leach began working for Alger Press starting in 1980.

She moved to Oshawa from Paisley, Scotland with her husband and son at the start of the 70’s, settling in the city’s west end, near the Oshawa Civic fields. After having her second and third children in Canada, tragedy struck.

Her husband died as a result of a work-related accident in 1978, leaving her without a source of income.

Leach quickly found work in the packing department of Alger Press’ downtown facility. She says work was steady, but labour-intensive.

“The men did all the heavy lifting… Women did the packing and made sure everything was ready to be shipped out,” said Leach.

It was at Alger Press that she met Ken.

He had worked there for years before Leach started, but the pair soon became close friends. They bonded over everything, including the fact that they had both been married once before, and while Ken had lost a son from his first marriage in an accident, Leach would later lose her youngest child, also named Margaret, from a bout with meningitis that had entered her brain.

Eventually, in 1990, the two tied the knot and remained married until Ken’s death in 2017.

“We met on the factory floor,” said Leach. “He was so friendly with everyone. He wouldn’t ever hesitate to come over and say ‘hi’ to new people.”

Both Leach and her husband retired just before getting married.

Ken had suffered a heart attack in early 1990, which left him too weakened for the physical labour required to work at the press, while Leach’s two surviving sons had entered adulthood, and no longer required financial support.

After a long run in the Charles Street building, Alger Press declared bankruptcy in 1993, stopping the presses for good.

A variety of factors contributed to Alger’s demise. Changing technology made printing easier and cheaper for the general public, increased free trade with the United States and other countries led to more companies outsourcing their printing needs, and Canada was facing a serious economic recession.

When Alger’s assets were liquidated, the building was sold to the MapArt publishing, who left the building generally unused. For the remainder of the 1990’s, 61 Charles St. was used mostly for miscellaneous storage, and gave the appearance of an abandoned building.

By the new millennium, the building became the subject of some debate at Oshawa city hall. Some wanted the building demolished, and the lot put up for sale. Others opposed destruction of what they called “a local landmark,” and wanted the building protected.

Eventually, in 2006, city council agreed to designate the “Alger Press Building” as a class-A Oshawa heritage site, which provides legal protection from it being torn down.

UOIT agreed to purchase the building in 2009 as part of their plan to expand the downtown campus. An expansive renovation process took place over the following year.

The current building at 61 Charles St. is a fully functioning, three-story educational complex, with classrooms, study spaces, a student services centre, and a library dedicated to social science and humanities.

It first opened to students in 2010, but had a grand opening ceremony in March 2011.

Importantly, UOIT retained much of the building’s historical charm during the renovation process.

On the outside, the “Alger Press Building” looks much like it did in its heyday.

The red brickwork and uniform lines of massive rectangular windows remain, just as they did in archival photos and descriptions of the building dating back to its stint with Oriental Textiles.

In those times a small covered garage was attached to the side of the building. Where the garage once stood is now a metal patio with outdoor tables students can use to relax when the weather permits it.

On the inside, UOIT chose to keep some of the original wooden beams from the building.

They are now polished and prominently displayed around common areas. What once held the building together is now only occasionally leaned on by someone checking their smartphone.

Other features, such as certain interior doors and brickwork are original. Inside the stairwells of the building is brick marred by the scars of time, yet alive with history.

On the first floor, a 1950’s-era industrial camera is on permanent display. At the time it was used (during Alger’s stint in the building), it was considered high-tech. By today’s standards, few would even be able to identify the machine as a camera.

Critically, the looming metal smokestack at the East side of the building was also retained.

Local media has, on occasion, called it either one of, or the oldest, metal smokestacks in Canada. In 2011, Joe Stokes, a representative of the university, said there was talks of restoring the smokestack at a later date.

As of today, no restoration has occurred, and the four-story tall obelisk of rusted metal looks the same as it did during the years of abandonment the building suffered in the 1990’s and first decade of the 2000’s.

However, according to the university, there are no plans to alter or remove the industrial relic.

Leach got a chance to see the new Alger Press building this year, and was blown away by the transformation.

“Everything looks so clean,” she said. “The floors used to be covered in sawdust and scrap papers.”

She can remember some aspects of her previous workplace. For instance, the Aboriginal Student Centre building, just next to 61 Charles St. used to be an employee parking lot, where Leach and her future husband would greet each other each morning.

“I hardly recognize it anymore. You wouldn’t even think it was in the same area,” said Leach of the sweeping changes to the exterior.

The old service elevator, which was raised and lowered by manually pulling levers, it the site of the modern student services offices. The main entrance for students and visitors was once the side door for the factory’s top brass and foremen.

As for the packing department where Leach worked, it’s now an emergency exit (and, coincidentally, a shipping entrance). The modern grey fire doors only a fraction of the size of the original riveted iron doors.

When looking at the building, Leach was brought back in time, but she had one question: “where’s the basement?”

According to Leach, the old Alger Press building had a large basement, used mostly for storage. Leach says she was always scared to go to the basement alone, as it was never well lit, and fairly deserted compared to the rest of the factory.

However, during UOIT’s restoration of the building, the basement was rendered inaccessible, and no longer exists on the building’s floorplan.

“Good,” said Leach. “I never liked it down there anyway.”

UOIT’s building at 61 Charles St. is vastly different from previous iterations of the structure. Although similar in appearance, the clientele utilizing the space has dramatically changed.

What was once sawdust covered floors, deafening industrial machines and the stale smell of old paper has been replaced with inviting blue carpets, the clicking of Macbook keys, and the smell of high-priced coffee drinks.

61 Charles St. had always served its purpose as a factory—a centre for manufacturing and creation. It still serves mostly the same purpose today. Just instead of underwear and newspapers, modern production chiefly yields highly-skilled university graduates and their degrees.

From underwear to undergrads, 61 Charles St. remains an important part of downtown Oshawa’s industrial history, and a part of our local heritage.