By Kenneth Wenger
The aromas of yeast and malt have long evaporated from these walls, the recipes and formulae are gone from the desks, and the sounds of pipes and bells have been replaced by student chatter about “mean and variance of sample.”
One look at the grey-stone crown moldings that slide down like tears from the structure, and it’s clear that this building belongs to a different time.
Today, a colossal metal frame engraved with the words “School of Business Management” decorates the threshold. But without reading the bronze plaque at the entrance, some may not realize this wasn’t always a university business building.
Before Ryerson acquired it in 1966, it was the old bottling plant for the Carling O’Keefe factory, Canada’s largest brewer of lager beer. “Ryerson wants a brewery,” proclaims a Toronto Star headline published 31 years to this day, in 1966. “Principal F.D. Jorgenson yesterday confirmed he’s been dickering to purchase the old O’Keefe Brewery on Victoria St.” The plan would be for Ryerson to use the three-acre ale factory and warehouse for an expansion of its campus.
More than a century ago, a young Eugene O’Keefe would come to this site at Victoria Street after a long day of hunting or fishing, and stop at the Hannath & Hart brewery (now a parking lot above the book store) to relax with a beer. In 1861, the banker had become so captivated by the brewing industry that he founded the Victoria Brewery. A year later, he bought the Hannath & Hart plant, and established the company in 1946.
By the 1890s, the O’Keefe brewery was producing more than 50,000 barrels of beer a year and had become what the Toronto Daily Star called “one of the best conducted establishments in America.” On the corner of Bond and Gould streets, O’Keefe House — another piece of this fading landmark of Toronto industry — takes precedence. The student residence looks like a miniature castle with two towers and a balcony overlooking Gould Street.
It was here where O’Keefe lived from 1861 till his death in 1913. Mere steps away, the bottling department where the business building now stands was driven by the most modern machinery of the times. Electric motors washed, filled and corked bottles with lightning rapidity. “You know, back then things were very different from the way they are in your generation,” says former O’Keefe bottler John Mitchum, 78, as he slams a closed fist on the table.
“A man was little more than what he did in his job. A man without a job was not a man, so in many ways your business building was my ticket into manhood.”
In 1947, decades before the rows of green lockers lined these hallways, a 20-year-old Mitchum would enter the glass doors for work in the mornings, “the bittersweet smell of malt and yeast greeting me.” Closing his eyes, Mitchum continues to reminisce and breathes in the memory: “Going up the stairs to the fifth floor, steam whistles shrieking as the pipes decompressed, workers yelling out tasks. I felt needed, I will tell you that much.”
Often standing for 11 hours on end, Mitchum would survey each bottle that passed under his eyes to assure the label was placed correctly. “It was a nice job but tiring at times. Checking over 1,000 bottles will get to you after awhile,” he muses while looking into space. “I always wondered if I would come home one day and start taking labels off of every bottle of beer or sauce, or medicine in my house. But of course they closed the factory before that happened.”
As the last phrase leaves his lips, the brightness in his eyes seems to vanish with it. After the O’Keefe brewery on Victoria shut down, Mitchum found a job in the west end, but things were never quite the same. “Now I knew the fear of losing a job, and so I haven’t been back downtown since the early 1970s,” he says, furrowing his brow and accentuating the many lines on his forehead. You wonder how many of those lines were carved while working at the brewery.
Many think that the original O’Keefe plant on Victoria Street possesses a special gift, “a touch of divine interference if you wish”, as Mitchum says. Even during the dry years when most companies went out of business, the O’Keefe mine kept digging.
Its secret: a vision to stay afloat by shifting its production from beer brewing to making ginger ale.
“Ingenious or spooky?” asks the old worker as we share a pitcher of Molson Canadian, the brand that now owns the O’Keefe breweries. Although it’s not difficult to envision the original structure in the three-storey garage, it is hard to imagine Mitchum’s experience — the smell of malt grains, hops, corn, voices announcing schedules and the sirens and bells signaling brewing stages. Instead, the smell of exhaust fumes from the cars is overpowering.
This is just a garage now. In the business building, loud chatter and laughter floods the stairwell. Students with classes in this building often complain about its awkward design. Obtrusive columns from the old O’Keefe offices block sight lines to the blackboard. Some students lean back, resting their chairs against the ancient support beams.
“This is a nice but weird building,” comments third-year computer science student Dmitry Pyryeskin. “Sometimes I think whoever designed it for a school failed the architecture exam. Try sitting behind one of those columns and while following the professor’s notes on the board. It is not easy,” he says.
The facilities are unlike a school building, but that’s because they were never meant to be. Corridors bend unexpectedly, leading to dead ends and corner classrooms angle into odd shapes. Now all the bottles of beer this factory produced are long drunk, but the corridors where barrels were brought in and bottles clinched remain. The iron columns and steel beams laid with cement comprise the building’s skeleton.
Even 150 years later, these pillars serve as the building’s backbone — a mark of history. Perhaps every time a student reclines against one, he or she is reminded that university is where some dreams are brewed, and that — in this sense – the old building is still serving its original purpose.