“Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” – Jane Jacobs

After years of neglect and decay, the rehabilitation of Guelph’s Petrie Building went far beyond the restoration of its distinctive facade – it was also about contributing to the vitality and renewal of a downtown core by breathing new life into a traditional building form.


Bringing Back the Petrie

In 2014, the National Trust listed the Petrie Building as one of the Top 10 Endangered Places in Canada; decades of neglect had seriously deteriorated many of its distinguishing features. Its iconic pressed metal facade – one of only three documented in Canada erected prior to 1890 – was in rough shape, and its distinctive mortar-and-pestle pediment had suffered significant deterioration. Three of its four floors had remained mostly unoccupied for the past 100 years and the building’s original storefront had long been lost. Complicating things further, its narrow footprint limited any retrofits that would allow the building to meet current requirements for exiting  and life safety.

These challenging conditions meant that bringing the Petrie back to life required more than just restoring its historic facade. Making it economically viable required numerous and extensive alterations to meet 21st century standards – all the while protecting its heritage character-defining elements.

This strategy of rehabilitation over restoration would be vital to the Petrie’s rebirth when Tyrcathlen Partners, a local developer with a passion for heritage structures, purchased the property in 2015.

Knowing that the building’s existing footprint was too small to accommodate the second set of stairs necessary to revitalize the upper floors (as well as meet contemporary egress requirements), the developer also purchased a portion of the adjacent neighbouring row of shops – an understated stone building dating back to c.1854. By joining these two properties and treating them as one larger building, they were able to accommodate all of the required circulation and life safety systems, overcoming one of the biggest obstacles to the building’s revitalization.

Of course, joining these two buildings resulted in new challenges, including connecting a series of misaligned historic floor levels as well as ensuring proper fire separation, while simultaneously addressing the preservation and modernization needs of two distinct heritage structures.

Key to the project’s success was Part 11 of the Ontario Building Code, a section providing compliance alternatives for design and construction in existing buildings. These alternatives, when properly understood and applied, gave the flexibility required to re-imagine an existing structure without loss of built cultural or community identity.

Bringing Main Street Back

While the restoration of the Petrie’s facade might take the lion’s share of the public’s attention, it is the building’s generosity toward the public realm that makes it an important precedent for the revitalization of main streets across Ontario.

By retaining and rehabilitating the existing structures, the new Petrie is able to accommodate numerous smaller tenants who would otherwise be unable to afford the large-scale retail spaces typical of new construction. This density of commercial spaces adds to the vibrancy of the main street, contributing to the health of the public realm.

On the ground level, the architect had to re-imagine the long-lost storefronts of the historic properties. His designs are informed by both the traditional urban building forms of Ontario’s main streets, as well as the needs of the new Petrie occupants. Incorporated into the new storefront facades is a display niche dedicated to the tenants on the upper floors – a clever solution to give street presence to the businesses above. Similarly, a traditional narrow staircase provides direct access to the businesses above the main street, helping bring additional vitality to this urban thoroughfare.


This post forms part of our World Architecture Day Queen’s Park Picks 2018 series in which we asked Ontario’s Members of Provincial Parliament to nominate a prominent building, past or present, in their riding for a chance to learn more about it. Check out the rest of the series to learn more about great buildings across the province!

The OAA would like to thank Allan Killin Architect Inc., Tyrcathlen Partners and Hans Zegerius for the information, images and drawings that made this blOAAg post possible.

Additional Sources

Canada’s Historic Places. Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada, 2003. Accessed electronically: https://www.historicplaces.ca/media/7209/sandg_en.pdf

National Trust of Canada. “Petrie Building” (2014) in Top 10 Endangered Places. Accessed electronically: https://nationaltrustcanada.ca/nt-endangered-places/petrie-building

Project Team

Owner/Builder: Tyrcathlen Partners

Heritage Architect: Allan Killin Architect Inc.

As-found drawings / integration of the two structures: L. Alan Grinham Architect Inc.

Structural (Heritage): Tacoma Engineers Inc.

Mechanical and Electrical: PNF Engineering

Phase 2 Mechanical: NEEB Engineering Inc.

Phase 2 Electrical: Dorey Designs Ltd.

Site Supervisor / Head Carpenter: Richard Dawson

Mason: Doug Burpee

The design team would also like to recognize the following approval authorities that made the New Petrie Building possible:

Ian Panabaker, Corporate Manager, Downtown Renewal

Stephen Robinson, Senior Heritage Planner

Tammy Hog, Plans Examiner

Daewon Lee, Plans Examiner

Greg Pieczewski, Building Inspector

Becky Montyro, Building Inspector, Plans Examiner

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