Photo caption: Janet Sinclair, one of 115 Queen St. E.’s new owners, stands at one end of the building’s expansive – and recently gutted – second storey. The first floor of the historic downtown building is currently housing Stonetown Art’s annual Christmas show.
By Andrea Macko, “Special to the Journal Argus”
With the opening of Stonetown Arts’ annual Christmas show on Friday night, the public had its first look at the new incarnation of one of St. Marys’ oldest buildings.
115 Queen St. E., has sat vacant since 2015, after Sensations Salon departed for its current Water Street location. The three-storey stone building was originally constructed as two-storeys in approximately 1857 by John McDonald, a settler from Scotland who operated a grocery and general store.
The new owners are also settlers – albeit from Stratford. And even though the building has its challenges, one of the owners says they’re not settling at all.
“We’re thrilled,” says Janet Sinclair during a recent tour of the building. “Once in a while I go ‘whoa’ when I look around – but we’re thrilled.” Sinclair’s professional background is interior design and architecture.
“This building is pre-Confederation,” Sinclair explains, “I love it!” she enthuses, adding that the structure is reminiscent of buildings in Sherbrooke and Montreal, where she was born and raised.
She first noticed the “for sale” sign on the building during a walkabout this summer while on vacation at the cottage she shares with partner Liz Mountain at nearby Wildwood Conservation Area.
The last owners of the building restored and renovated the first floor just over seven years ago, keeping many of the details and features Sinclair is attracted to.
The second and third floors, however, are a different story: neither had been touched in years, and multiple dumpsters of waste have already been removed. Stripped bare, the second floor is expansive yet hazardous: knob-and-tube electrical work hangs from the ceiling, gaps in the floor board slow walking, and wind whistles through the cracks surrounding the window frames.
“This is not up to code,” jokes Sinclair as she and this reporter ascend the rickety staircase to the third floor. Its ceiling slopes, truncating the usable space dramatically. The newness of a recently installed — and massive — load-bearing beam contrasts with the building’s dingy bones.
But there’s potential here, says Sinclair. “This would have been a very high-end building back in the day,” she says, pointing out the remnants of transom frames and the beautifully-constructed-if-decaying window frames.
“The dream is to have a building that is still authentic – original floors, tin ceilings and windows – we’re really listening to these bones,” Sinclair says, explaining that they want to have living quarters and a library on the second floor, and make the third floor another residential area.
“We’re not going to take any chances and do it right,” she adds, noting that she and Mountain are working with noted architect Michael Wilson, who helped refurbish the Opera House, on the project.
Doing it right means understanding the building will be improved in stages. The back end of the first floor will soon be developed into a professional kitchen – this area is where the couple’s unique skill set really informs the project.
Mountain and Sinclair are also both professionally trained chefs, having operated the Chez Soleil cooking school in Stratford for 10 years, which attracted students who didn’t even know about the city’s Shakespearean Festival. Sinclair isn’t calling their St. Marys endeavor a school, however.
“We are calling this space ‘One Fish, Two Fish’,” she says. “If we say ‘school’, people get intimidated – but I believe that everyone wants to be part of a school of fish: it’s about community.”
“This space is more about the alchemy and science of cooking, and how to heal through food,” Sinclair continues. She is already working with the town’s food purveyors on partnerships, and adds that the space and kitchen, when finished, can be rented for events with no need to hire out caterers.
The space will be “a community centre for all of us,” Sinclair explains. “We will bring in healers and educators from across Canada. The train station makes St. Marys accessible.”
“One Fish, Two Fish is to be shared on all levels, offering things like art classes and courses for kids… it’s about a think-tank, a fish-tank,” she muses, noting the expansive first floor windows that offer a great view out to the street – and in to the building.
At the building’s rear, Sinclair enthuses over the building’s proximity to the newly replenished Trout Creek and Thames River – and about the exciting challenge ahead in the couple’s soon-to-be hometown.
“I’ve always loved St. Marys,” Sinclair says with a smile. “I always find myself wriggling here, like a fish.”