A landmark restored | LiUNA Station

Old train stations hold such great history within their walls. It’s not the same with airports. No one looks at an airport and says, “Oh my god, look how beautiful it is! Imagine all the people who walked through here!” But old train stations have that character—especially those with a time-less Art Deco/neoclassical design.

For decades, trains were the only way to get around. There were no planes because commercial air travel wasn’t very common until the 1950’s. And while Canada was the second-largest car producer in the world by the 1920’s, the Ontario stretch of the Trans Canada Highway didn’t even open until 1960. The railway ruled cross-country travel in Canada for a long time.

Our stations were the sets for innumerable hellos and goodbyes. They witnessed the glorious arrival of kings and queens. They were grand gateways for immigrants seeking new homes and opportunity. They saw countless young men off to war, and welcomed back far fewer. Whether we choose to recognize it or not, the corridors of our train stations still maintain those memories, and so it is our duty to preserve the buildings too.

LiUNA Station (formerly known as the Canadian National Railway James North Station) was built between 1929 and 1931, leading right into the Great Depression, which hit Hamilton hard. However, Hamilton came out of it strong by the 1940s, and continued where it left off as a manufacturing giant.

The station saw a lot between construction and its closure in 1993, including the much-celebrated arrival and 90-minute visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1939.

liuna-station-hamilton-pano-3Sadly, by the 1980’s, commuter train service in Hamilton was running through the TH&B station (Hunter Street), and Via was forced to reduce their number of Toronto-Niagara Falls passenger trains due to governments funding cuts. There was little need for a grand, marble-laden train station in Hamilton, and the station was officially closed in February of 1993.

For six years, the gorgeous building sat untouched, decaying and enduring more and more damage each year. Until, in 1999 LiUNA (Labourers’ International Union of North America) purchased the space from its previous owner for $900,000 to convert into a nursing home, which was later reconsidered. The station was then slated to become the banquet hall and conference centre it is now.

LiUNA still built a $10 million nursing home in another downtown location—a brownfield which they purchased from the city for only a dollar.

“It was February when we walked through here—pigeons running through here, the roof had holes in it, probably around two feet of ice down in the basement—so it was in bad, bad shape,” said Riccardo Persi, Director of LiUNA Station and LiUNA Gardens.

“Let me tell you, a lot of people said ‘what are you, crazy? What are you guys doing? This is not Toronto, this is Hamilton—North End’… but we saw potential,” said Persi.

liuna-station-hamilton-pano-2The vast majority of the original interior and design was still in tact when LiUNA scooped it up, but they hired local architect, John Mokrycke to help redesign the parts that needed special attention, and to help navigate the lengthy process of working with the City’s Building and Heritage offices.

“John Mokrycke had an idea. I think he’s probably the best in the city for heritage, and keeping the look of what any kind of building used to look like,” said Persi. “We tried to keep everything as original as possible.”

They succeeded. When you stand in the lobby of LiUNA Station, everything in sight is original, from floor to ceiling—something to be proud of during a period when many developers are happy just tearing out the unhealthy parts of a building and replacing them with glass.

Persi said around the time of purchasing the station, the union also thought about buying the houses across the road on Murray Street as the prices were very low at the time. They thought they could turn the area into a Hess Village sort of area, but they didn’t go through with it.

“Back then, in 1999 and 2000… it was pretty drab and not a lot of people taking chances,” he said. Now, in hindsight, with time it might have become a hit.

liuna-station-6LiUNA Station, on the other hand, was a hit right away. Interest in the space rose quickly, and the place started booking up very soon after. “I would say it was pretty fast when they saw what was happening, like the wow factor… It was crazy busy for the first 2 or 3 years.”

“I think us taking a chance here gave other people hope to do things down here,” said Persi.

LiUNA was the first major building along James North to be redeveloped at that scale, in a time when Hamilton’s core was suffering badly. James North wasn’t nearly the place it is today, but perhaps the renewal of the station was the catalyst for it to start becoming the bustling neighbourhood it is now.

“I’m not the type of guy to brag, but if people think that, that’s fantastic.”

LiUNA also bought the Lister Block on James North in 1999 for $1.6 million, and after partnering with the City and Hi-Rise Group, that building too was rescued and restored to its original glory in 2011.

The newest edition to LiUNA station is the King George Ballroom, which has been built on the track level of the station where passenger trains used to idle. It too is consistent with the original classic design of the station.

Finally, with the new James Street GO Station planned to open in 2015, and a number of new condo building projects coming downtown, Persi thinks the area is “going to just explode.”

“We’ll probably look at expanding within another 5 to 10 years,” he noted.

Who knows, that could mean another addition to the building, or a major construction project in place of the parking lot east of the station. A lot of things are possible in that area now.

Comments 0

There are no comments

Add comment

Share post


© 2024 Robert Cekan Professional Real Estate Corporation. All rights reserved. Robert Cekan is a Broker at Real Broker Ontario Ltd., Brokerage.