Clock Tower Lofts occupy the northwest corner of King Street West and Bathurst Street. Long before the conversion to residential lofts in the late 1990s, this location was a landmark in the commercial, creative,
and industrial heart of Toronto, and continues to evolve with the city.
We owe a world of thanks to Clock Tower Lofts owner and resident, and retired University Librarian at the Ontario College of Art and Design, Jill Patrick, for her incredible efforts to uncover and recreate the history of this building and site. A more detailed version of this research appears in OCAD’s Library Guides.
We welcome further efforts to enhance the living history of this building. For contributions, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org with additional material.
The early days of York
King Street is one of the first streets laid out in the plan of the Town of York.
King Street bustles as Toronto’s main commercial street, extending from St. Lawrence Market in the east to Garrison Creek in the west.
The Toronto Lithographing Company (founded in 1878) is one of the largest firms in the city. When its plant at 13 Jordan was destroyed by fire, the company builds a three-storey brick factory on the northwest corner of King and Bathurst.
The interior of the building is documented by photographer A.A. Gray. Employees set type and work on lithographic stones, and use large-format graphic arts cameras, printing presses, and folding machines.
The piano factory years
The Newell & Higel Co. Ltd take over the building at 680 King West. Otto Higel Co. Ltd. amalgamate with Augustus Newell & Co to manufacture piano actions, keys and hammers, and organ keys, reeds, and reedboards.
Otto Higel was a master craftsman and the business had one of the finest machine-shops in Canada. The quality of their product eclipsed that of French and German manufacturers and the business expanded rapidly as they developed a worldwide market.
Higel commissions Gouinlock and Blake to enlarge the building to keep up with the tremendous rush of orders. The original structure is extended north along Bathurst to the corner of Adelaide Street West. The addition is long and narrow with high ceilings and large windows to bring in natural light.
The company makes a big splash at a 1901 exhibition featuring a Newell & Higel piano action and key standing over six feet high with a souvenir handout -- “a neat maple leaf in green celluloid with pin, emblematic of patriotism, and a reminder of all of the success gained by a purely Canadian firm.”
Higel purchases the firm's assets and restores the name Otto Higel Co Ltd, while also using the names Canada Piano Action, and Key Co Ltd. King Street is recognized as one of the finest industrial highways on the continent, with many large and prosperous companies along the street.
Higel begins manufacturing player-piano actions, bringing the company the greatest success of its tenure.
Higel commissions architect George Martel (G.M.) Miller to undertake a second expansion of the property at 680 King West, which includes a clocktower.
The company lights the clocktower during nights of the annual exhibition. Afterwards, people in the vicinity of King and Bathurst ask the city and the company to light the clocktower year-round “as there is not another lighted clock within a mile.”
By 1910, the clocktower is illuminated, to the appreciation of the neighbourhood, many sending letters of thanks to the Otto Higel Co. With continued phenomenal growth, Higel commissions architect G.M. Miller again for a third expansion, this time to accommodate a new department for the cutting of perforated piano rolls, called Solodont.
Another floor is added to the entire building and another building is added to the west of the main structure. The new addition brings to the total factory floor space to 100,000 square feet.
Otto Higel employs 450 workers at Bathurst and King.
Otto Higel and Co. is hailed as the most important piano supply house in the British Empire.
Otto Higel dies unexpectedly. His son, Ralph O. Higel, assumes direction of the company, which gradually begins making other products such as cabinets and wooden toys.
A few years after the building was sold while retaining its name, the Otto Higel Co business ceased operation. Son Ralph retired to Montréal, and the building was leased out.
The artful Clocktower Building
Artists and designers move into live-work studio spaces in the old warehouse now known simply as “The Clocktower Building.”
Lands and buildings at 680 King Street West receive historical designation as a property of architectural value or interest under the Ontario Heritage Act.
Artists and designers are evicted from the Clocktower Building to allow for its demolition. The Clocktower Building, like Berkeley Castle in St. Lawrence Market, are run-down but incredible hives of creative activity, that would eventually be lost to the wrecker’s ball or economic revitalization.
Photographer and archivist Patrick Cummins documents the building just prior to demolition. A Space, an artist-run centre, secures permission from owner Murhal Developments to stage an art exhibition called the Terminal Building Project in the Clocktower Building, which invites artists to use the unoccupied building as a gallery. It features an installation, “Toronto’s Fault: The First Tremors (The Ruins of the Silver Bar from the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion)” by General Idea, a world-famous collective active 1967-1994.
In negotiations with the City and the Historical Board, the developer agrees to restore and preserve the original clocktower within its corner structure. However, due to improper securing, the clocktower is left in danger of collapsing on the street, then dismantled, and put into storage.
The Chromazone gallery on Spadina hosts “Site Specifics,” a satirical exhibition of architectural proposals for the King and Bathurst site where the Clocktower Building once stood. Artists who had studios in the Clocktower Building are invited to participate.
A revitalized Westside
Murhal Developments demolish all buildings at 680 King Street West and by 1987 construct a commercial building on the same site that becomes the building frame for the current 700 King Street West. Originally intended to service the garment industry, it ends up hosting the Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada and other commercial tenants, before being sold to a developer.
Our thanks to realtor Laurin Jeffrey for photos from this era.
Westside Lofts are announced as a 210-unit residential conversion at the corner of King and Bathurst, ‘a neighbourhood in transition.’ Units are to feature unusually high ceilings (almost 12 feet in height), grand windows with views of the city skyline or the lake, large spaces, and exposed structural columns and ductwork. The building receives its condo registration in December 2000.
In the years following, significant investments are made to modernize older commercial infrastructure. The rooftop sundeck is expanded to provide 360-degree views of the city, followed by refinishing the building exterior and a new lobby. Efficiency and environmental updates in recent years include a new chiller and hydro vault, along with boiler and lighting system upgrades.
Turning back the clock
The King Street West/Niagara neighbourhood evolves rapidly, and is home to a vibrant mix of urbanites, professionals, and young families. thanks to its proximity to Toronto’s financial, creative, and nightlife sectors.
Amid these changes, Westside Lofts embraces its distinctive character and previous 1960’s-era identity to re-emerge as Clock Tower Lofts, connecting visual elements in its exterior, lobby, and branding with the distinctive King and Bathurst landmark.