A recognized heritage building in downtown is getting a new lease on life thanks to a St. John’s businessman who prides himself on redeveloping undervalued commercial properties.
Vic Lawlor has purchased the former Newfoundland Clothing Factory building at 275 Duckworth St. with plans to turn the 106-year-old building into a 40-room boutique hotel.
“As soon as I walked into it, the view you’ve got of the harbour, it’s just made for a hotel,” Lawlor says of the 28,000-square-foot, six-floor building.
“I think I’m going to call it the Factory Hotel, incorporating the original history of the building.”
Lawlor, who hopes to have 20 rooms ready for next summer, also plans to include a small restaurant, a local art gallery and hopefully a rooftop patio. Half the rooms, he says, will be one-bedroom suites with full kitchens complete with granite countertops.
He purchased the building for $3.5 million and expects the final bill will come in around the $5 million mark once the interior renovations are completed.
If this seems low, that’s because the previous owners have done the heavy lifting in terms of bringing the building, which has been vacant since 2010, up to snuff.
“The place has been gutted, so it’s basically only to frame some walls. The new HVAC system’s already on it, new elevator in it, the main lobby is done.”
The previous owners, a group known as ZRCH Duckworth Street Inc., contracted Woodford Sheppard Architecture Ltd. to design and oversee extensive renovations and restoration about five years ago, being sure to maintain as many of the classic revival architectural styles as possible while bringing the building up to code.
Inside, they created a new accessible lobby, installed a new elevator, and restored the original staircase, woodwork and railings. Outside, the building got a paint job, the oak front door and exterior mouldings were restored, and masonry was parged and painted.
The Factory will be the latest new hotel to open in the downtown in recent years, following Jag, Luxus, Franklin and the newly opened Alt Hotel.
But Lawlor isn’t concerned that the area is getting too crowded for his hotel to survive.
“I have no doubt, based on the numbers I’ve crunched, (that) I should be able to make a go of it.
“It’s going to be a beautiful hotel, and I’d compare it to any hotel down there once it gets done. There’ll be a nice feel to it, you’re right in the heart of downtown, you’re right by Solomon’s lane, so you can walk out and go on Water street or Duckworth.”
The Factory Hotel is the latest redevelopment of an undervalued property Lawlor has undertaken.
He purchased Ropewalk Plaza about four years ago and breathed new life into the strip mall that had been stagnant since Dominion left for a standalone building on Blackmarsh Road in the early 2000s.
“I came over and bought it less than four years ago, kicked the bars out and tried to bring in some community-minded businesses, then brought in Burger King and KFC and everyone’s loving it. People in the neighborhood enjoy it, it’s a nice community and the traffic is huge here.”
Other new businesses include a Filipino restaurant, a barbershop, a small gym and a secondhand clothing store.
“The most gratification I get is when people who lived all their life in the area come to me and say, ‘This is the nicest I’ve ever seen the place.’”
And Lawlor isn’t done in the area. He purchased the vacant plot of land at the corner of Cashin Avenue and Pennywell Road — once home to an Irving gas station and garage — as well as an adjacent property that was home to a podiatry clinic.
Work is already underway laying the foundation for an 8,500-square-foot building that Lawlor says already has the interest of two or three national chains.
Intricately woven history
The building at 275 Duckworth St. was originally built as the new home of the Newfoundland Clothing Factory. Owned by Moses Mayers, the company specialized in making custom suits and other clothing for men.
At the time of its construction, the building was something of a technological marvel with its state-of-the-art sprinkler system and clothing machinery that made production quicker and cheaper.
“It’s amazing what they built in the early 1900s without the equipment we have now,” says Vic Lawlor, the building’s new owner, who plans to turn it into a boutique hotel.
Even journalists of the time marvelled at its wonders.
“The button-holing machine is another automatic wonder,” Warwick Smith wrote in The Newfoundland Magazine in November 1919. “By pressing a lever a round knife comes down with a certain amount of force and cuts a small slit where the cloth has been previously marked for the buttonhole. The machine then sews around the buttonhole with a specially strong thread. An expert hand-sewer can make eight buttonholes per hour. This machine can make as high as a hundred and fifty.”
The factory stayed open into the mid 1950s, when The Evening Telegram moved in and stayed until 1981.
In the mid-1980s, Compu College moved in and stayed until 2010. The building has been mostly vacant ever since.