He works in one of Summerside's oldest structures, the former Holman's department store. Except, these days, he “plays” with software, as the 41-year-old director of research and development with Carestream Health Canada Co., the first information technology tenant to occupy the revamped building. The Holman Building's transformation is drawing a lot of interest, Mr. Perry says. “You can tell there's excitement there.”
While communities across Canada fight to save pieces of their architectural heritage, Summerside not only has preserved a 19th century landmark, it has brought the structure well into the 21st century with a purpose and environmental features unimaginable a century ago. And, as with many such projects, it is hoped the new Holman Building will help revitalize the downtown.
“It was the heart and soul of Summerside right from the beginning really,” says Arnold Croken, general manager of Summerside Regional Development Corp., owner and developer of the building. The building was gutted and is being retrofitted to serve as a high-tech centre, aiming for businesses such as Carestream that need the wiring, open office concepts and improved heating and ventilation. The 100,000-square-foot building comprises two brick structures built for merchant R.T. Holman. A four-storey section constructed in 1874 initially served as a warehouse. A three-storey section was a store when it was built in the 1890s. A walkway between the two buildings led to Holman's wharf, facilitating trade. The buildings were later joined into one store. The business survived until the 1980s. The building was sold and continued as a retail operation but never returned to the bustling place it had been. Summerside Regional Development – whose shareholders include Prince Edward Island, City of Summerside and the local chamber of commerce, and which develops properties to promote economic growth – hopes to change that.
“The overall focus was that it was probably the greatest asset that we had in the downtown core that could contribute to some revitalization,” Mr. Croken says. “There were some people that were of the mind that it should be torn down and build a new building; and there were others – and I think others were the majority – who wanted it retained and it brought back to life.” Summerside Regional Development bought the building in 2007 and began a three-year project to create a home for high-tech and IT tenants in particular.
The budget for the purchase and renovation is $7.2-million. Mr. Croken says the purchase came only after weighing environmental assessment and engineering reports.
“We looked at the reports and felt that the building didn't have any huge surprises.” The building's greatest strength is its structural integrity, in particular the 28- to 30-centimetre-thick brick walls set on a stone foundation. Creating office space from a department store that had a number of add-ons over the years necessitated gutting the floors. Stripping down the interior allowed for reconfiguration of space, and made for easier installation of wiring and communications systems.
“In that respect, it was almost like working with a new building,” Mr. Croken says. In other respects, the age showed: Ceiling joists had cracked, so a new roof was installed and the insulation needed upgrading. Wooden floors – in some cases once packed with barley from barter trading – needed levelling so office chairs wouldn't roll away from desks. Mr. Croken says the corporation has tried to maintain historic features: bricked-in windows have been opened, archways that once separated store departments have been maintained, interior brick has been sandblasted and sealed to preserve where possible, hand-hewn beams and rough timber have been left exposed.
“We've combined the old and the new,” he says, stressing the project isn't pure restoration. “We've just tried to retain as much of the heritage characteristics of this building as we possibly could.” In addition, the Holman Building is being equipped with environmental features, such as geothermal cooling and heating. There are plans for a holding tank to collect water runoff for irrigation and to create a sitting area on the roof with some space for plants and shrubs. With two-thirds of the work complete, Mr. Croken feels confident the building will come within the overall $7.2-million budget. The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency contributed $1-million; the rest is from or borrowed by Summerside Regional Development. Mr. Croken says the cost should amount to $80 to $85 a square foot, compared with an estimated $110 to $120 for new construction.
“This wasn't more expensive to save this building.” Carestream Health, part of the Onex Corp. empire, leases about 8,500 square feet for developing radiology information software and supporting radiology information systems in hospitals around the world. Mr. Perry describes the Holman Building as a good fit: The company needed to expand, liked downtown convenience and had a relationship with Summerside Regional Development. The open concept space and exposed brick, wooden beams and HVAC and wiring systems, also foster creativity, he says.
“Aesthetically, it's quite appealing for people. They like the warehouse environment.” It is allowing Carestream to expand, he adds, “but also helping the city to do what they need to do to grow the downtown.” PEI has announced a $7-million investment in a facility there for companies such as Carestream to test software. Mr. Croken describes that lab, planned for 2009, as a “magnet” to attract other tenants. While its new life is decidedly high-tech, the Holman Building still harks to its mercantile days, with a farmer's market in part of the basement.
Summerside Mayor Basil Stewart, who also fondly recalls trips to the Holman's toy department as a youngster, says the building will be a key element in downtown revival. “We look forward to having it as a beehive of activity, as it was 100 years ago.”