Meyer May House

Side view of the Meyer May House
Side view of the Meyer May House. Image by Jaydec, CC BY-SA 3.0.

During a recent trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan I had the opportunity to visit the Meyer May House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  The house was commissioned in 1908 by Meyer S. May and was built between 1908-1909 by Wright.  It is considered an example of Wright’s Prairie School era work.  In 1985 Steelcase, a Michigan based furniture company, purchased the Meyer May house and worked to restore the house to how it looked when the May family moved in 1910.  The house is operated as a historic site by Steelcase and is open to the public for free tours.

My visit to the house was fantastic – it included watching a video about the restoration process and an hour long guided tour of the house itself.  The video of the restoration process can be found in clip format on the Meyer May website.  The video highlighted the archival research that went into finding documentation on the original exterior design, furniture, and interior decorations of the house.  It discussed how photographs were used to supplement blueprint and textual records about the house.  The video also showcased the work of conservators, artisans and experts that went into reconstructing things like paint colours, murals, carpets, and light fixtures that were designed by Wright.

The docent who led my group was extremely well informed about the architectural styles, Wright’s influences, and the house itself. The tour docents are all volunteers and I was blown away by their professionalism and expertise on the house.  It was interested to learn about how the family lived in the home, the impact the family’s personalities had on Wright’s design, and the restoration work that has gone into preserving this history.  I was also a bit surprised by how busy the site was. There was around 15 people in our tour group and there was at minimum three or four other tour groups running at the same time.

I would highly recommend this tour to anyone interested in built heritage or the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.  We scheduled an extra day in Grand Rapids just so we could take the tour and it was well worth the effort.

Brewing Monopoly in Ontario: Northern Breweries Ltd.

Soo Falls Brewing Company, Sault Ste Marie, 1932. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries
Soo Falls Brewing Company, Sault Ste Marie, 1932. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries

Northern Breweries Ltd. was a Canadian brewing company founded in 1907 by the Doran, Mackey, and Fee families. Located in Northern Ontario the company played a significant role in many northern communities and the built history of these facilities are still being considered locally.

The company originally started in Sudbury as the Sudbury Brewing and Malting Co. in 1907.  They later expanded throughout Northern Ontario by purchasing Soo Falls Brewing Co in Sault Ste Marie in 1911, Kakabeka Falls Brewing Co. in Fort William in 1913, in 191 they established a division in Timmins, and in 1948 they purchased the Port Arthur Beverage Co.

Prior to 1960 each of these breweries operated under their independent names.  In 1960 they were amalgamated and became collectively known as Northern Breweries.  Each of these local operations have distinct community based histories but the Northern Breweries company as a whole also has a history that has implications outside of the communities it operated in.

From 1942 to 1992 the breweries eventually known as Northern Breweries had a monopoly on draught beer in Northern Ontario.  If you were at a bar in the North and asked for a pint you got Northern Breweries beer. The first 30 years of this monopoly was provided by an agreement amongst brewers and the LCBO.  The last 20 years of protection was mandated under Ontario provincial legislation.

The Second World War resulted in the protected Northern Ontario draught market. The Wartime Alcoholic Beverages Order limited brewery production and to limit transportation resources in May 1942, wide distribution of beer in Ontario and Quebec was prohibited. Specifically, the order proclaimed,

No brewer shall sell or offer for sale or deliver any draught beer, ale, stout or porter which has been brewed in any brewery in the Province of Quebec or in any part of Ontario lying to the south of the 46th parallel of latitude, to any retail liquor store or place which is situated in any part of Ontario lying to the north of said parallel of latitude.

A similar provision prohibited breweries north of the 46th parallel from selling to the south. This measure effectively ensured the protection of Doran’s draught market. When WWII ended the Wartime order ceased however brewers and the LCBO continued to respect the artificial line separating Northern Ontario from Southern Ontario brewers.[i]

This informal agreement was brought into question in the 1970s with the sale of Northern Breweries to Canadian Breweries Limited.  This sale fundamentally changed the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ and Southern brewers indicated new interest in selling in the North.

In 1972 Arthur Wishart authored “Report of the Inquiry Into the Brewing Industry, Northern Ontario by A.A. Wishart” on the daught brewing industry in Northern Ontario that looked at the economic and social impacts of opening the North to competition.  Brewing in the North came a point of public debate.  The report emphasized the geographic nature of Northern Ontario and the high cost of shipping draught beer to the North, suggesting that the Southern brewers had little to gain from Northern expansion.

The fact that in 1972 the Ontario government passed legislation that essentially made Doran’s Northern Breweries a monopoly in the North is somewhat unusual.  The main argument for keeping the monopoly was the need to preserve Northern Ontario jobs and the potential negative socio-economic that allowing draught competition would bring. It also highlighted the contributions from the North to Provincial and Federal coffers and Doran’s submission to the report emphasized the role of the brewer in Northern communities and its place as a good ‘corporate citizen.’ Ultimately the monopoly was preserved because the Ontario government was “committed to a policy of encouraging industry to locate in northern Ontario.” Regional development took precedence over free enterprise.[ii]

Even with the protected draught market Doran’s sales began to drop. Coinciding with this decline in sales, in 1977 employees of Doran’s Northern Ontario Breweries purchased the Company from Canadian Breweries becoming the first employee owned brewing company in North America. Under this new leadership the company began to market outside of Northern Ontario. In the 1980s craft brewing also developed in Ontario creating a whole new set of regulatory discussions on the provincial level.

By the 1990s Northern businesses wanted to offer a wider range of draught beer. Starting in 1991 licensees were able purchase draught outside of the North if they transported it themselves. In 1992 the draught market in Sudbury was opened to all brewers, the rest of Northern Ontario followed in 1993.

The 1990s saw the decline of Northern Breweries sales even further. A revival of the company was attempted in 2004 when it was purchased and rebranded by an investment group. But in 2006 Northern Breweries closed its doors for the last time.

Today, many of the communities which housed Northern Breweries buildings are considering how to preserve this part of their local labour history.  In Sault Ste Marie, Riversedge Developments purchased the historical ‘Brewery Block’ and is in the midst of tearing down parts of the building and working on adaptive reuse plans for other portions of the site. Right now the Soo Falls brewing stack still stands as a reminder to locals of the rich brewing history in Sault Ste Marie.

[i] Daryl White. “Draught, Development, and Discourse: The Northern Ontario Draught Beer Monopoly, 1972-92.” Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes 47, no. 2 (2013): 5-28.

[ii] Wishart, A.A. 1972. Report of the Inquiry Into the Brewing Industry, Northern_Ontario. by A.A. Wishart Q.C. n.p.: Toronto: : s.n, 1972., 1972.

Days Gone By: Built Heritage and Church Closures

Memories can be deeply connected to a specific place or building. When a place that is the foundation of many memories is closed, dismantled, or significantly changed it can be challenging for those who hold the place dear.  Last week I attended the closing service a local united church.  It was an emotional and moving morning that highlighted the power of place to invoke collective memory.

The closure of this church is not unique – United Churches (and churches of all the main stream Christian denominations) are struggling across Canada with declining membership and declining financial resources.  The closure of United Churches is currently so common place that the United Church of Canada (UCC) has published a Liturgy for the Closing of a Church and has openly discussed how to support congregations that seeing their church building being closed.

The service I attended borrowed bit from the liturgy published by the UCC. There were many opportunities for people to share memories about the building and much laughter and a few tears were seen throughout the morning.  The building was full to capacity with extra seating added in the aisle and people standing at the back.  A stark change from the average Sunday of recent years where 15-20 people in attendance was the norm.

The huge number of people who returned from far away or who came from neighbouring communities to attend the closing speaks to the importance of place and how memories are often intertwined with built heritage.  Churches were once meeting places for communities, locations where all important life events were marked, and central in the day to day functioning of communities.

As congregations dwindle or amalgamate the question of what to do with the church building comes to forefront.  Deciding the fate of a building that is so connected to a community’s identity is not an easy task.  Discussions around church closure can divide congregations and be emotional for all involved.  Place is a powerful thing.

In the case of the little white church in Little Rapids the congregation has amalgamated with another local United Church and will worship in a larger church ten minutes away.  These two congregations had been part of a two-point pastoral charge for a number of years and have been holding joint services for the past few years.  This may not make the loss of a building any easier but it perhaps makes the congregational transition easier.

For now the  church still sits intact – the portable furnishings will be re-purposed -but the exterior of the building remains untouched.  A for sale sign sits on the front lawn and the future of the building sits in limbo.  For now the closed church sits as visual reminder for the local community of days gone by.