The building used to be painted an undesirable mustard-yellow. Now it’s known more for the golden ales and lagers poured inside.
In Ottawa’s Centretown neighbourhood, about 10 minutes south of Parliament Hill, Flora Hall Brewing – a craft brewpub serving up nine styles of beer and a menu of shareable snacks – has opened its doors to residents to much fanfare. In just a few months, more than 15,000 customers have imbibed.
Much of the charm of the community brewery is thanks to the changes to its 90-year-old building, and Flora Hall is one example of craft breweries across Canada taking on mid-century structures and turning them into modern spaces for food and drink.
The 4,440-square-foot heritage building in Ottawa was first home to Welch and Johnston, an engineering firm. It was then leased to two garages, one specifically for motorcycles and the other for cars and trucks. A proposal in 2004 to make 37 Flora St. into a multilevel apartment complex fell through, and it sat empty for nearly 15 years (with its fading yellow facade) before Flora Hall founder and owner Dave Longbottom bought the building with capital he had from starting, then selling, a number of Ottawa-based businesses over the past three decades.
He transformed the space by adding a separate area for brewing, a commercial kitchen, and two floors of drinking and eating space. He was pleasantly surprised during renovations to discover hardwood floors in the upper level of the hall – a memento from the original Welch and Johnston business. He kept them.
There were constraints in renovating the heritage structure, however.
He wasn’t able to change the shape or the location of the openings of the building (the front facade is almost all glass windows and doors), but he “loved” that charm. The bigger problems came with the amount of work he had to do.
“I had to go right down to the bare bones,” says Mr. Longbottom, who had to add all new infrastructure to make a workable brewery, including three-phase power, a bigger water supply, and a bigger gas supply.
“That was the most challenging part, but working with an old building was a pleasure because that’s the only way you get this kind of end result. You can’t build this from scratch. The challenges were there, but they also yielded a great finished product.”
Mr. Longbottom, who has an engineering degree from Queen’s University in Kingston, says he had the time, the means and the desire to take on the challenge of renovating a heritage building for the Ottawa market. Ottawa, he says, has a thirst for community breweries.
“The building was waiting for someone to come along with a vision for the place and the money to implement that vision,” he says. “It wasn’t a place you could lease. If I had this business and I rolled up here and just rented this building, it wouldn’t have made economic sense.”
According to Mr. Longbottom, the commercial and residential neighbours have been nothing but supportive. There were growing pains during construction, but since he took over a building that was sitting empty and acting as a drag on property values, they were happy to see their neighbourhood get a bit of a boost.
And no one apparently minds the smell, either.
“It smells amazing. The whole street smells like beer,” he says. “The other neighbours are Kentucky Fried Chicken and Domino’s Pizza, so I think our stuff smells better than that.”
Mr. Longbottom says he’s already had people visit who used to have their motorcycles serviced at the now-beer hall. He’s also been in discussions with one of the descendants of the original Welch and Johnston founders to come for a visit and see how the building was repurposed.
“This place has 100 years of history. It wasn’t 100 years of history as a brewery, but it was 100 years in this neighbourhood. You can’t reproduce that,” he says. “It feels like it’s been here for a while… because it has been.”
Dave Longbottom is the opening speaker for the 2018-19 season of Heritage Ottawa's Free Lecture Series. Join us at the Ottawa Public Library for:
Flora Hall Brewing: Crafting the Future of a Derelict Building | September 27, 2018
This article has been condensed for brevity.