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Exploring the Commercial Landscape of Waterloo

While the majority of municipally listed and designated properties in Waterloo feature residential buildings, our city has fine examples of commercial buildings as well, many of which are located on King Street. In her book Waterloo Township through Two Centuries, Elizabeth Bloomfield noted King Street was the “axis of early settlement and economic activity”. Linking John Erb’s mills in Preston to Abraham Erb’s mills in Waterloo, King had been known as the Great Road and is now part of the commercial core in Uptown Waterloo.

1880 Bird's Eye View

This aerial drawing, circa 1880, shows the Town of Waterloo. The commercial core can be seen to the left of the centre of the map. Ellis Little Local History Room, Waterloo Public Library.

Types of commercial buildings seen in the second half of the nineteenth century included retail stores, warehouses, banks and office buildings. Stores were often three or four storeys in height, with ground floor shops and large display windows. Storage, offices or residential units were located on upper floors with square-headed windows. Office buildings, as a distinct building type, were common in Canada circa the 1880s. Early banks commonly featured Classical Revival detailing such as temple fronts. Other early architectural styles that can be seen in commercial buildings include Renaissance Revival (ornately decorative gables and detailing), Regency (arcading), Romanesque Revival (arched openings, arcading and rusticated stone bases), and Italianate (flat roofs, dominant cornices, and paired or tripartite round-headed windows).

A style that was popular at the turn of the century was Edwardian Classicism, which contains Classical features such as colonettes, voussoirs, and keystones that are understated and used sparingly. Beaux Arts influences, derived from Classical elements, were introduced post-1900. The purpose of utilizing this style was to indicate the owner of a building was wealthy and educated. In the case of banks, using the Beaux Arts style with large columns, cornices and lush ornamentation was meant to give the impression that the facility would be safe and secure for clients to conduct monetary transactions.

12 Bridgeport Road East

A 2018 photograph of 12 Bridgeport Road East (at Regina Street North).

12 Bridgeport Road East is an example of a three-storey buff brick former factory, constructed in 1903, that has been altered and is now used as an apartment building. It is listed on the Municipal Heritage Register and is one of the few remaining factory structures from the early 1900s in Waterloo. The boot and shoe factory operated under different owners and managers throughout the first half of the twentieth century, and the machines and workers were moved to the Greb Shoe Company’s Kitchener plant in 1940. The building was subdivided into smaller units in 1962 for start-up companies and dubbed an “Idea Factory”. Other factories of the era included Waterloo Manufacturing (1889), the Seagram distillery (1857), the Kuntz Brewery (1844) and the Roschman button factory (1878).

The Art Deco style emerged at the end of the First World War, and consciously broke from the past and largely from historic references. It was once a popular architectural style for commercial storefronts and offices, as well as cinemas and high density residential blocks. The Waterloo Theatre is the only Art Deco-style building in Uptown Waterloo. It was constructed in 1930 and featured a prominent marquee (although the large vertical sign in the photograph below is no longer extant), decorative stone carvings and hexagonal window openings. A Fire Insurance Plan from 1942 indicates that at that time, the stage was located at the rear of the structure. In 1963, the property owner applied for a building permit to relocate the box office to the rear of the lobby and install two new doors, replacing the existing four doors. The building was used for live theatre for a period, when Waterloo Stage Theatre opened in 1995. However, after nine years, Waterloo Stage Theatre closed and reopened as Beta, a nightclub, in 2010; Beta closed in 2017.

Waterloo Theatre.jpg

This photograph from 1952 shows the Art Deco-style Waterloo Theatre at 16-24 King Street North. A Clarke Gable film is advertised on the marquee. Ellis Little Local History Room, Waterloo Public Library.

Modern styles, from the mid-1930s on, are generally plainer with a focus on the function of the unit. A significant modernist commercial complex in Waterloo is the Sun Life Financial complex, formerly Mutual Assurance Co. of Canada (227 King Street South, excluding the 1912 Italianate palazzo). Modernist elements of the complex include the 1953 brick wing (Jenkins & Wright), the 1967 and 1976 precast concrete block (Marani, Rounthwaite, Dick) and the 1987 glass and concrete tower (Horton & Ball, Walter Fedy McCargar Hachborn).

Sun Life Financial.jpg

A 2017 photograph of the Sun Life Financial complex, formerly Mutual Assurance Co. of Canada, looking northwest.

Do you have a favourite commercial building in Waterloo?

Written with information from the resources below.


The Buildings of Canada by Barbara A. Humphreys and Meredith Sykes

Canadian Architecture: 1867-1914 by Christopher Thomas

City of Waterloo Municipal Heritage Register

A History of Canadian Architecture by Harold Kalman

Images of Progress 1946-1996: Modern Architecture in Waterloo Region, edited by Steven Mannell

Ontario Architecture

Waterloo Township through Two Centuries by Elizabeth Bloomfield