Heritage and business coexist at Thorold’s The Post Office

By Paul Forsyth – Niagara This Week – Thorold

Transformation of historic building into The Post Office wins prestigious Niagara Community Design Award

THOROLD — There’s a stone capping on the upper cornice of Thorold’s former downtown post office that you can barely see, but to Shannon Passero and others who think heritage is something that must be cherished and protected, it’s a source of pride.

Passero, who opened her new retail outlet for her acclaimed line of clothing along with home furnishings, décor and gifts in the historically designated building on Front Street last summer, knows everything there is to know about that capping. That’s because she had multiple meetings with officials from the city and with volunteers with Heritage Thorold — the city’s architectural conservation advisory committee — to make sure the capping was an exact match for the building’s façade.

That attention to detail also resonates throughout the building erected in the Great Depression by the federal government as the Dominion Government Building, from the repaired, original black marble and the restored doors to the painstaking scraping of window sills so they could be repainted in the original slate blue.

Silvergate Homes, the firm owned by the family of Passero’s husband Mike, restored the 6,500-square foot building now known as The Post Office, two years after also restoring the historic former fire hall in downtown Thorold that is now home to Passero’s design studio.

In March, The Post Office was named co-winner of the prestigious annual Niagara Community Design Award in the adaptive re-use category, along with Brock University’s $45.5-million Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts that transformed the former Canada Hair Cloth in St. Catharines.

Passero said being co-winner with a project the scale of the textile mill project, which has played a key role in the dramatic transformation of the former lower level parking lot behind St. Paul Street that for decades had been an eyesore from Highway 406, is astounding.

“It’s a little bit overwhelming to say the least,” she said.

Passero said she was honoured to have been nominated by the city, and credited senior city planner Lola Emberson for putting together the comprehensive nomination that took days to complete.

Passero said it’s a reflection of the City of Thorold’s commitment to the preservation of heritage buildings as a fundamental building block of the downtown’s remarkable renaissance, through such things as the wildly successful façade improvement program it offers in partnership with the Region.

Passero said the moment she walked though the doors of the imposing former post office building, vacant for more than a decade, she knew it could be come a jewel in the downtown. She’s now drawing customers from across Niagara and as far away as Mississauga and London, despite the opening of the massive new Outlet Collection nearby along the QEW in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

 “There are many choices and people are choosing to come to us for the experience,” she said. “We’ve become a destination.”

Heritage Thorold chair Craig Finlay announced in February that Passero and her husband are winners of a new class of awards launched by the group to honour people and groups for outstanding work in heritage preservation and restoration.

Finlay told city council that Passero and her husband could have set up shop anywhere but chose downtown Thorold.
“They didn’t tear down an existing, old building and build a new one,” said Finlay. “They didn’t go to a mall in St. Catharines.

“They understand that business and heritage can not only coexist, but they can greatly benefit each other.”

Passero’s restoration of the two historic buildings is also featured prominently in the new edition of Heritage magazine, a nationally distributed publication of the National Trust for Canada.

The article refers to downtown Thorold as ‘The Comeback Kid’ that’s attracting new businesses and visitors.

Pamela Minns, secretary-treasurer for Heritage Thorold who Passero said played a key role in getting the magazine to feature her projects, said the article is important for Thorold and other communities in Canada trying to re-invent their downtowns.

“(It) will serve to set an example to other communities across the country about what can be done to revitalize a downtown, and…it will attract visitors and tourists to our city,” said Minns.

Passero said restoring the old post office was “good business and a good investment,” but said the added expense of working on an old building and meeting strict criteria to ensure historically correct work was something she and her husband felt was worth it.

“We did it for the love of the building,” she said. “It goes hand in hand with our business philosophy.

 “It’s as broad as shopping local and wanting to be in a thriving downtown and the importance of something different.”

Passero, who just returned from a three-week trip to Thailand where she worked alongside women who produce her clothing in ethical and sustainable conditions, scouring markets for unique products, and spending a day with a Thai family that makes one-of-a-kind, hand-punched brass jewelry for her, said standing out in a world of cookie cutter big-box stores seems to be striking a cord with customers.

 “There are so many people coming and saying, ‘gosh, I haven’t been in Thorold in awhile,’ ” she said. “We’ve had a lot of community support.

“It’s very humbling.”