New lease on life for historic fire hall

She’s a Welland gal who was living in St. Catharines, but Shannon Passero had been hearing chatter about a remarkable Renaissance taking place in the commercial core of neighbouring Thorold.

So when it came time to look for a new home for the design studio of her two clothing lines, she decided to see what all the fuss was about and headed to downtown Thorold with her husband Mike.

After an espresso at the Panini Cafe, one of a growing number of upscale businesses opening in newly restored, historic buildings in the core, Passero walked outside and found herself staring up at an eye-catching red-and-yellow brick building on Albert Street right next door. It was Thorold’s historic former fire hall, dating back to 1878.

“I said this was the type of building that would make me move,” said Passero, whose design studio was operating out of her home in Old Glenridge at the time. “I said I wanted a building just like that. I was literally pointing right at it.”

She walked a little closer to the building, which operated as a fire station for 86 years and which used to house Thorold’s license bureau on the first floor before the province closed it. The building was vacant, but it had a piece of masking tape attached to a door reading ‘in an emergency call Grant,’ with a phone number.

‘Grant’ was Grant Sauder, an architect who’d owned the building since the 1970s and who’d done restoration work on it earlier. Passero contacted Sauder and told him if he ever considered selling the building, which has been designated as historically significant by the province, she was interested.

Passero, who in 1998 co-founded a clothing line that makes the Pure Handknit line of hand-knitted sweaters — and who launched her Neon Buddha line of lifestyle clothing for work, home, travel and yoga in 2006 — soon found herself owning one of Thorold’s most cherished historical structures.

“It was like love at first sight,” she said of discovering the building, with its arched windows and tower where a bell once summoned firefighters to battle blazes long before the advent of cars. “It’s such a landmark.

“I say that the building found me. I just love everything about this building.”

Her husband’s family’s company, Silvergate Homes, carried out a restoration project that transformed the old fire hall into a first-floor retail outlet offering an eclectic collection of her own clothing lines and other clothes, accessories, gifts, home furnishings and decor that Passero purchases on frequent trips to Europe and Southeast Asia. On the second floor, a spacious new design studio has been created.

Passero added several new staff members, bringing 10 jobs to downtown Thorold.

The restoration work included converting the original outside doors into interior sliding doors, recycling the old Thorold post office counter top, importing an old general store cash register, incorporating antique furnishings and installing new windows while maintaining the historic integrity of the building with input from representatives of Heritage Thorold, the city’s architectural conservation advisory committee.

Passero said one of the original outside lights was also found in the basement, where there are still windowless jail cells where unfortunate prisoners in the 1800s ended up. That light, and a second replica modelled after it, were re-installed outside.

Passero, whose clothing lines are sold internationally at upscale boutiques and have been spotted on stars like Gwyneth Paltrow, is also putting together a wall of framed, historic photos of the fire hall donated by the Protection Hose Company No. 1.

“They’ve been very generous,” she said of the volunteer fire department.

While her business continues to grow, Passero’s core philosophy of producing clothing in an ethical and sustainable way won’t budge, she said.

While the recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed 1,127 garment workers shone a spotlight on the use of low-paid labour in poor countries by major clothing manufacturers, Passero’s business is featured prominently in a spread in the current issue of Canadian fashion magazine Elle for its commitment to good working conditions with an environmentally friendly approach.

Passero recently returned from one of five or so annual trips she makes to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, where some 4,500 knitters produce her clothing out of rural, home-based workshops for 14 hand-knitting co-ops. The company model allows the women, who receive decent wages, maternity leave, paid health care and continuing education, the chance to make money without having to leave their families and toil in factories in cities hours away. The company also operates a factory there, with an emphasis on ‘green’ initiatives including a new dye plant that’s pollution-free.

Passero, whose new Thorold enterprise has an official ribbon cutting on Monday, July 15, said downtown Thorold residents and business owners have made her feel like one of their own.

“The community reaction has been amazing,” she said. “There’s so much excitement about the restoration.

“Thorold has just gone above and beyond to welcome us.”

Niagara This Week – Thorold – By Paul Forsyth