In 2018, I left the city I had lived in for over fifty years. Rapid redevelopment was transforming Toronto into a place that felt increasingly unfamiliar and unaffordable at a time when I was experiencing a lot of change and looking for stability. It was a momentous move, and one I made alone.
I knew Hamilton only as a place glimpsed from the highway, its eastern waterfront of steel manufacturing plants like something from the Industrial Age or a dystopian film set. But Hamilton was also undergoing substantial change, and still is, a renaissance of sorts that is attracting creative people like myself. I took a closer look, saw its beauty, and decided to call it home. The first thing to welcome me was a modern office tower made of steel that stands at the centre of the city. Mighty and yet modest, at least until the late day sunlight sets its tinted windows aglow, Stelco Tower has a fetching Goldilocks quality. Not too big and not too small, it’s just right.
As I settled in and began to explore, Stelco Tower became a kind of lighthouse, both geographically and emotionally. By observing and photographing the building — in effect, developing a relationship with it — I began to find my footing. By sharing these images on Instagram, with the lyrics of love songs as captions, I introduced myself to the local community as someone who appreciates their city. Which was now mine as well. Invited to parties and events, I went solo but brought my enthusiasm for Stelco Tower, which I gushed about when asked how I was liking Hamilton. The reaction, even from local architects, was often bemusement and, I sensed, bewilderment — is it really that special? To me, it was just as surprising that some people had barely registered the building’s existence. This benign or dim awareness of Stelco Tower only fuelled my own passion. In one sense, I had it to myself. In another, it was my chance to champion it. My mission, even.
I’m publishing this book in 2023 to commemorate the building I love as it turns fifty years old. Though the photographs reflect my personal and artistic perspective, they reveal Stelco Tower’s importance in Hamilton, while also documenting the city in the midst of transformation. “Stelco Tower at Jackson Square” introduces the building at close range in the context of the sprawling and deserted podium plaza that wraps around it. Over time, my walks expanded beyond the downtown, though my lighthouse was usually within sight. In “Stelco Tower in the City,” the images showcase the building as an omnipresent landmark. Documenting it from afar and from all directions, the series of 50 views also illustrates the prosaic charms of the surrounding streets and landscapes. The photographs in “Stelco Tower and Me” show my relationship to the building both at arm’s length and from blocks away. It’s a story of love and belonging that evolved through the pandemic and with the happy ending I had dreamed of.
Urban architecture has value in our lives beyond the obvious physical and aesthetic aspects. It plays a part in our emotional experiences and can thrill, depress, invite, or intimidate. It can make us feel connected to or alienated from the city and from one another. These images tell the story of a rewarding relationship between one particular person and one particular building in one particular city. My hope is that this book, though perhaps esoteric and peculiar, inspires others to consider and appreciate their own connections to exceptional buildings and places in their lives.
Stelco Tower, now officially called 100 King Street West, is a 26-storey modern office building designed by C.F. Lau Architects. It meets the city sidewalk on its south side and on the other three is built into the one-storey Jackson Square podium. Standing on the spacious podium is the best way to appreciate the tower at near range. Whatever I might have been feeling as a newcomer to Hamilton on any given day, I could always count on Stelco Tower for a sense of rationality and permanence — architecture as reassuring counterpoint to the uncertainties of human experience. Of course, there’s also the awe that tall structures evoke as they dwarf us. And like any good modern building, it exemplifies the “less is more” dictum. The building’s beauty emanates from its form, façade, and details, the result of clever and economical design and engineering based on practical considerations like lateral wind loads and the needs of commercial tenants.
What makes this tower special is the material it’s made of inside and out: steel. The use of steel honours its significance to Hamilton’s growth in the 20th Century, not to mention the building’s first and eponymous tenant, Stelco, one of the city’s two steel companies. Created specifically for the building, the exterior steel is an alloy called Stelcoloy which, through repeated exposure to the weather, is designed to rust in a way that protects its structural properties. Initially a bluish hue, it weathered to bright orange, then light brown, and eventually to the current dark burgundy-brown captured in these photographs.
When completed in 1973, the tower reigned as the highest in Hamilton, but only until huge and homely Landmark Place stole that title a year later. On its 50th birthday, Stelco Tower is the third tallest building but, given the slew of condominiums planned for the downtown, not for long.
One of the ways I coped with settling in a new city on my own was to seek comfort in the familiar. For me, that’s modern design. It’s a connection that began in childhood, thanks to my architect father, with visits and vacation pitstops to contemporary and brutalist buildings, and evolved through my education and professional career in landscape architecture, which I no longer practice. Modernism is my psychic homeland and urban landscapes, which I’m conditioned to notice and analyze, strongly impact my day-to-day experiences. Combine that with an affinity for unconventional ideas and aesthetics, honed in an alternative-culture-immersed youth, and it’s no wonder I gravitated to Stelco Tower, on the Lloyd D. Jackson Square podium.
This setting — a vast, mostly uninhabited series of plaza spaces with crumbling vintage concrete pavers, a multitude of garbage receptacles, and, in recent times, wildly overgrown plants — has an alluring nowhere-land atmosphere. Anyone I encountered was either taking a shortcut or a smoke break, getting drunk or high or riding out a psychotic episode. Then there were the young couples enjoying a quiet place to talk and flirt in relative privacy. Despite visiting at all hours of the day (I avoided night for safety reasons), I rarely saw lunching office workers, guests of the hotel, patrons of the cinema, library, and Farmers’ Market, or people going to events at the First Ontario Centre. And that’s probably because they were rarely there, if at all. Which is a shame, given that the sprawling podium unites Stelco Tower with an impressive and diverse cluster of civic and commercial functions.
But the podium served me well as a peaceful place to commune in solitude with Stelco Tower and take photographs. During pandemic lockdowns, the emptiness intensified both my isolation — I lived alone — and the strange new reality. Fortunately, those moments in the company of a tall, dark, and silent building provided a kind of surrogate experience for the companionship of a life partner I didn’t at the time have.
Like me, most of the people using the podium are probably too new to the city or too young to remember the creation of Lloyd D. Jackson Square as a significant sore point in the city’s history. This bold urban renewal project necessitated a lot of destruction: century-old buildings and portions of streets were removed in the late 1960s to make way for the monolithic 17.4 hectare (43 acre) development which is privately owned on civic land. The Jackson Square podium opened in 1972, followed by Stelco Tower a year later. This first phase also included the bank pavilion along James Street North (now occupied by MacMaster University) and the shopping mall. The other phases were: the Eaton Centre (later Hamilton City Centre and slated for demolition in 2023 to make way for condominium towers); the Library and Farmers’ Market, built in 1980; an office tower with a soaring atrium, also designed by C.F. Lau and opened in 1983; and a hotel completed in 1985, currently the Sheraton. Phase 6 was planned as four residential towers that would have animated the podium with neighbourhood life. Instead, the remaining section of the site was completed in 1985 as Copps Coliseum (now First Ontario Centre), with little programmatic relationship to the podium level.
The podium is accessible only by high staircases that don’t indicate much about where they will take you. But for the adventurous few who make the climb, the grand scale of the sprawling plaza and landscaped spaces at the top is surprising to encounter in a small urban centre — though perhaps fitting for a place that, since the 19th Century, has called itself the “Ambitious City.” Though in its early years, the Jackson Square podium was active with programmed events like concerts — legendary local punk band Teenage Head played there — it ultimately failed as a public space, as did countless similar ones of that era, because it is physically and visually separated from the street, where civic life thrives.
Over time, economic realities diminished the vitality of the entire development. As in other cities, suburban malls drew customers away from the downtown. Then in 2004, fighting bankruptcy, Stelco moved its remaining office employees from the Tower. Improvements like the renovation of the Central Library and market were made through the years but Stelco Tower endured high vacancy rates and the podium never fulfilled its destiny.
Regardless, I always enjoyed my visits up in that tranquil setting, with the sunlight, swaths of sky, and my favourite building. My elation at being in that space with its authentic modern charm was tinged with dismay that the design and materials were in such a state of deterioration. The tower, too, is showing signs of age. In fairness to the corporate owners, replacing the pavement, for example, would be a major undertaking that likely should be coordinated with upcoming redevelopment work that is planned for Jackson Square. Meanwhile, there’s a transitory atmosphere as those projects inch slowly towards construction and the crumbling podium awaits assignment of a role befitting its size and location.
The above text is an excerpt from Sara Heinonen’s book Stelco Tower: A Love Story. The book will also be available at Contact Photobook Fair on April 29 (11 am to 4 pm), held at Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto, as well as at Rooney’s Photo Books 724 Main St E. in Hamilton on April 29 (7 pm to 9 pm).
Sara Heinonen is a photo-based artist and writer who divides her time between Hamilton, Ontario and New York City. Her images have been included in juried and invited gallery exhibitions throughout Southern Ontario. In 2020 she self-published My Year with a GIANT TIGER, a photography book documenting the exterior of a downtown Hamilton discount store before and during the pandemic.
In an excerpt from her new book, writer and photographer Sara Heinonen reflects on Hamilton, Ontario’s understated landmark.