Back in the 1900’s, the Imperial Cotton Co. on 270 Sherman Avenue North was a busy textile factory where sails, awnings and canvas for lawn chairs were made. In 1924, the company merged with Cosmos-Imperial Mills, and operated successfully in Hamilton until 1972, when most of the workers and mills were moved to Nova Scotia. When Rob Zeidler toured the building in 2014, it was half empty and in need of some renovation.
Where others saw a century-old rundown building, Zeidler saw creative potential. It was his dream and the dream of his business partner, Laura Zeidler, who is also his spouse, to rebuild and renovate the building into a creative space for artists. The good bones immediately convinced them this old industrial building was the perfect spot and they purchased it for $5 million. They then began the hard work of transforming it into a hub for creative businesses.
In the three years since, they’ve converted it into a space that’s overflowing with energy. All the 100 units are now full. “I didn’t think it would go as well as it has,” said Zeidler. “I knew we’d eventually fill the units but I really didn’t expect it to explode the way it did.”
The joy of the Cotton Factory, said Zeidler, is the people. “The artists are unbelievable. Every day is a joy.” Zeidler said one reason for their success is due to Hamilton’s burgeoning reputation as the artistic epicentre of Canada, which now attracts artists from across the country, including for example Halifax jewelry make Donna Hiebert. At first, artists were coming to Hamilton largely from Toronto for the lower rent and available space but now it’s for the great artistic energy. “The city itself is also working hard to promote the arts and they see it as part of the development of the city,” said Zeidler.
The tenants at The Cotton Factory include photographers, musicians, jewelry makers, video editors, website designers and a customer wood maker, with examples such as The Hamilton Film Center, Modern Love Jewelry, The Women’s Art Association of Hamilton, and Gorilla Graphics. The Hamilton Aerial Group rents a large space for its high ceilings and there is also a marketing company, landscape architect and insurance broker. The Cotton Factory complex actually comprises six buildings with five annexes or outbuildings clustered around the largest building, with a total of 155,000 square feet.
Zeidler said they purposely built the units to have an open and airy feel to nurture that creative energy. “Being an artist is a lonely life and in most of these old buildings, you end up locking yourself in your own unit and then you’re on your own. Here we build glass on the doors and gave it an open feel so the idea is that people know if you’re in, and will come in and say hello so you’re not always on your own.”
Zeidler credits his sister for helping him, as she restored a heritage-designated building in downtown Toronto into an arts and culture hub. 401 Richmond is now home to over 140 artists, cultural producers, social innovators and retail shops. “I got over 20 years of lessons learned from her,” said Zeidler.
While his business background is as a property manager, his appreciation for the arts comes from growing up in a creative family. “I remember when I was ten being dragged to Saturday morning art gallery shows,” he says, smiling. That early education was critical in leading Zeidler to where he is today, overseeing a community of artists who are contributing to the city’s growth and who are redefining its culture.
by Denise Davy
The Cotton Factory