Developers pay homage to property’s past
SIMCOE – The cornerstone of the new Renaissance office-apartment complex in Simcoe bears the inscription “Post Tenebras Lux 2020,” which is Latin for “After the darkness, light.”
The statement can be read a number of ways. The year 2020 – a time of pandemic – was a dark year everywhere, one which had everybody searching for the light at the end of the tunnel.
But that’s not what developer Kevin van der Laan of Dundas had in mind when he commissioned the stone.
Rather, “Post Tenebras Lux” is a tribute to the women who came and went from the former bar at the corner of Talbot Street South and Robinson Street during the decades it was a venue for exotic dancers.
During the demolition of the former Queen’s Hotel last year, van der Laan and others discovered heart-breaking messages – laments such as “I just want to go home” — scrawled on the walls upstairs. The graffiti had been long hidden behind wallpaper.
Many messages, van der Laan said Wednesday, were profane and can’t be repeated. But others were calls for help written by women who were in a dark place with no obvious way out.
“From the evidence we found, it wasn’t just a strip joint, it was a brothel,” van der Laan said. “It was sad.”
Not only was the former Queen’s Hotel a strip club in its time, van der Laan said the upper level was an apartment complex where sex workers lived. When he and father Ken van der Laan demolished the building, they kept the two brass poles from the stage where the dancers plied their trade.
“Renaissance” – which is French for “rebirth” – is an appropriate name for the new, two-storey building, which features an office on the ground floor and eight apartments throughout.
Re-born in this case is a faithful replica of the Queen’s Hotel as it stood in the 19th century. This includes a second-storey portico anchored on Robinson Street by agreement with Norfolk County – an unusual encroachment most municipalities have done away with due to liability concerns.
The van der Laans saw great potential in the property, in part, because of the significant investment others had made at this intersection.
North of the Renaissance is the old Simcoe firehall-farmers market which engineering firm G. Douglas Vallee Ltd. has renovated into modern offices.
Kitty-corner is the former Simcoe armoury building, which the accounting firm Millards has also converted into office space. Immediately east is St. Paul’s Court, a handsome brick apartment complex.
Given the improvements to this neighbourhood, the van der Laans say their $2.8-million investment was long overdue and well worth it.
“You have the Vallee building, Millards, St. Paul’s Court, and then the armpit of the corner – this purple building with boarded-up windows,” Kevin van der Laan said. “It was horrible.”
Not horrible, according to the Simcoe BIA, is the investment the van der Laans have made in Simcoe and the synergies it encourages.
“The BIA is enthusiastic about the new building – one that embraces heritage architecture instead of replacing it,” Brian Jones, the BIA’s communications chair, said this week. “Kudos to the team who brought the vision to life.
“There are a lot of great things happening downtown, and projects like this that enhance the appeal of our downtown core have a snowball effect, attracting more development that is positive development — homes, independent retail space, and professional offices.”
The van der Laans say half the building has been rented, with tenants scheduled to arrive in August and September.