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What might have left other developers steaming - an older industrial building on a tight site with a big old chimney sticking up like a sore thumb - has three generations of Ayklers beaming.

What might have caused potential purchasers to freak out - a round bedroom or den located inside a dusty old chimney - has three happy customers busying themselves with unusual furniture layouts.

Welcome to Steam Plant Lofts, where risk-taking developer Aykler & Co. Realty Ltd. and some bold purchasers have combined to save a small swatch of Toronto's industrial fabric.

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Built in 1953, the former Wellesley Central Hospital's old steam plant building and its attached stack may not have won beauty contests for its utilitarian modernist looks, but it had won over the neighbourhood as a landmark.

Luckily, when the grand old hospital shuttered in 1998 and Wellesley Central Health Corp. (now the Wellesley Institute) was formed to redevelop the land around Jarvis and Wellesley streets, the small and adventurous Aykler firm was already building next door. (The project was the Earl Lofts, a row of handsome townhouses.)

So, after parcelling out bigger pieces to bigger developers - Tridel and Times Group - in late 2002, the WCHC offered the final, little piece (complete with the old steam plant) to Bill Aykler, his son Les and grandson Justin. They jumped at the opportunity to transform the plain Jane building into a beauty queen. Says project manager Justin Aykler, 29, of his 79-year-old grandfather: "He's always looking for new projects."

Challenging ones, too. While there were "fragments of floors" that supported a few small offices, mostly there were none at all.

"That's what was so amazing," says the project's architect, Paul Jurecka. "From the ground floor up to the roof, there was a three-storey-high space, into which there were three large turbines on three large masonry plinths and, of course, this towering smoke stack."

But adding floors wouldn't be easy. Located on narrow Wellesley Place and hemmed in by projects on three sides (one being Aykler's own to the north on Earl Street), swinging a crane around the site was impossible. Unless they wanted to entertain the ridiculous idea of building a foundry to produce the steel beams on site, the interior skeleton of the building would have to be fabricated from concrete.

Again, without that crane to carry the wooden board-forms up to each successive floor (three storeys were to be added onto the top for a total of six), they had to be assembled and disassembled by hand.

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Preconstruction sales began in October, 2004, and construction started in January, 2006. Today, finally, purchasers are moving in, and the youngest Aykler, Justin, is holding open houses on Saturdays all this month to sell the remaining units (31 in total).

It was decided to leave the concrete unfinished on ceilings, columns and beams, he says, because "it goes with the look of all the hard loft features, the exposed sprinklers, the exposed ductwork," and these were things his customers were saying they craved.

But what about that stack - would converting it into domestic space be carrying the industrial aesthetic too far? Mr. Jurecka agrees it was a risk since "we have a natural abhorrence to smokestacks, particularly in an urban environment [where]we're assuming that there's something nasty that's been going on."

But the fact that it hadn't been belching out toxic smoke for all of those years and was therefore remarkable clean, meant it would have been a shame to lose the "unique spatial opportunities" it presented.

"The stack [units]sold the first day," Mr. Aykler says, "and I keep getting e-mails about [them]every day."

Too bad only three units feature a piece of it. It's easy to miss their high-end features and finishes, such as granite countertops, stainless-steel appliances and oak cabinets (standard in all units), because the round stack room steals the show.

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Here, paint has been removed to reveal the dark red, hollow clay masonry block (sealed with a clear coat). And 12-foot-tall windows eliminate any feelings of claustrophobia.

Since the stack is wider at the bottom, the second-floor suite benefits from having such a large section of it (the first level will be used for bicycle storage); the owner is planning to put the bedroom there. It also has the only balcony. (A "stacked deck," perhaps?)

Even suite owners who do not own a piece of the stack can enjoy it, either through their windows or where it bulges out into shared corridors. (The stack's lower level houses hydro meters for all units.)

While Mr. Aykler admits it cost a great deal to retain the steam-stack and also to push back a brick wall on the north facade in order to add terraces, it's been worth every penny and headache.

"It's coming to be a really nice building with the masonry and the windows," he says as he watches two workers direct dirt from a swinging bucket onto what will be a rooftop terrace. It also helps establish the Aykler name - synonymous with real estate since the eldest Mr. Aykler came from Hungary in 1948 - as a real player in heritage preservation.

In other words, what might have been a teardown is now a living, breathing, beautiful piece of our past. Steamy stuff, indeed.

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About the Author

Dave LeBlanc was born in Toronto and wouldn't have it any other way. At age 8, he remembers jumping for joy when both the CN Tower opened and Toronto finally snatched Montreal's crown to become the biggest city in Canada; he's been an architecture lover and Toronto advocate ever since.He attended Ryerson for Radio-Television Arts and York University for English. More

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