When next you sip your tea on Bohemia’s airy balcony, have a look out across Heritage Park at the sunlight dancing on the cool blue of Kempenfelt Bay and think about this. 150 years ago, you would have found yourself looking down at the water, as the buildings of this section of Dunlop Street, known as the Boys Block, were waterfront lots. The block, running west from Mulcaster Street and ending at Memorial Square, first consisted of wooden shops and was built right along the shoreline by Henry Boys. The entire block was destroyed by fire in 1873 and Boys sold his land to new owners.
In 1876, a block of nine shops was constructed. The first three shops west from Mulcaster Street were built by Samuel Wright and bricked by Robert Orr. The next six stores, of which modern day Bohemia is number eight, were built by the Loan and Strong Company and bricked by English-born mason, William Macey, who added the extra special whimsy of the stone faces that peer over the entrances to Bohemia, and J’Adore next door.
By the time these brick structures were built, the water’s edge had moved about 20 metres to the south when fill was used to create a bed for the railway that had pushed north through Barrie about 10 years previously. Today, the bay is some 100 metres from Bohemia’s back door, with more land having been infilled for the eventual creation of Heritage Park.
I had the great pleasure of stopping for coffee at Bohemia recently, and having a wonderful chat with three ladies who are beyond enthusiastic about the story of 125 Dunlop St. E., and all her surrounding sister buildings. Their love for the history of these funky old structures is contagious and we talked about everything from half-dug tunnels, hidden sky-lights, dirt floors and stained glass to the bizarre finding of an early 20th Century heart monitor that now resides at the Simcoe County Museum.
Sandra Orr operated the popular Artifact store for many years at 123 Dunlop St. E., but always as a tenant. In 1997, she saw her chance to find a permanent home for her collection when a regular customer, a local real estate agent, mentioned that he knew of the perfect building for sale – right next door! It was a quick move, Sandra told me, and they didn’t mention to their customers that it was going to happen. In fact, most regulars scarcely noticed and one merely quipped, “Did you paint?”
It wasn’t exactly as easy as it sounds. Before she could move in, Sandra had some work to do. The multi-layered brick wall to the south was crumbling right through and so the interior was replaced with concrete block, while keeping the original 19th Century brick facade on the outside. A deep drop ceiling was torn away to reveal the original high ceiling and the Victorian tinwork. Unfortunately, a large part of the tinwork was unsalvageable and had to be redone using a lovely replica product ordered from Chicago.
Sandra had a loft put in early on and the one-of-a-kind iron railing that spans the length of it, and runs down the stairs, is the work of local artist, Amy Switzer. Little twinkling lights, a find at the Re-Store, give the metal vines and leaves a fairy garden appearance. Above this loft, you will find the only original tin ceiling and molding.
Jill Dyck first operated her Bohemia business across the street where Ripe Juicery is now. In 2009, she took the opportunity to cross Dunlop Street and bring her popular eats, drinks and vibe to its present location after Sandra discontinued operating Artifact there. Her passion for her business is obvious when she talks about the colourful neighbourhood, her customers and her loyal staff of musicians, artists and runaways from less interesting jobs.
I visit for the fantastic food and laid-back atmosphere, but my other connection to Bohemia is Sarah Jensen, bubbly barista by day and dedicated producer of the love letter to the downtown neighbourhood, the Heart of Barrie newsletter. I have been doing some writing for her publication lately and it was Sarah who gathered us all together for a chat and a mini tour.
Sarah brought me down the wooden stairs to the lower level that now acts as the main kitchen and storage area. The deep-set doorway and window have been there since the days when deliveries of goods were most likely to have come by water, then rail and now by truck. The exposed brick is remarkably straight, proof of Mr. Macey’s excellent workmanship. Looking up the stairs, you have to chuckle at the wise words of Jill written on the risers. Please! Do not go up these stairs empty handed. Thanks XO Jill. You might also notice that the door at the top does not sit quite straight with the floor, due to the shifting of the old building.
All of Bohemia is an ode to the past, a collection of serviceable and pretty items, each of them equally respected whether they were once someone’s best china or just an old front door. Many of the tables came from the Queen’s Hotel and got a fresh coat of paint. I wondered aloud - did I perhaps sit at one of them with a Singapore sling 30 years ago? The history of downtown Barrie is celebrated here, in small ways, every day.