Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
May 21, 2024
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Undertakings Old and New

Gilbert and Lighthall Marketplace is closing its doors after 19 years in business. Last week, Chris Fanning sat down with Alexandra Bake, owner of the Marketplace as well as the historic building that houses it, to reflect upon change and Picton’s thriving  downtown core. 
<p>Alexandra Bake and Chico outside Gilbert and Lighthall [Chris Fanning / Gazette]</p>
Alexandra Bake and Chico outside Gilbert and Lighthall [Chris Fanning / Gazette]

A pillar of the Main Street business community, Alexandra Bake is well-known, most recently for her leadership in fundraising for the library renovation.

“Main Street was a different place in 2004,” she begins, mildly.

After a career in graphic design for real estate companies, Ms. Bake entered into the entrepreneurial life with Olivia & Company, a used bookstore. 

The Gilbert and Lighthall building across the street caught her designer’s eye, as a site worthy of restoration. “It was four floors of furniture! But my father and I walked through the whole building. And on the back of a napkin, we sketched a conversion, to make it part residential, part commercial.”

Ms. Bake convinced her brothers that the building represented an opportunity to transform Main Street. “There was no residential of any note on Main Street. Most of the storefronts’ second floors were empty.”

There was a worry about keeping things going. “That whole farming ethos that would have happened 50 years earlier of everyone coming into town on Saturday night and doing their shopping was gone. And there was nothing really to replace it. “But the beauty of Picton was that there was still a very real downtown: this was the furniture store, that was the hardware store, there were two or three florists on Main Street and a dry cleaner, two bakeries, the post office, and not one but two bookstores.”

Preserving and fostering a vibrant main street was the question. “When I was in design, one of the things that I really loved was when my clients talked about New Urbanism and the densification of downtowns to create a reason for living in a downtown area. I felt that if we could fill a building like this, that we would be able to help Picton survive.”

There was skepticism. “Why are you doing ‘high-end’ rental apartments, why are you putting washer dryers in your apartments?” people asked. “And we kept saying, we want it to be the kind of place that you would want to live in, or that you would want your mother to live in, or that you would want your child to live in.”

The risk paid off. The beautiful old building attracts long-term tenants. Some have been in residence as long as the apartments have been available.

Furniture Makers and Undertakers

From the 1870s, Gilbert and Lighthall, and later just Gilbert, were Picton’s most prominent furniture makers, which also meant casket makers and undertakers. After they built their stately three-floor place of business at the corner of Main and Elizabeth in 1892, Gilbert and Lighthall became part of the landscape. Until now, the building has always been associated with furniture in one way or another.

The closure of this venerable Main Street business marks not only a change to the current retail landscape, but the disappearance of a name that has been on Picton Main Street for 150 years—although close inspection of the brick wall on Elizabeth Street reveals the old letters are still there, gently fading into the past.

Various ads for Gilbert and Lighthall [Gazette archives]

Continuity amidst Change

The building’s architectural heritage was carefully preserved in the 2004 restoration. The sister building next to it, which had had a fire, was brought up to match the height of the building on the corner. For months Ms. Bake scoured the brickyards of Ontario until she found the perfect match to connect the two buildings.

The family attended to social as well as architectural traditions. In the nineteenth century it was normal that furniture makers should also become undertakers and funeral directors. The building had housed a funeral home until not long before Ms. Bake took over.

 “One of the stipulations that we adhered to when we bought it was that we would continue to put death notices in the window because that’s where they went.  

“Especially in the early days, when someone of renown died, cars would pull up, and people come and gather around to check to make sure it was real.”

The new owners did not only look to the past. Sustainability was top of mind. Ms. Bake is proud of the geothermal heating and cooling system, and the solar panels used for heating water. 

“We were the first commercial building in eastern Ontario to put green technology in. We literally trained all the building inspectors in the Quinte region on commercial building with geothermal and green technology. When the building had to be inspected, a bevy of building inspectors came from all around the region because they wanted to understand how it worked. And this was the place.”

In keeping with an ethos that integrates tradition and change in both the physical and social environment, Ms. Bake notes with pleasure that Gilbert and Lighthall will soon become home to Cait Ryan and Sofia Faga’s the studio pec, a pilates studio which already operates in the back of the building. It will expand into the former Marketplace space.

“I am thrilled to be handing the space over to two young, entrepreneurial women,” said Ms. Bake, “with their own exciting dreams to anchor the next decade, or more, of history on Main Street.”

Ms. Bake’s commitment to sustaining the vibrant life of Picton’s downtown is unwavering. The closing sales at Gilbert and Lighthall Marketplace will continue into the summer, and she will remain active in the business community at Magpie Clothing Essentials, also on Main Street.

This text is from the Volume 194 No. 17 edition of The Picton Gazette
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