History of the Building & Area

Our organization, the Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning, operates the J.K. Tett Centre which is one of many designated heritage sites in Kingston.

The Tett has a beautiful waterfront location, is close to Portsmouth Village and the Alwington and Sunnyside neighbourhoods as well as Portsmouth Olympic Harbour, Queen's University and downtown Kingston.

Both the J. K. Tett Centre, and the adjacent Stella Buck Building, originally formed part of the Morton Brewery and Distillery complex that was reputed to be the largest of its kind in North America during the mid-19th century. James Morton himself was involved in lumbering, shipping, the Grand Trunk railroad and a furniture business utilizing convict labour.

The building and the site have also served as a military hospital, a regional headquarters for National Defense, office space for City staff and, more recently, as home to a number of cultural groups and not-for-profit organizations. This creative use of the site was initiated by John K. Tett, a former Director of Recreation for the City of Kingston, for whom the J.K. Tett Centre was named.

About Morton's Brewery and Distillery

by Dorothy Young © 2010

The heritage site we know as the J.K. Tett Centre was originally part of a complex of buildings forming the Kingston Brewery and Distillery owned by James Morton. An article in the British Whig, Friday, March 1, 1844 entitled "Mr. Morton's Mammoth Brewery" gives us a very clear idea of the site and its workings.

"Having lately paid a visit to the most extensive establishment, the largest on the continent of America, we have been induced to favour the public with a slight description of Mr. Morton's property... He at present has completed a new distillery capable of consuming 50 bushels of grain daily... there are 32 immense fermentation tanks of 3,000 gallons each... The brewery is capable of producing 100 barrels of beer weekly." The article continues with descriptions of the buildings and its various products including — baking soda.

It is interesting to note that during this period the population of Kingston was approximately 5,000 and there were 136 licensed taverns! Morton's establishment was only one of approximately 10 breweries and distilleries but his was the largest.

Morton was well trained in the brewing and distillery business. He arrived in Kingston in 1824 from Ireland and began working at a small brewery and distillery near the corner of Ontario and West Streets. Thomas Molson, son of John Molson founder of the Molson brewing dynasty was his employer. In 1831 Molson purchased a small brewery on King St. West and Morton ran the business as a tenant brewer. Molson sold the property shortly after and over the next nine years Morton continued on as a tenant or partner of various owners until 1840 when he was able to purchase the property himself and set up his "Mammoth Brewery and Distillery". He continued to expand the facility, building tenements for workers, a malt house, and stables. By 1850 the City Directory states that between 60 and 70 families were supported by the business. Morton also purchased the wonderful yellow mansion to the west, St. Helen's, changing its name to "Mortonwood".

The 1850s were a boom period and Morton was involved in many different enterprises including lumbering, shipping, the Grand Trunk railroad and a furniture business utilizing convict labour. He was elected to the provincial legislature and was one of two trustees of the Time and Beacon Assurance Co., head office, Kingston. The other trustee was the Hon. John A. Macdonald, her Majesty's Attorney General.

But as with all booms, there was a bust and by the end of the decade a recession set in and Morton was bankrupt and owed over $250,000. He died at Mortonwood in July 1864.

The business continued for a few more years and it was during this period that a watchman, Cornelius Driscol, was murdered at the site. The perpetrator was captured, tried and subsequently executed. However, there is a legend that the ghost of Driscol still walks the site, checking the doors and locks as he goes.

Military Hospital and Army Headquarters

Over the next few decades the property was sold a number of times eventually being used for storage. With the First World War and the need for military hospitals, the Government of Canada expropriated Mortonwood in January, 1918 converting it to the Ongwanada Military Hospital and in July of the same year the brewery was expropriated and the Sydenham Military Hospital established.

In 1924 the buildings were converted to house the Eastern Ontario Army Headquarters. Little changed until 1966 when the forces were unified and EOAHQ was moved to Ottawa. Two years later the upper property was transferred to Corrections Services and in 1971 the lower property was purchased by the City of Kingston for $120,000.00.

Sold to the City

This purchase was the vision of the Director of Recreation at the time — John K.Tett. He saw the possibilities for use of the site by the cultural and arts groups in the city but most unfortunately he was killed in an accident before he could realize that vision. By 1973 a variety of cultural groups had taken up residency after renovating the various spaces to suit the purposes required. The building was named after John Tett in recognition of his vision. At the same time, the large western building was converted for use as a training facility for socially disadvantaged and handicapped individuals and it was named after a local social worker, Stella Buck. The stables became Domino Theatre.

The buildings of Morton's Brewery and Distillery are a fine example of nineteenth century industrial architecture. In our postindustrial age we celebrate the legacy of our leaders and politicians but not that of the average citizen who actually did the work. Our industries were where people found employment to sustain their families, allowing our community to grow. The buildings that make up The Tett Centre complex are a testament to their work and contribution and are a very real part of the heritage of this community; a fact that should be well celebrated.

Courtesy of the City of Kingston