The history of the Alberta Block

THEN (1909-2012)

The Alberta Block (10524 Jasper Ave.) has a long history of housing entrepreneurs and creators, with tenants such as dressmakers, cigarmakers, and music teachers calling it home since its inception. One of its longest-running tenants was CKUA Radio, which called the Alberta Block home for more than 50 years. As the building aged, facility problems such as flooding, plus allegedly being haunted, meant that it slowly lost its tenants. The building was left empty in 2012 and in need of a massive infrastructure update.

NOW (2015-Present)

In 2015, RedBrick real estate service purchased the building and revived it, retrofitting the building with necessary modern systems while also working to retain its historical character and significance. The result: a building with a mix of styles including modern, mid-century and art deco vibes, with a distinctive cedar facade. It re-opened in 2015 and now has a full suite of tenants, including Homestead co-working, Station on Jasper and many others, continuing its tradition of being a place for makers and creators.

Renewing the Pendennis

A row of brick buildings on Jasper Avenue and 97 Street marks the transition between Edmonton’s modern core, and the original downtown which dates back to the turn of the last century.

Students of settler development in our city will know that the Hudson’s Bay Company left a large block of reserve land – from 101 Street and running west to modern-day Glenora – which forced early retail and commercial development to the east.

Sadly, little attention has been paid to preserving this original downtown core and not much remains, except for this hopeful row of three and four story structures on the north side of Jasper Avenue, east of the Convention Centre.

The strip has long been bookended by two hopeful anchor buildings restored in the 1990s and occupying the east and west corners – the Goodrich and Gibson Blocks. Though the Quarters Downtown redevelopment is proceeding more slowly than many had hoped, eventually upwards of 18,000 to 20,000 residents will live in the area and further development along this block is badly needed.

After many years of languishing without retail tenants, a pair of buildings in the middle of the block are about to reopen. The “for lease” signs are already up on the Brighton Block, and the building next door, the 109-year-old Pendennis Building, is also set to reopen soon. Work has been underway for the last year led by Lorraine Bodnarek, Owner, Principal Pendennis Developments Ltd., her two business partners, husband Ed Cyrankiewicz and Larry Andrews – and NEXT Architecture and Delnor Construction Ltd. This comes after a decade-long and unsuccessful attempt to turn this vacant and increasingly decrepit building into a museum. When that project fell through, the building was in rough shape and had been the home of a host of pigeons for a few years, but Bodnarak and her team have been working hard on the restoration for the last year. A media tour before Christmas generated some never-before-seen footage of a soaring interior atrium and design plans for a rooftop patio backed by a sensitive four-story addition along the back of the building.

The building could be inhabited by a major tenant as early as this summer/fall, and Bodnarek expects this will “absolutely change the dynamics of downtown and the Quarters.” She hopes their efforts will “spark more interest in the area both by other developers and the City Council to focus and invest in creating an arts, cultural and food and entertainment district to support the wonderful causes and organizations already in the area.”

Last Manors Standing

On Oliver’s busy 100 Avenue, at 112 Street, stand three homes on a larger lot. There are signs prohibiting parking, and usually a half-dozen parked vehicles. Each of the houses has several entrances, and one has an old sandwich board tossed out back: “Roosevelt Manor – Rooms for Rent.” Across the street, at the General Hospital, is a statue of Jesus, his arms raised in intercession – his back to the houses. The three large homes were recently acquired by Westrich Corp., and a plot of ground pending sale by the city.

They’ve been there since 1912 and it shows. That’s when the Hudson’s Bay Company sold off the last of its reserve land to individual Edmontonians. Work started immediately on the construction of large, narrow, foursquare-style homes that these three remaining buildings exemplify, all of which were completed in 1912. Then came the Great War. Then the Dirty Thirties. By the 1940s, most of the houses were subdivided and used for boarding. The people who lived there were ordinary folk.

That remains the case today. Now, they are slated for demolition. The house in the middle of the block, 11218, looks shabby, and the other two are in various states of disrepair as well. Until recently, they have all been occupied – lodgers living in 11218 and 10012 and a business renting office space in 11230. In their place will (likely) be erected high-rises – nothing terrible in and of themselves. However, it’s not what’s on the land that matters so much as what will be missing. Dan Rose of the Edmonton Heritage Council calls it “texture.” “When these houses go, we will lose two things: one, our connection to history … and two, affordability.” While Rose laments the loss of the physical history, what he will miss the most is how these manors function in community formation by adding to the cultural, ethnic, and economic landscape of Oliver.

Oliver has slowly evolved from being what the Edmonton Historical Board calls the city’s “original West End” to the most densely populated community in Edmonton. Many fashionable homes built decades ago have been replaced, first by walk-up apartments and then by highrises, with many of the few that are left split into flats or renovated to become retail or office space.

Even as these three homes give way to highrises, just down the block sit three other historic homes owned by the City of Edmonton. The John Lang Apartment, the Dame Eliza Chenier Residence and Lester N. Allyn House were acquired by the city in the 1960s in order to be torn down in order to twin the High Level Bridge. That plan fell through but the homes were then slated to be replaced by a highrise. They were saved in 2003 through the efforts of the Oliver Historical Committee. Last winter, the City of Edmonton stated it is “committed to maintaining” the homes, which lie on the west side of 112 Street, between 99th and 100th Avenue. Two are currently behind fencing, with Rose confirming stabilization work has been done. He expects the City will soon release more details on the future of these structures. Let’s hope the City finds a way to preserve these precious vestiges of an earlier Edmonton.

Playing the title role

The former Land Titles Office sits inconspicuously on 100 Ave at 106 Street surrounded by temporary fencing as it sheds its stucco cocoon. No butterfly will result, only an honest red brick chestnut – a seed that grew into the Alberta capital.

In the 1890s there was a plan afoot to move the office to Strathcona, south of the North Saskatchewan River. This would have effectively shifted government operations to Strathcona. If not for a plucky group of protesters led by militant merchants, the downtown core and the Alberta capital would likely be in an altogether different place.

Strathcona was the terminus of the Calgary and Edmonton Railway and landholders had to cross the river on John Walter’s ferry to do their business in Edmonton. In June of 1892 the federal government packed land titles documents and furniture on to wagons for the trip south. 

Edmontonians balked and sabotaged the wagons knowing if the office moved it would be the end of their hopes to make Edmonton a major city. Edmonton mayor Matthew McCauley led a disabling party as officers of the North-West Mounted Police looked on. The town’s burgers set out to build a permanent structure that could not so easily be moved. It was a solid beast, made of concrete and brick, 45 cm thick. Doug Gelbert, in his book Look Up Edmonton – A Walking Tour says this sturdy structure was entered through iron doors and Inside was douglas fir woodwork, imported from British Columbia. It was an anchor which held Edmonton and its hopes in place. 

The building design was based on a plan by Thomas Fuller, who held the august title of Chief Architect of the Dominion. It’s similar to Hudson’s Bay Company warehouses of the time. Fuller was responsible for some of Canada’s most iconic structures, including Ottawa’s Parliament building and the revered Parliamentary Library. Over the years there have been two additions to the building. 

The Alberta capital outgrew the one-and-a-half storey building and the office was moved in 1912. It then became an armory through both world wars. After the Second World War it housed the offices and labs of the Alberta government’s Department of Health. Most recently it housed the Elizabeth Fry Society which works with women caught up in the justice system and helps  some transition from prison to life on the outside.

For much of its history the Land Titles/Victoria Armoury building was accompanied by its much larger brick cousin across the street, Arlington Apartments. Sadly that building was gutted by fire in 2005. There had been hopes the facade could be saved but it was demolished in 2008.

The Arlington’s humbler companion across the street is currently under extensive restoration. Most Edmontonians who notice the building could be excused in believing it was always white stucco. But as the metamorphosis continues it won’t be long before the red brick that characterizes most of the city’s remaining historic buildings is again exposed. To some the loss of the building’s white cladding means loss of and identifiable non-brick landmark, but many people embrace the red brick genesis of 19th century architecture and welcome one such landmark back after losing so many others.

Rail Roots

You likely didn’t know this but Edmonton grew into a big city thanks in part to the railway. The core was the epicentre of rail, before we ripped up the tracks beginning in the 1950s. As the Valley Line LRT arrives over the next few years, our rail roots are showing again. Here’s a look at those routes on one map.

Beyond spur lines that ran south from the yards along 104 Avenue, to deliver wares into warehouses in downtown (check the backs of buildings on 104 Street for train-height loading bays), street cars once plied Jasper Avenue and headed north along 124, 101 and 97 streets. Meanwhile, the Canadian Pacific Railway came in from the south, along the Mill Creek ravine, before heading west through Rossdale and north, just west of Oliver, and the Calgary and Edmonton Railway came directly along the High Level Bridge and into Oliver (with a station where there’s now a Marble Slab). The biggest concentration of rail was Canadian Northern Railway yard, located where MacEwan University now stands. Fun fact: We named our magazine after this spot.