Out with the Old

Why historic buildings sometimes don’t get saved

By Jay Smith

On a sunny autumn afternoon, pedestrians walk up to the edge of Edmonton’s 115th St, where steel girders separate the road from the edge of the hill. The view is tremendous: overlooking the lush Victoria Park golf course and the gorgeous panorama of the North Saskatchewan River valley. Most people stop and take a long glance, then keep walking.

But the woman with me isn’t enjoying the view today. “They’re taking parkland and turning it into a parking lot,” says Anne Lambert. A resident of the community of Oliver, Lambert is referring to plans to build a 29-storey condominium tower here on the edge of the river valley. The plan also calls for a large parkade beneath the building. Where this projected landmark of “international architectural significance” will be built, a comparatively humble edifice now stands: the Norris cabin.

As of early 2011, the Norris cabin is undeniably Edmonton’s most contentious log cabin. Built in 1935 by Frank G. Newton, it’s one of the few remaining such buildings within city limits. As cabins go, it was a pretty fancy specimen back in its day: two storeys, a gigantic fieldstone fireplace, double-hung sash windows. Its first occupant was Fred Norris, a manager for Imperial Oil.

The cabin is most famous, however, because of Mel Hurtig. One of Edmonton’s best-known exports, Hurtig opened a number of successful bookstores (one of which survives in downtown Edmonton’s Audreys), published Canada’s first encyclopedia, started a national political party, founded the Council of Canadians, became an Officer of the Order of Canada and, for a period from 1987 until he decamped for Vancouver in 2005, lived in the Norris cabin.

The cabin’s present owner, Peter Allard, wants to redevelop the property. Allard has hired Stantec, a consulting firm that is one of Edmonton’s homegrown multinationals, to oversee the development of a condominium tower on the lot that currently houses the cabin.

Lambert, a short woman with a shock of superdyed red hair, has, along with her husband, spearheaded a project to save the Norris cabin. Under their direction, the Community of Oliver Group, or COG, has been raising a ruckus about the proposed project. They’ve voiced opposition at community meetings, signed petitions and written to city councillors. Over 100 people packed a church hall on 123rd St in September to voice opposition to the project.

The Historic Resources department is “very pro-development. We’d just like to ensure it’s done sympathetically.”

“It’s not just a ‘not in my backyard’ issue,” explains Lambert, a retired professor of human ecology at the University of Alberta. “I mean, it is in my backyard… but so many people use this area.” Lambert’s house, a 1912 structure originally built for a troupe of touring musical entertainers called the Palmatier Sisters, sits about a dozen metres from the cabin’s lot and shares its idyllic vista.

The Edmonton Journal reported in September that GBL Architects, the BC-based firm responsible for Vancouver’s Coal Harbour condos (controversial because many of the owners actually live in Hong Kong), is behind the designs for the tower proposed for the Norris cabin site. “They took drawings for huge buildings in Coal Harbour and just plunked them down here, without any thought about fitting into the community,” says Lambert. Early plans for a lookout point on the edge of the hill, she adds, had people looking into her living room. She believes the developers will have to damage the valley to build the parkade.

The friendship between David Holdsworth, the principal heritage planner for the City of Edmonton, and Simon O’Byrne, the principal lead of urban designing at Stantec, falls into the category of “unlikely.” To put it bluntly, one is responsible for keeping buildings from being torn down while the other often does his work on the sites of demolitions. Both, however, insist that a strategic preserver of historic architecture and a developer can have more in common than what might first appear, even if they disagree about the fate of the Norris cabin.

“We’re very pro-development,” says Holdsworth of Edmonton’s Historic Resources department. ”We’d just like to ensure that it’s done sympathetically. We’re also keen to ensure heritage properties have a continuous lifespan. They may have to change use, they may have to have additions put on them, like The Bay building downtown.” Both of these options, he says, are far preferable to demolishing a building. For this reason, he opposes the proposed redevelopment of the Norris cabin. Not only would a historically significant building be destroyed, the proposal doesn’t include any way to incorporate the cabin.

As a city planner, Holdsworth is also concerned about what the new tower will contribute to the community. He highlights the warehouses in Edmonton’s downtown core that have been successfully “flipped” from industrial to residential use. “A lot of them were threatened,” he says. “But good design speaks to itself: it’s very easy to embed the old with the new.” According to Holdsworth, these new residences tangibly improved the neighbourhoods in which they were built.

As for O’Byrne, who’s in charge of the 115th St redevelopment process, he sighs when the words “Coal Harbour” come up. This has been a rumour dogging the condominium project. “At a public meeting, I said that this is a building with high-quality architecture that wouldn’t be out of place in Coal Harbour,” he says. “I meant that it’ll be one of the nicest buildings that has ever been built in Edmonton.” Because the lot is on a hillside, taking designs from elsewhere would have been impossible, he says. The building under consideration is designed specifically for that plot of land, he adds, and the plans have been extensively modified in response to community concerns.

Stantec’s head offices are only five blocks from the proposed site. O’Byrne says claims that the company is unfamiliar with the site, or with the neighbourhood generally, are inaccurate. Similarly, he points out that another of COG’s concerns—that the lookout and staircase that will be built for the public will look instead into Lambert’s living room—has been addressed. Moreover, in response to community and city responses, the plans go well beyond “not damaging” the river valley, he says: they include a new public access point to the river valley system as well as a public viewing area at the top.

The Central Pentecostal Tabernacle buildings (b. 1964-1972) were torn down despite being rare local examples of the International style.

The Central Pentecostal Tabernacle buildings (b. 1964-1972) were torn down despite being rare local examples of the International style. (Kenneth Hynek)

“The developer is spending a lot of money in the public realm… this is very, very unusual,” says O’Byrne.

But then there’s the cabin itself. “There aren’t many log cabins here,” Holdsworth says. “It’s on our inventory, so it’s my job to save it or incorporate in some fashion.” The “inventory” he speaks of is the City of Edmonton’s list of protected buildings and resources—648 by the city’s latest count. Although buildings or resources on the inventory may be demolished or radically altered despite this recognition of their historical significance, those designated as “Municipal Historic Resources” (some 93 on the list) are protected by bylaw. The Edmonton Historical Board (an advisory board to city council) recommends which buildings should go on these lists, taking into account not just their age but their historical, architectural and social significance. While any resource can be longlisted without its owner’s consent, the higher level of protection requires owner cooperation.

Bylaws can only do so much, however. The Gem, a theatre built in 1913 on the Jasper East block of downtown Edmonton, was demolished in 2010 despite being a designated Municipal Historic Resource. After The Gem was protected, the city sold it to realtor Oliver O’Connor in 1999 under the condition that he restore it. The theatre started to rot, and O’Connor refused to sell it back to the City when it became clear the building required immediate attention. By 2010, demolition was the only choice. The city is suing O’Connor for his alleged failure to preserve the historic theatre, and O’Connor is countersuing, claiming the City failed to provide him with reports it possessed about the true condition of the building.

Bylaws similarly failed to protect the Arlington Apartments, built in 1909. The Arlington was Edmonton’s first apartment building. In its day, it was luxury living. By the 1980s, however, residents were complaining that the building was being used for prostitution. Nonetheless, the Arlington was designated a Municipal Historical Resource in 1998. A fire destroyed much of its interior in 2005. Its owner, Saraswati Singh, and others involved in the reconstruction eventually gave up on the restoration conditions the designation demanded. In 2008, they sought and received permission from the city to demolish the 99-year-old apartment building.

“One of the problems is that Edmonton is a young city,” says Holdsworth. “The perception is that we don’t have a lot of heritage. A lot of older buildings were torn down in the 1970s and 1980s. And even now, the sense is that we don’t have anything worth preserving.”

Holdsworth names Edmonton’s old City Hall, built in 1956, as a good example. “It was a fantastic Modern structure,” he says. Cutting edge for its time (its council chamber was on stilts), by the time the 1980s came around old City Hall didn’t look “progressive” anymore. “It’s a classic example of a Modern building that came down for ‘progress,’” he says, referring to the construction of Edmonton’s current City Hall in the early 1990s. “It doesn’t matter if you replace it with something iconic or better.”

The push for “progress” is amplified, as any long-term Alberta resident can attest, during the province’s booms. Demand for housing skyrockets, even if labour is in short supply, and building housing is easy money. Plus, there’s the great exhilaration of possibility that a boom brings. Why hold on to the old when the future is so bright?

Holdsworth and O’Byrne agree that one of the most prominent, and tragic, victims of the tear-it-down, build-something-new mentality during the boom of the early 2000s was the Tabernacle building. The two main buildings of the Central Pentecostal Tabernacle, one square and the other pyramid-shaped, designed by famed architect Peter Hemingway, were built in 1964 and 1972, respectively. The wood-shingled pyramid was iconic but the square structure, built of concrete and gold-green tinted glass in the International style, was totally unique. In the application to save the buildings from demolition, Hemingway’s daughter, Mistaya, praised the structures for their “purity of line” and “simple yet bold statement of function without ornament”—both characteristics of the International style of architecture. The Tabernacle housed annual “Singing Christmas Tree” choir concerts and was so unique that the Heritage Canada Foundation in 2007 listed the site as one of the top ten endangered places in Canada. Nonetheless, the Tabernacle was torn down in 2008 to make way for a condominium development that was never built.

“It was knocked down when the market was strong,” Holdsworth says. “Then the market collapsed and the lot sat empty.

“People build during the booms and cut corners,” he continues. “I lived in Calgary for awhile. A house near us was built as a speculative move—without insulation. There were cowboys then and there are cowboys now. People don’t always know what they’re doing but are in for a quick buck.”

Despite some considerable losses to Edmonton’s architectural heritage, Holdsworth maintains that we know better today. Municipal designations are progressively becoming stronger and applied to more buildings, developers are becoming more attuned to the ways that old buildings can be successively integrated into new projects and the public is slowly becoming more aware of Edmonton’s old architecture as a legacy. But the fact remains that preservation is a major challenge. You can’t force owners to maintain or improve crumbling resources—as the drawn-out debacle with the Gem theatre illustrates.

The Norris cabin, undeniably Edmonton's most contentious log cabin.

The Norris cabin, undeniably Edmonton’s most contentious log cabin. (Hugh Lee)

O’Byrne, however, argues that the Norris cabin situation is unlike those concerning the Tabernacle, Arlington Apartments or old City Hall. For starters, he says, the cabin hasn’t been properly maintained. A structural analysis commissioned by Stantec found that the cabin is plagued with black mould and dry rot. O’Byrne argues this is the best argument against trying to preserve it.

“You can’t help but see the deficiencies,” he says. “It’s pretty easy to see with the naked eye that it’s in a state of disrepair.” He says that wood structures need “constant love and attention”— that they need to be treated regularly, if not yearly.

O’Byrne says owner Peter Allard offered the cabin to Fort Edmonton, but they turned it down because of the structure’s condition. The grandson of original builder Frank G. Newton has offered to relocate the cabin to Pigeon Lake, and even though Allard is apparently willing to entertain this option, the cabin’s condition may doom this idea as well. If the cabin does get demolished, O’Byrne says that Stantec plans on trying to remill some of the original wood and will put up a marker indicating its origins.

“Allard wants to be in the vanguard,” adds O’Byrne. “He wants to have a world-class building that wouldn’t be out of place in any other [city]… A lot of people in Edmonton play to the lowest common denominator when it comes to architecture and design. In this case, it’s the opposite. You’ll have the best building possible, using the best material available.” O’Byrne adds that the river valley views permit a more ambitious project than would be possible anywhere else in town.

“I don’t think this [cabin] is a particularly noteworthy historical structure,” he concludes. “It shocks me that we’ve taken down buildings like the Arlington, the Tabernacle, but everyone wants to save this log cabin that’s in miserable shape. For me, personally, there are some really good buildings that we need to be focusing on.”

Holdsworth says he has not been able to obtain a copy of the Stantec report, and points out that not all buildings plagued by mould are beyond rehabilitation. For the condominium to go ahead, Allard and O’Byrne would need city council to pass an amendment to the Oliver Area Redevelopment Plan. This will take time. But Holdsworth agrees that it may be impossible to save the Norris cabin anyway.

“Sometimes you can’t save old buildings,” he says. “When the land value exceeds the heritage value…” Ultimately he doesn’t expect the Norris cabin to be one of the lucky ones.

While talking to me on the edge of the valley in front of the Norris cabin, Anne Lambert offers to go into her house to turn on the kitchen lights so that her stained-glass windows will be easier to see.

Her neighbour, who is outside tinkering with his car, insists that no-one has ever seen the inside of Lambert’s house. “She’s like those people you see on Oprah,” he whispers while Lambert is inside, turning on the lights. “She has stuff everywhere.”

But Lambert lets us both in. Inside the house, it’s true: artifacts and detritus are stacked everywhere. Dusty photos on the walls. Newspaper clippings and ceramic hands that once upon a time modelled leather gloves. Lambert apologizes for the mess; she and her husband have been trying to renovate their basement. They keep having to shuffle things around. She shows off her Arts & Crafts chandelier, the stained-glass windows, the woodwork. All of it is original.

She rattles open the wooden porch doors. Outside it’s an Indian summer; the green valley unfurls lazily and the blue sky is a perfect pitch. The paint is long peeling from the Lamberts’ porch, the lumber is aged and Lambert waves her hand in the direction of the Norris cabin.

“If we lose this battle…” she says, “if we lose the river valley views and the trees for a 29-storey building, then we’ve lost a huge part of the joy of living here.” #

Edmonton’s Jay Smith is a journalist, poet and mother. Her most recent Alberta Views feature was “The Possibility of Hope,” Jan/Feb 2010.


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