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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

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Landmark Buildings and Special Places

Unique buildings and spaces are associated with communities, visually defining them for residents and visitors alike. They make towns and cities great and reinforce individual and community identity and pride. They are the visual expression of what might be described as the soul of the community, which is the sum total of all of the works, aspirations and dreams of its citizens. Towns and cities grow through time, and buildings and neighbourhoods reflect cycles of boom and bust. They also represent architectural styles and periods.

The earliest representatives of historic buildings in Albertan communities have their origins in the boom period from early settlement at the end of the 19th century to the coming of World War I in 1914. Survivors of these the red-brick buildings of those original main streets can be seen in not only Calgary and Edmonton, the largest cities, but also in cities and towns around the province.

Alberta, like other Canadian provinces, owes much of its building stock to boom times. Based on some economic activity or other (for example, farming, ranching, mining or manufacturing), communities seemed to develop overnight. The buildings housed both public and private activities and, while largely functional in design, also aspired to make a statement as to the social standing of the occupant. Early on, there was a strong sense of the need for public buildings and spaces that would suggest the kind of infrastructure that those community builders aspired to.

From the beginning, entrepreneurs came from eastern Canada, the United States and Europe and wished to recreate a Pittsburgh, Toronto, Minneapolis or other centre of commerce and manufacturing in the Great Plains. In fact, the write-ups in newspapers and promotional brochures sound surprisingly modern resembling the products of chambers of commerce or government promotional literature. Perhaps, the largeness of the territory lent itself to exaggeration.

While the design elements for domestic and public buildings are largely derivative, there are some buildings that are icons of prairie architecture. Among these are the grain elevators. While these were plentiful until the 1980s, with some communities having more than a dozen along the railway line, they are now endangered and their preservation is a challenge for local communities.

Other unique Albertan buildings are the churches that are found in every community. The Ukrainian Block Settlement, which began in the 1890s, resulted in the building of many churches with the characteristic onion domes. Important examples have been preserved at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village but also in communities throughout central Alberta. A driving tour allows visitors to see these "gems" of prairie architecture as well as experiencing life in rural communities.

Visit the Alberta's Real Estate Heritage website and explore the Landmark Buildings and Places Database. Searches can be done according to architectural styles, eras and regions.

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