Heritage Community Foundation Presents
Alberta Online Encyclopedia
Donald G. Whetherell and Irene R. A. Kmet have written the standard text on domestic architecture in Alberta. Their Homes in Alberta: Building, Trends, and Design 1870–1967 provides a scholarly yet accessible account of the ways in which Albertans have constructed shelters for themselves. (Donald G. Wetherell and Irene R. A. Kmet, Homes in Alberta: Building, Trends, and Design 1870-1967) As the title indicates, they take a chronological approach and counter the stereotype of the "little house on the prairie" that is the stuff of popular myth and legend.
While the sod hut and log cabin made use of materials at hand, as Wetherell and Kmet point out, at the end of the 19th century, the railway provided a means of accessing materials from already established parts of North America and design books, magazines and plans made international design accessible. They note:
While many rural people built their first and often their second houses from cheaper, noncommercial materials like logs, those with sufficient capital, primarily in the cities, built permanent houses with machined materials. This use of standardized building materials and servicing components helped to integrate Alberta housing into the North American mainstream. Nor was the settlement frontier in Alberta isolated from North American commercial mass culture. Ideas about house design therefore tended to follow common North American models rather than demonstrate unique regional styles and construction practices. (Whetherell and Kmet, p. xv.)
There were certain house types that had mass popular appeal and it was generally accepted that people who built houses, if they could afford it, built houses that they aspired to. In other words, a significant proportion of the population was upwardly mobile perhaps in keeping with the energetic spirit of the West that is represented on the posters that the railways, industries and government used to encourage immigration and settlement.
The Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village has popularized the building techniques used in the Ukrainian Block Settlement in central Alberta beginning in 1892. A number of important houses have been moved to this site, which is a living history facility with costumed interpreters. The Ukrainian communities in the region are part of the Kalyna Country Ecomuseum cultural tourism initiative. Another, unique ethnically-based community is the Icelandic community at Markerville, which includes Stephansson House. The site is a designated provincial historic site and interprets the life of the community around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries.
But, as Wetherell and Kmet point out, "folk" styles of architecture did not prevail. As well, neither did the building techniques of Aboriginal people. Albertans, from the beginning, wanted mainstream, modern housing and the styles were American or British whether from England or through eastern Canada. Thus, popular house types included variants of the American east coast colonial or Craftsman style one- or two-storey house, the British "Tudor-style" with its half-timbered beams and, later, the bungalow of Frank Lloyd Wright. The building materials of choice were wood frame or brick
In cities and towns, there was also a swift movement from the basic outdoor privy to the fully-serviced bathroom. The authors note that Alberta homes, from the earliest part of the 20th century, were places in which the newest technology was showcased. They write:
The use of electricity, the development of new materials, and revolutionary discoveries about the causes and the spread of disease in the late nineteenth century contributed to modifications in house design, and, just as importantly, justified the need for community systems to support the provision of services to the houses. No longer just matters of comfort or aesthetics, electricity, ventilation, light, and sanitation came to be seen as essential to health and to the definition of adequate housing. (Wetherell and Kmet, pp. xvi-vii.)
The private ownership of homes was considered the most desirable form of ownership and the ready availability of land made this possible for many Albertans. Social housing was a phenomenon of the 1960s and was ideological at base though in the 1990s, a range of sheltered accommodation for the lower income, elderly, handicapped emerged, particularly in inner-city redevelopment projects in Edmonton.
In the early part of the 20th century, entrepreneurs quickly made (and lost) fortunes through land speculation and built significant homes to demonstrate their social standing. Thus, Calgary has Mount Royal and Edmonton has Ada Boulevard and Old Glenora. These were the neighbourhoods that housed the power elites. Lougheed House in Calgary is an important example of this kind of architecture and, as are the Magrath Mansion on Ada Boulevard and the Malcolm Groat residence in the Groat estates in Edmonton. Historic Garneau, synonymous with the University of Alberta campus, still boasts a significant stock of two-storey homes, which housed University staff and other community influentials. Rutherford House, the home of the province's first premier, Alexander Rutherford, is a provincial historic site that provides visitors with the flavour of the life led by this Alberta founding family. Magistrate and member of the Famous 5 Emily Murphy's home is also located in Garneau. Around these areas grew middle-class neighbourhoods housing professionals and would-be professionals.
While apartments were built, even the working poor were encouraged to save to buy homes since paying rent was equated to pouring money down the drain. Wetherell and Kmet include a fascinating account from the Calgary Herald:
In 1910 the Calgary Heralddefended the "little lot man," the individual with only a small residential lot, as a person "whose modest efforts at home making" were truly laudable. A promotion for a "workers" subdivision in Calgary in 1911 endorsed these views in its warning to workers about their dismal future without personal home ownership. It suggested that when a man's skills were made obsolete by old age, he would be fired since "capital demands its 'pound of flesh' and you must pay the toll." (Wetherell and Kmet, p. 47.)
Thus, both Edmonton and Calgary had their neighbourhoods of modest houses, for example, in Inglewood (in both Edmonton and Calgary), Kensington in Calgary and Beverly in Edmonton.Every town in Alberta had its few grand houses of the entrepreneurs and professionals, surrounded by lower middle-class and working class housing. Geographic features, such as rivers and ravines as well as railway tracks, frequently served as physical demarcations of these social differences.
Mining communities and other resource-based communities had the "company house" and private ownership was not an option for these workers. The general view of mine owners and managers was that the workers were "feckless" and were not motivated to care for rental properties. Archival photos of the accommodation in most mining towns reveal the grimness of the conditions in which the men not only worked but also lived. The Crowsnest Pass area of Alberta has some planned communities with a range of facilities and Crowsnest, Blairmore and Coleman have national designation as historic resources. With mine closures, this significant aspect of not only the architectural heritage of Alberta but also an economic era has been largely eclipsed. Museums and historic sites showcase this heritage and the very special sense of place of these communities, which are a testament to hard work and technological expertise. 2004 is the International Year of the Coal Miner and, museums and communities connecting with coal mining have planned a year of special events. Allan Sheppard's "Coal Branch Reflection" article takes a nostalgic look at Cadomin at the time of the Coal Branch Reunion, on August 1, 1999.
Thus, the private home became the foundation for all of the goods that hard-working Albertans aspired to and this situation has not changed at the beginning of the 21st century. Just as the "Englishman's home is his castle," the same can be said of Albertans. Wetherell and Kmet write:
In all of this, the physical attributes of a house were central. The house should be designed to be inviting yet intimate, protective, comforting, and suitable for informal group and family activities. One of the slogans in 1915 of Prairie Builders, a company selling prefabricated houses in Alberta, was "A House Not Properly Arranged Never Makes a Home and Never Gives Satisfaction. (Wetherell and Kmet, p. 48.)