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Modern Surprises - Superb Examples of Modern Architecture in Our Midst

by Anita Jenkins

The Ellis Building.

Architectural historian Trevor Boddy has written rather dramatically: "Alberta is marked more by the functionalist forms and philosophies of modernism than any other place in the world" (Modern Architecture in Alberta, 1987). A year ago, I would have had no idea what this statement meant or why anyone might say such a thing.

But that all began to change last summer, when I signed up for an Edmonton Historical Week tour. Architect David Murray and historian Marianne Fedori promised to show us buildings that represent the "design influences during the building boom of the 1940s and 1950s," and to give us an "appreciation for the architectural accomplishments of the post-war period."

Our tour bus made its first stop across the street from the Milner Building (10030 104th Street), designed by a major Edmonton architectural firm of the era, Rule Wynn Rule. I had been inside the Milner building several times. But, as Murray began describing the aesthetic features of what is one of Edmonton's earliest "high-rise" towers (1958), I realized that I had never really looked at it before. Murray drew our attention to the use of horizontal lines in the design. He pointed out the asymmetrical podium with black marble columns on the ground floor, the vertical sunshade louvres and the street arcade with plaza landscaping. This structure is beautiful, I thought. It's not at all just another boring, box-shaped structure, as I had always assumed.

Since then I have learned that "modern" buildings in Alberta are often a blend of many styles and influences coming out of Europe (like Corbusier) and the United States (such as the prairie style of Frank Lloyd Wright and others). The typical elements include an asymmetrical balance of parts in combination with strong horizontal elements such as ribbon windows and thinly proportioned canopies. Flat roofs, large expanses of glass, and windows that turn a corner are common in these buildings. Exterior stucco with minimal texture was frequently used, but the stucco was often combined with much more expensive exterior materials such as limestone, granite, and marble-sometimes all on the same building. When brick was used, it tended to be yellow rather than the more traditional red. Glass block panels were also very popular.

Salvation Army Men\'s Hostel.

Describing Alberta's fine collection of modern architecture, Fedori says, "It's remarkable how pure the forms are and how the styles are so directly translated." Murray notes as well how luxurious the finishes often are. The designs are deliberately simple, he says, but "they aren't as bare-bones as many people think."

How well many of the buildings on our tour illustrated their words.

The building that is now a Boston Pizza at 10620 Jasper Avenue was constructed in 1947 as the Burrows Motors automobile showroom. Designed by Rule Wynn Rule in the International Bauhaus style, it incorporates horizontal windows and several other horizontal features, along with an upper corner window and a large expanse of glass on the ground floor.

The Milner Building.

The Massey-Harris Ferguson farm implement showroom, 10616 103rd Avenue, now a Healy Ford dealership, was constructed in 1947, and William G. Blakey was the architect. Its International style includes horizontal framed windows with horizontal stone window bands, large expanses of glass and open columns. A flagpole is attached to the building at one end, as an asymmetrical component of the building's structure.

The 1952 Paramount Theatre at 10233 Jasper Avenue is one of Murray's favourites. The architects, Stanley and Stanley, used expensive materials, including Tyndall limestone, marble, and granite. The asymmetrical design includes a strong vertical sign element that is contrasted with the horizontal, projecting roof. The entrance has an angled canopy, exposed columns, and a hint of a zigzag design.

The yellow brick Ellis Building, 10123 112th Street, built in 1954, is a good example of Bauhaus-inspired design, with its industrial windows wrapping around the wall corners and an asymmetrical entrance with vertical elements.

Two of Edmonton's first highrise apartment buildings, Bristol Towers and Jasper House, grace the area where Jasper Avenue turns into 124th Street. Built in 1962 and designed by John A. MacDonald, both these buildings use yellow brick and are decorated with prominent exterior artworks. A "brooch" sculpture is attached high on the exterior of Jasper House, and the entrance to Bristol Towers is enhanced by a carved mural on the outside of the building, near the entrance.

Interestingly, another good example of modern architecture in the city is the Salvation Army Men's Hostel at 9611 102nd Avenue. It's constructed of red and yellow brick in various patterns and has a freestanding column at the entrance. In an unpublished report funded by the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation on the modern movement in Edmonton, Fedori, Murray, and historic resource consultant Ken Tingley conclude that this city has "a significantly large collection of well-conceived and -executed post-war buildings."

The Milner Building.

Edmonton is a northern city, located well off the beaten path. In 1941 it ranked tenth in Canada in terms of size. So how did this happen here? It happened because of a whole host of economic, social, and aesthetic factors that came together at the time.

First, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government became concerned about America's ability to defend Alaska and, consequently, launched several large defence projects that were based in Edmonton. There was the Alaska Highway, of course, but also a series of airstrips and a pipeline that carried petroleum from a refinery in Fort Norman to Alaska. During the final years of the war, American capital and workers poured into Edmonton.

Then, in 1947 Leduc Oil Well No. 1 came in, and Edmonton became the supply centre for the developing oil industry. The city would never be the same again. The metropolitan area population was 98,000 in 1941 and shot up to 176,000 by 1951 and then to 338,000 in 1961. That translates as a 90 percent population increase in the first decade and a 92 percent increase in the second.

With these demographic and economic changes, a tremendous building boom occurred. A strong local base of architectural skill and talent happened to be on hand. Cecil Burgess had established an architecture program at the University of Alberta in 1914 that operated until his retirement in 1940. Graduates of this school included John Rule, Peter Rule, and Gordon Wynn, who formed the Edmonton firm Rule Wynn Rule, along with numerous others who remained in the city and took an interest in modern design. As well, says Fedori, several Edmonton architects of the time were graduates of the large and forward-looking University of Manitoba architectural program. Architects also moved to Edmonton from other parts of Canada and even Europe, because of the high potential for involvement in large and challenging projects.

Many citizens were forward-looking as well, and receptive to new artistic directions. Some were immigrants from Europe and the United States who had sophisticated cultural sensibilities.

"Modern architecture in Edmonton reflects a relationship to the broader world," Murray comments. "The architecture of the time is bigger than our little world. Nobody in Alberta invented this."

Post-war Alberta, like the rest of the world, was characterized by an interest in embracing new ideas and new ways of living. The automobile was a huge part of the mid-20th century lifestyle. It's not surprising, therefore, that several notable modern buildings in Edmonton are automobile showrooms. People were also enthusiastic about the construction of large and elaborate movie theatres, a new style of suburban housing, and shopping malls. Most had a strong desire to forget about the difficulties of the Depression and the Second World War. The prevailing mood was one of optimism about the future; there was a lessened interest in maintaining the traditions of the past.

Clearly, the post-Second World War period is just as much a part of our Alberta heritage as the earlier years. "We need to keep these buildings for the same reason we preserve buildings from before World War II," says Murray. In his view, keeping such sites serves as a reminder to future generations of "culturally significant events, institutions, and people."

Why, then, have I-despite my abiding interest in local history and the preservation of heritage sites-paid little attention to the structures of this era until now? Tingley identifies one of the most common reasons. "We're used to looking for beauty in more ornate forms," he says, "even though the simple forms are more in accord with our times." Another factor, Tingley believes, is the tendency to take for granted the buildings that have gone up within living memory. However, he says, "Things are starting to change. As we get into the 21st century, some things in the 20th century are assuming a little more distance."

The cut-off point for the Edmonton Historical Resources Inventory is currently 1947. Tingley says this is typical of most cities. Nonetheless, the city's Planning and Development department is reviewing the idea of establishing a modern inventory, says Robert Geldart, Heritage Planner, City of Edmonton. And at least three modern buildings have already been added to the inventory, including the Canadian Imperial Bank (1951-1954) on Jasper Avenue.

An international movement known as DOCOMO has groups in 40 countries that are actively pressing for the documentation and conservation of the best examples of modern architecture and promoting awareness of the ideas behind it. Right here in Alberta, thanks to people like Murray, Tingley, and Fedori, more of us now know about the modern treasures in our midst. 

Anita Jenkins is a freelance writer and editor in Edmonton.

This article has been reprinted with permission from Legacy, Alberta's Cultural Heritage Magazine, and the author.

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