By Derek Roy Breneis
It is difficult to imagine the beautifully restored and refurbished Rutherford House under threat of imminent destruction. Today it draws over 25,000 visitors a year. During the late sixties, however, the pressures to expand and modernize were everywhere.
How then did this particular house come to continue as an integral part of campus and community life in Edmonton?
The connection between Rutherford House and the University of Alberta was originally strong. Alexander Cameron Rutherford, premier of Alberta from 1905 to 1910, guided the University Bill through the legislature in 1906. He purchased a 1.3 acre lot right next to the new non-denominational and co-educational institution. Construction on the two-storey brick mansion began and 16 months and $25,000 later, the Rutherford family - Alexander, his wife Mattie, and their two children Cecil and Hazel, moved in.
With over 4,000 sq. ft. on the two main floors alone, there was a lot of room for just four people. In fact, the house had been designed for entertaining, with a welcoming entrance hall and staircase detailed in oak, a front parlour, library, and large formal dining room.
Beautifully appointed public spaces were balanced by a private domain which included a thoroughly modern kitchen with hot running water, a breakfast room, den and sun porch, a well as the family's three bedrooms and guest room upstairs.
A small afternoon tea for 20 guests given by Mrs. Rutherford on September 2, 1911 was one of the earliest recorded social events at the home. In A Gentleman of Strathcona: Alexander Cameron Rutherford, D.R. Babcock writes: "Another afternoon tea two months later was described as 'an important social event' that attracted 'hundreds of ladies' from both sides of the river despite a chilling drizzle." Within the span of less than a year, Mrs. Rutherford hosted five more similar occasions such entertaining securing the family's prominent position in Edmonton society.
A special afternoon tea served for university graduates on May 9, 1912 initiated what was to become an annual tradition at Rutherford House for the next 26 years. Students and faculty were some of the most frequent visitors to Rutherford House for the years that the family lived in the home. Dr. Rutherford spent many hours in the vegetable garden, tending the grounds and visiting with neighbours and students, many of whom also borrowed books from his personal library.
Jean Ward, Class of '36, studied with Hazel at university and recalls her early visits to Rutherford House. "It was such a pleasure to go there…the old furnishings…this lovely old home." Ward had attended a number of celebrations there since her student days, and her husband served on a committee to save the house in the sixties. ("As a matter of fact, the men weren't as persistent as the women were," she notes.) Just this past June, Ward returned for a tour and lunch in the restaurant. "Here I am at 82," she smiles. "There always was a connection for me to Rutherford house and it is still there."
Students and faculty were among the guests at the golden wedding anniversary of Dr. and Mrs. Rutherford on December 19, 1938, a celebration that perhaps represented a climax in the history of Rutherford House. Notable guests that afternoon included Premier William Aberhart, Col, F.C. Jamieson, Rutherford's former partner in law, and Lieutenant-Governor J.C. Bowen.
Today, the tradition of celebrating special occasions continues at Rutherford House through the private bookings service. Anniversary dinners, wedding ceremonies and receptions, cocktail parties, community fundraisers and even photography and filming sessions are welcome, most often during non-public hours. Revenues earned through this Friends of Rutherford House service are directed towards the ongoing restoration and promotion of the house as a distinctive resource.
Back in the late 1960s, such restoration seemed a monumental task. The family had sold the home to the Delta Upsilon fraternity in 1940, and during almost 30 years of fraternity life, entertaining at Rutherford House changed a great deal! Stories differ regarding the exact nature of various pranks and parties that went on. Still, when the university requested that the fraternity vacate the premises and scheduled the house for demolition in order to make room for an eastward expansion across 112 Street, many were surprised.
People concerned to save the home included members of the Rutherford family, the Society for the Preservation of Historic Homes, the University Women's Club study group, professors of history, as well as the members of the Alberta Pioneers and Old Timers Association, the Historical Society of Alberta and the Edmonton Historical Board. Public debate over the future of Rutherford House lasted for four years, until the university's board of governors decided in October 1970 to lease the house to the province of Alberta for 40 years on the condition that the government restore the home for use as a museum or historic site. "The idea of a historical place such as Rutherford House becoming an active part of today's life is very important," suggests Elly de Jongh, a long-time heritage preservation advocate and activist. "It is important to use our historic sites rather than let them remain static."
The final bill for the work to remove structural changes made during the fraternity's time as well as to repair or replace original fabric damaged over the years was over $120,000. Restoration work took about three years, and included new cedar shingles for the roof and repairs to the brick parapets. These repairs used original bricks from the sagging back porch, which had to be completely dismantled and rebuilt. As well, a new substructure and floor were required for the sun porch. The wooden front balcony and Doric columns were repaired, the boiler was reclined and interior restoration work included wall and ceiling plastering, oak panelling, stained glass and much of the hardwood flooring.
Visitors on public tours of the home today are still received in Rutherford House's gracious front rooms with 11 ft. ceilings and period furnishings. Friendly and knowledgeable guides dressed in historically accurate costume introduce guests of all ages to life in 1915 Edmonton. There are no rope barriers or plexiglass display cases, and we keep the house looking as if the Rutherfords had just stepped out for the afternoon.
Rutherford House continues to be a work in progress, requiring the professional expertise of researchers, curators and restorers, as well as the input and support of the visiting public. With Alberta Community Development, the Friends of Rutherford House seeks to generate additional revenues and community support through tours, educational programs, gift shop sales, private bookings, the Arbour restaurant, and fundraisers from quilt raffles to silent auctions. To continue to bring the house to life, current projects include an oral history of visitors' memories of Rutherford House, research into the restoration of the maid's quarters, and fundraising to winterize the sun porch and restore Rutherford House's grounds and gardens.
Thankfully, so much more than merely "the idea" of Rutherford House remains with us today. Since its official opening in 1974, this gracious brick mansion and its stories of family and community life continue to serve as a tangible reminder of our past and a lively and informative part of our future. As it did during the Rutherford's time, the house still opens its doors to guests of all ages. A member of the Friends of Rutherford House since 1986, de Jongh recently held an anniversary dinner there. "I will continue to share Rutherford House with my friends, the ones my age who have never been there and the younger ones with small children. People should see this house," she enthuses. At Rutherford House, we hope that visitors will always feel at home and amongst friends.
Derek Roy Breneis is Executive Director of the Friends of Rutherford House.
To participate in the Friends of Rutherford House Oral History Project and share your memories of the house, contact Derek at (403) 422-2697.