hide You are viewing an archived web page, collected at the request of University of Alberta using Archive-It. This page was captured on 16:04:14 Dec 08, 2010, and is part of the HCF Alberta Online Encyclopedia collection. The information on this web page may be out of date. See All versions of this archived page. Loading media information

Heritage Community Foundation Presents
Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Doors Open Alberta

Defying Location, Conserving Buildings - Revitalizing Neighbourhoods

by Murray G. Miller

The Hecla Building.

Conserving historic buildings involves more than just restoring them to their original condition but then leaving them as static museum pieces. They should be reintegrated into the community in which they are located, providing a connection from the past to the present and into the future. One way to achieve this is to find compatible and/or new uses for them once they have been rehabilitated.

Two Edmonton developers hope to achieve just that as they take on the challenge of conserving old buildings and revitalizing neighbourhoods. Both of these buildings are in the cit/s inner core, in physically and socially challenging areas. Both developers hope to take advantage of financial incentives available for specific Municipal Historic Resources which are targeted toward exterior rehabilitation of old buildings.

The Hecla Block is located in the Boyle/McCauley neighbourhood, which has a long history of community issues relating to prostitution, inadequate lighting, and land use. The neighbourhood was intended to be an area of transition between downtown and apartment housing located east of 92nd Street. The Hecla Block, at 10141-95th Street, was one of Edmonton's first generation of apartment buildings, built by John Johnson in 1914. Johnson arrived in Canada from Skagafirde, Iceland in 1876 as part of a wave of Icelandic immigrants who were spurred by political upheaval, catastrophic weather, and volcanic eruptions.

The volcanic eruptions must have left a memorable impression on Johnson since he named his building Hecla, after Mount Hecla, the largest and best-known volcano in Iceland. The building's historical significance is further enhanced through its architecture. The Edwardian Classicism style is expressed in part by its detailed cornice, articulated parapet, red texture brick, buff stone trim, curved entrance canopy, and flat arch window heads.

The Hecla Block was severely damaged by fire in 1994 but remains an important landmark in the area. Frank Bowen, a local real estate agent, is leading a plan to rescue this historic resource. "I had an interest in a few heritage properties, but when this one came on the market, I jumped at the opportunity," explains Bowen.

"The physical difficulties of rehabilitating the Hecla Block can be dealt with and, for the most part, we have control over that," he continues.

But he is defying the real estate assumption of "location, location, location" as the key to success. This location has serious drawbacks. It's an area of crowded housing which is in poor condition, vacant lots that are not cared for. There's a lack of cohesiveness, high traffic volumes, crime, high levels of poverty and unemployment. The Boyle/McCauley neighbourhood also has the greatest concentration of special needs populations, low-income families, and transients.

Macdonald\'s Consolidated Limited float in Edmonton Exhibition parade, Edmonton, Alberta, in front of the A. MacDonald Building.

On the other hand, its advantages include proximity to downtown and the river valley and a diverse ethnic population encompassing Chinatown and Little Italy.

For the Hecla Block, Bowen commissioned architect David Murray to solve the physical and code-related deficiencies for converting the building to 14 home-office suites. Murray has 16 years of preservation experience including several Main Street projects in Ponoka, Vegreville, Lacombe, and Old Strathcona.

"This building would never meet today's codes, and one of the challenges is to find ways to upgrade the fire rating and exiting requirements without negatively impacting on the historic character of the building," says Murray of the challenges he faced.

A new roof has been installed, and some interior stabilization work has been done. Exterior rehabilitation is expected to begin in the spring.

David Murray and his partner Alan Partridge of Inglis Partridge Architects also did a preliminary design for the adaptive reuse of the A. MacDonald Building at 10128 105th Avenue. Partridge has 25 years experience as a conservation architect and has worked on a wide range of historic projects in Canada, South America and the U.K.

Winnipeg entrepreneur Alexander Macdonald built the A. Macdonald Building in 1913-14. One of the first pioneer wholesale grocery distribution centres in Western Canada, it took advantage of the urbanization and settlement that had occurred in the previous decade. The A. Macdonald Building is an excellent example of Commercial Warehouse architecture and is one of the most distinguished among Edmonton's warehouses.

When it comes to location, the A. Macdonald Building truly offers a challenge. The new owner, Dan White, acknowledges, "It's a prominent structure that deserves to be seen in a more positive light. It is unfortunate that it is perceived as being on 'the wrong side of the tracks,' but we're hopeful that eventually that perception will change and we'll see more business people living and working in the area."

The expression "wrong side of the tracks" suggests that the area north of 104th Avenue (which previously demarked lands used by CN) represents a difference in the physical and social environments, similar to the area in which the Hecla Block is located. Central McDougall was, for the most part, zoned for single-family use until the 1960s, when zoning was changed to allow for higher density apartments in response to intense development pressures. It has all of the constraints of the Boyle/McCauley neighbourhood with the addition of arcades, casinos, liquor stores, and bars. Social problems are evident, police officers scarce, and both residents and people who live outside the area perceive it as an area of high crime and unsafe streets.

White intends to rehabilitate the warehouse for housing and hopes to tap into the affordable housing market as well as attract people who work downtown and students from nearby Grant MacEwan Community College. Along with various financial incentives to take on the challenge, White is attempting to capitalize on other opportunities such as its central location, availability of community services, good schools, and the area's untapped development potential.

As soon as the use of a building changes from storage to housing, the level of health and safety requirements of a building increases dramatically.

Partridge explains, "In terms of the heritage buildings that our firm has worked on, the change of use is quite different. Most of our previous involvement with heritage buildings has involved restoration rather than adaptive reuse"

These are important examples of historic buildings, which are prime candidates for being brought back as integral components of neighbourhoods. The key is that they become living buildings, not static displays of a bygone era. They can be seen as being both architectural and social rehabilitation projects. They can provide communities with a sense of connectedness to their past while leaving a legacy for present and future generations to enjoy.

As U.S. Congressman John Brademas comments in Barbaralee Diamonstein's Buildings Reborn: New Uses, Old Places, "When we thoughtlessly obliterate the building and places of our past, we demonstrate an insensitivity to what we were, a disdain for what we in part still are. By saving [and adapting to reuse] the best of our old buildings, we link the communities of today to the foundations of our culture."

With this type of heritage conservation, more is achieved than simply keeping hard-hats occupied and preservationists happy. It is possible that the conservation of these buildings will have significant and positive long-term spinoff benefits to their communities. The most significant benefits are more likely to be non-tangible, like relieving some of the social burdens, starting with occupancy. Vacant or derelict buildings often attract and facilitate undesirable activities; but the demolition of such resources (particularly those that may have heritage value) is not only a cultural tragedy, it usually results in the proliferation of undesirable vacant and derelict land. These two projects are consistent with Plan Edmonton and Area Redevelopment Plan objectives in that they both reinvest in mature neighbourhoods and make the most of what has already been built.

If these examples underscored the importance of the built environment to the liveability of cities, that would be progress. If they served as a catalyst for re-thinking how important the city's remaining heritage is, resulting in a more reflective and more appropriate attitude towards heritage conservation, that, too, would be progress. If all of this resulted in an appreciation of the past, a respect for authenticity, and a realization that "new" is not a prerequisite for progress; that conserving historic buildings is a positive factor in revitalizing neighbourhoods, it would be another kind of progress, a non-tangible benefit that society as a whole desperately needs.

Murray G. Miller has been a heritage planner for the cities of Edmonton and Victoria.

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

The Alberta Online EncyclopediaHeritage Community FoundationTravel Alberta CanadaTravel Alberta Canada