|Playground Construction. Photo courtesy City of Edmonton Archives, EA-20-5965|
In 1964, then Mayor William Hawrelak turned on the tap to start the flow of water from the North Saskatchewan River into the artificial lake that was to become the centrepiece of Mayfair Park. It came just a couple of years before Hawrelaks political career went down the drain, and its a note of delicious historical irony that the 150-acre park was eventually renamed for him as William Hawrelak Park.
The renaming proved to be one of Edmontons great political controversies of the 1970s. But Im getting well ahead of the story.
In Edmontons formative years, the land in the belly of the river valley, along a wide bend of the river, was known as Mayfair and owned by the Strathcona Land Syndicate. A survey plan of 1912 shows the Mayfair Park area as Windsor Terrace, a residential subdivision of more than 500 small lots.
The grandiose plan for housing never materialized, as the city got title to the land November 21, 1922, through a tax forfeit. For the next 30 years, the site, just south of todays Groat Bridge west of Groat Road, functioned as a garbage dump and then a gravel extraction and crushing operation.
In 1954, some bright bulbs in the city administration and then city council (of which Hawrelak was a member) proposed the land be made into a park and planning began two years later. Originally envisioned as a year round family recreation area with two lakes, picnic areas, a swimming pool, toboggan runs and ski-tow, some of the plans needed to be scaled back because of a dearth of funds.
Construction on the site commenced in 1959 and the adjoining 73 hectares were leased for the Mayfair Golf and Country Club. Using topographic surveys, city parks designers set the grades and prepared preliminary plans which called for a lake with twin islands.
To save money, the city encouraged commercial haulers, builders and residents to bring their fill to the park and dump it. In Early 1960, an employee was stationed in a house in the park and directed the dumping of the fill in the needed locations.
Periodic grading of this fill and re-surveying as the dumping progressed enabled the department to build much of the sub-grade of the park as it exists today with a minimum of expenditure. But it wasnt a pretty sight. A story in the November 8, 1962 edition of the Edmonton Journal observed the site had all the charm of a bomb crater.
Consultants were engaged to design a water circulation system for the park's lake and they considered using municipal water but decided to use river water to save money. On October 23, 1964, Mayor Hawrelak turned on the system in the presence of civic and other dignitaries.
The lake was opened for social skating during the winter of 1964/65 with a minimum of amenities such as access, parking and privy toilets. Under the direction of the citys Parks and Recreation Superintendent John Janzen, the local firm of Bittorf, Wensley were hired as architects for the permanent skating pavilion and shelter buildings. The total cost of the chalet-style structures, with their giant wooden beams and abundant glass, was $275,000.
The 61-hectare park (150-acres in those Imperial measurement days) officially opened July 1st, 1967 Dominion Day in the countrys centennial year. The permanent pavilion was completed in 1968 and an irrigation system and other underground utilities were installed along with planting of grass, shrubs and trees. When it was all done, the total tab came in at more than $1 million.
Most everybody who came of age in Edmonton during the 1960s and 1970s (me among them) remembers cruising the road that ringed the park. I remember skating on the four-hectare lake, and the rush of exhilaration I felt the first time I made it all the way around. In the summer months, the air came alive with fragrance of poplar, geese and ducks flocked in to raise their broods, and paddleboats became a popular way to visit the islands.
While the park was being developed, William Hawrelak was in his own pickle, implicated during a provincial inquiry into land sales, which prompted him to step down as Mayor in 1959. He was again elected in 1963 but was forced out of office in 1965 by the Supreme Court of Alberta because of his real estate holdings and transactions. In 1974, he staged a third successful comeback, but died suddenly the following year.
The following year, city council voted 6-5 to rename Mayfair Park after the former mayor who had backed its creation. The public reaction was mixed, with some residents downright nasty about the name change. The late Laurence Decore, who was then a councillor and later became mayor, believed the controversy was propelled by ethnic prejudice against the Ukrainian community.
Called an ostentatious showpiece and a white elephant by the Journals city affairs writer Andy Imlach in 1971, William Hawrelak Park has turned out to be the exact opposite. It now ranks as the citys most beloved park, with more than 1 million visitors every year. The park and its outdoor covered amphitheatre host more events than any other city park, including the annual Heritage Days Festival, BrightNights, Shakespeare in the Park and the Blues Festival as well as smaller events such as fun runs and kite days.
The Heritage Amphitheatre was completed in 1985 and, 11 years later, a pedestrian bridge was built across the river, linking William Hawrelak Park to Laurier Park. Those old enough to remember the parks early days might still call it Mayfair, but thats what it was to William Hawrelak, too, and he would probably understand why.
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