|The glorious Francis Winspear Centre for Music, opened in 1997, sits on one of the most richly historic sites in downtown Edmonton. Nearly a century ago, it was chosen as the location for the citys new Civic Block and became Edmontons first city hall. Now, as Edmonton marks its 100th anniversary as a city, its a perfect time to pause and reflect on what once was and what could have been.|
In Edmontons formative years, the function of government was carried out at various locations, including a diminutive town hall at 98th Street and 101 A Avenue which also served as the fire hall. As the community grew, the need for space grew along with it, and by 1912, city departments were, as a feature in a local paper noted, scattered to the four winds. The Engineers Department was on Second Street, the Water Department was on McDougall (100th Street), the stores and supplies departments were in a building on Kinistino & Griesbach (96th Street and 105 A Avenue) and the Parks Board was on Elizabeth (102nd Avenue).
Council decided the city needed to build a civic block facing Market Square, which is where the Stanley Milner Library and Sir Winston Churchill Square now reside. The city architect, Allan Merrick Jeffers, was commissioned to come up with a building that would bring all the departments under one roof.
Jeffers, who had recently completed the design for the Alberta Legislature, devised an Edwardian influenced six-storey concrete and steel structure, measuring 72 feet by 121 feet and faced with brick and stone. Floor arches and partition walls were to be built of terra cotta blocks. It was to contain more than 20,000 square feet of floor space and provide ample room for the growing needs of the then booming city.
Construction commenced in 1912 and the Edmonton Bulletin reported that the plan and expectation is that this building will house all of the civic departments in a business-like and comfortable manner ... sited to the size and dignity of Edmonton as it will be five or ten years from now. Jeffers focused on the utilitarian function of the building and, as the article noted, The building will be plain, simple and unadorned except by such accommodations and structural devices as will make it thoroughly capable of housing the civic departments and of administering to their needs in an economical and direct way.
Its thoroughly fireproof construction included two fireproof vaults are each floor, designed for the storage of documents and other valuable, perishable articles. Interior trim was of quarter-cut white oak, except for sheet metal trim around stair openings and tile wainscotting in the bathrooms. The total cost of design and construction was $225,000 and, when the building opened in the spring of 1913, it was hailed for its common sense and modern features including electric elevators, toilet rooms on all floors ... electric lighting and telephones.
The main floor was home to the City Treasurer and Land Department, the Water Department operated from the second floor and the Mayor and Commissioners were located on the third floor. The Council Chamber was a diminutive affair, measuring just 33 feet by 40 feet.
The fourth and fifth floors accommodated the Light and Power Department, the Architects Department, Building Inspector and anything else that needed to be tucked in. The Engineers Department had the entire top floor.
Later newspaper reports indicate the building was designed to be only a temporary city hall, and that the original intent was to convert it to a warehouse. But I find that hard to believe, given its size and visibility, right in the heart of the citys administrative district.
Regardless, it never came to be. This solid and architecturally unremarkable brick building was the seat of municipal government for the city for the next 44 years until the new City Hall was opened in the spring of 1957 on the northern side of the square.
The Civic Block then became home to several social service agencies until 1961, when work began converting the building for use as a new headquarters for the Edmonton Police Service. To make the exterior appear more contemporary, a veneer of brown and buff aluminum cladding was installed. An annex was constructed to the east an adjoining garage with gymnasium above. The basement of the original became a shooting gallery and armoury and much of the original interior finishes were yanked out, although a wide iron, oak and granite staircase connecting all the floors survived the $900,000 renovation.
The Edmonton Police Service moved out in 1982 and the old building fell largely silent. In June 1989, city council voted to replace the Civic Block with the new concert hall, but not without some heated argument.
Alderman Lance White said the situation reminded him of the 1970s, when the city lost the court house and the post office to the wreckers ball with barely a whimper. If those buildings were here today, it would be a given that we would save them, he said.
Alderman Jan Reimer strongly objected to the demolition and urged to council to dream a bit, but other councillors derided the building, calling it a warehouse in a non-descript, functional Chicago Commercial style. The building itself has no redeeming features, said Alderman Lillian Staroszik, suggesting that a plaque be erected to commemorate the sites historical importance.
Thats exactly what happened after the old building was demolished in 1995 and today fragments of this n that, baubles from a forsaken past, are all that remains on the site. Ironically, the building that replaced the Civic Block is itself a dazzling piece of architectural symphony that citizens may well be fighting to save in 50 or 100 years.
Lets hope that the council of that day is more enlightened than the one we had in 1989 that turned its back on one of the most historically significant buildings in the downtown core in the name of political expediency. We gained a gorgeous concert hall, but built it on a piece of land that meant we lost an appreciable connection to Edmontons early history.
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