Photo by Dave Robb
When its cornerstone was officially laid on May 7th,1955, Edmonton’s Federal Public Building was acclaimed as "a tribute to the trappers, pioneers and settlers whose zeal and vision established the first foundations of this community." George Prudham, federal minister of mines and technical surveys, went on to call the project "a monument to the missionaries – people like Father Lacombe and Rev. George McDougall – whose faith is forever woven into the spiritual fabric of the community."
The grand ten-storey neoclassical structure at 9820 107th Street was originally slated to be built on land donated by the city at the west end of market square (where the Stanley Milner Library now resides), but town planner Noel Dant convinced decision makers otherwise. He envisioned a government centre stretching from the legislature between 107th and 109th Streets north to 100th Avenue. History shows that his vision would be fulfilled.
Early on, a new city hall was proposed to be part of the structure, but that never came to be. When the building permit was issued August 20th, 1954, the project was originally budgeted at $5.893 million, making it the most expensive permit issued in the city to that time. Construction necessitated the demolition of 11 houses on the site, sparking outrage from some residents.
The plans for the 23,800 square metre building were drawn by prominent Edmonton architect George Heath MacDonald, who also designed Robertson Wesley Church, the University Hospital and the old Public Library Building, among others. MacDonald actually began the project in 1939, when he drew the plans for a five-storey west facing federal building.
But World War II intervened and it wasn’t until after the war that the project was revived. Even then, funding was repeatedly deferred.
By the early 1950s, Edmonton was in a full-blown boom and the project had grown to become a 10-storey east facing affair. In an Edmonton Journal story of February 4th, 1958, MacDonald explained that the switch meant redesigning the structure end-for-end.
Even as it neared completion, MacDonald admitted that the switch still caused him trouble and he would find himself confusing the north and south ends when showing someone through the building. It was to be his last major project, culminating a 54-year Edmonton practice which began when he arrived from Sydney, Nova Scotia as a draftsman in 1904.
In the days before World War I, MacDonald forged a partnership with Herbert Alton Magoon. Their company, Magoon and MacDonald, designed dozens of Edmonton buildings over the next 30 years. Magoon died in 1940 and MacDonald continued on his own.
His International influenced design for the Federal Building still sets the structure apart, even today. While highly functional, the neoclassical influences and fine materials speak of something grand and exquisite.
The building features six different kinds of marble, including the lobby's Ashburton marble from Devonshire, England, with inserts of Saint Michael marble from France. Many original decorative touches endure, including custom light fixtures and nickel-silver trimmed doors and hardware.
Built on a basement and a sub basement, the main frame of load-bearing steel is clad with Tyndall stone and granite. The building is topped by three penthouses, with the main one reaching two stories high and giving a maximum height of 156 feet.
When the original building permit was issued in 1954, the project was budgeted at $5.9 million. That made it the most expensive building permit issued in Edmonton to that time.
When it was complete late 1957, the price tag of the building itself rang in at nearly $7 million. That’s more than $55 million in today’s dollars.
A story in the January 30th, 1958 edition of the Edmonton Journal reported that "the biggest move Alberta has ever seen" had started. It involved 100 men, 20 large vans, three cranes and a dozen elevators to move federal offices from at least 16 buildings and 32 branches employing 1,300 staff members to new quarters under one roof.
In 1983, the building was part of a three-way land swap between the three levels of government. As part of the deal, the federal government got the land for Canada Place and the Alberta government got the Federal Building. In 1988, federal employees moved to Canada Place but then the province abandoned plans to move provincial government employees into the Federal Building.
For a time in 1993, it appeared that the Federal Building would find new life as apartments. But that 209-unit project by the Prairie Land Corporation fell through. In 1998, there was talk of making the building the new home of the Provincial Archives of Alberta but the government decided to put the archives on Roper Road instead.
It's been a saddening fall from grace from one of Edmonton's most exquisite and monumental modern government buildings. Now there is hope and plans for a new future that will resurrect the glory of one of the city’s forgotten architectural treasures.
See this week’s Inside Edmonton for more on a new future for the Federal Building.