| Sick's Brewery, August 26, 1949. Photo courtesy City of Edmonton Archives, EA-600-2799j.|
Constructed in 1913 by Strathcona businessman William Henry Sheppard, the Gothic-style beer castle that most recently served as the Molson Brewery is a richly historic part of Edmonton. Three years ago, Molson closed the doors, bringing an end to 94 years of beer-making at the location at 10449 121st Street.
The closure threw into doubt the continued survival of the most historic buildings on the site. But now the Alberta government has announced that two of them, constructed in 1913 and 1924, are going to be declared Provincial Historic Resources.
That means they will be protected from demolition. They may well be incorporated into a redevelopment of the site, currently in the works by Vancouver-based Anthem Properties.
Sheppard was a former mayor of the city of Strathcona, and he played a key role in the merger of Edmonton and Strathcona. He built his first brewery in Rossdale in 1904, as part of his fledgling Edmonton Malting & Brewing Company, and began producing Edmonton Beer, Peerless Ale and Imperial Stout.
The venture employed two dozen men and was managed by W.E. Lines. Business was good, but hauling beer up the hill was expensive, and so Sheppard bought land in the Groat Estates, right next to the rail yards.
He hired Bernard Barthel, a celebrated Chicago architect and engineer, to design the building. Barthel hailed from Leipzig, Germany, trained in his home country, and built a reputation for designing ornate breweries across the American midwest.
A story in the May 3, 1907 edition of the Edmonton Bulletin newspaper, reported that Edmonton Brewing & Malting Company had Barthel’s plans and was ready to proceed with a $450,000 project. “The capacity of the works will be 120,000 barrels per year, or about 400 per day, which, with the manufacture of malt, will require about 150,000 bushels of the best grades of Northern Alberta barley , which is regarded as the very best for this purpose.”
The article said that the company planned to use city power, but would also install generators for emergencies. Two new 200 horsepower water tube boilers were on their way from the Glasgow, Scotland manufacturing plant of Babcock-Willcocks. “Nothing will be spared to attain convenience and cleanliness in the construction of the works and apparatus.”
The project was envisioned for completion the following year, but it wasn’t until 1913 that the brewery became operational, producing brands including Yellowhead Beer, Edmonton Family Lager and Imperial Stout. For his Edmonton Germanic brew-castle, Barthel specified local red brick, steel, and reinforced concrete. The total construction cost at the time was $250,000.
As the building was nearing completion, it nearly burned down when one of the kilns being used to dry the cement overheated on the morning of February 12, 1913. It ignited the wooden floor and only the quick response of the Edmonton fire brigade stopped the blaze from spreading.
Prohibition arrived in 1916 and wasn't repealed until 1923, making for lean days for the brewing operation, which survived by marketing an export line of beer. The end of Prohibition triggered a surge in business and in 1924, Sheppard built a simple Edwardian-style red-brick office building right next to the original castle.
He sold the venture to Lethbridge brewer Fritz Sick in 1927. A massive steel-girdered sign proclaiming “6 Edmonton Export” was assembled on the roof, and remained a local landmark until the brewery was purchased by Montreal-based Molson in 1958.
The Historical Resources Impact Assessment (HRIA) completed by the province has determined that the original building and the 1924 South Office Building are both worthy of historic designation. The City of Edmonton agrees, and has added both structures to its Register of Historic Resources.
The site contains buildings constructed by the original Edmonton Brewing & Malting Company, the Sick’s Brewery, and Molson. However, a 1947 Bottle Shop Building and the Steinecker Brewhouse, completed by Molson in 1967, will not be protected from demolition.
It’s also unclear what will happen to the giant rotating Molson “M” sign, installed in 1960 on the roof of the original brewery building. The two-and-a-half ton sign stands 18 feet high and 16 feet wide, and was hoisted into place by a 42-ton crane from Hulburd Crane Service.
The following year, Molson built a decorative building in front of the brick one, using logs to make it resemble a fur trade fort. Molson House, as it was called, was used as a hospitality lounge to entertain customers.
It was also rented out as a hall to community groups, businesses and individuals. In 1988, it was where Peter Pocklington announced he had sold Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. Molson-Coors, the owner of the site, offered in April 2008 to give the building away to any organization that would move it off the property.
The company completed a $12 million upgrade to its brewing facility in 2004, but it remained small and aging, and could only produce bottled beer. Molson closed the brewery in August 2007 on the heels of a worker’s strike, a shift in consumer preferences towards canned beer and the company’s loss of a contract to brew the Australian Foster’s brand.
The closure laid off 136 workers and signaled the end for a 94-year Edmonton brewing tradition. Along with the jobs went the once familiar sweet malty smell that exhaled from the plant, and the city’s only still operating link with its early beer brewing industry.
Edmonton's HIP Architects completed a report on the site’s historic significance for the Province of Alberta and the City of Edmonton and concluded that it has exceptional potential. Anthem Properties may well tear down the more modern buildings on the site and create a new development around the historic structures with retail, commercial and residential elements. The city’s decision to run the LRT right past the location bodes well for such a redevelopment to flourish.