Chris Ambrozic could be among Edmonton’s best at dealing with priceless materials. But you won’t find him moving gingerly through the controlled climates of local archives or museums. Instead, look for him in the open-air bustle of a construction site, making his name as a go-to expert in preserving century-old facades by dismantling and reassembling them, brick by irreplaceable brick.
As Edmonton wrestles with a reputation for letting progress erase its past, the services of Scorpio Masonry, with Ambrozic as its president, have recently been contracted on two major restorations. In the heart of downtown, the Kelly Ramsey block rises 25 storeys from the ashes of a March 2009 fire. Linking it to its early 20th century origins are the same bricks and stones used to recreate the first four floors. Similarly, at 124th Street and 102nd Avenue, The MacLaren (a.k.a. the Glenora Bed and Breakfast Inn; ne the Buena Vista Apartments) will be equally high, and sit atop the same bricks assembled there in 1914 or 1915.
This approach to restoration is uncommon for three main reasons. One: There are only so many historic buildings available as podiums for new skyscrapers. Two: It isn’t necessary when working with undesignated historical structures, which account for the vast majority of Edmonton’s antique buildings, including these projects. And three: Building this way eats into the bottom line, because it’s time-consuming, persnickety work. How persnickety? I asked Ambrozic late last summer as his company was tapping the last bricks into place at the Kelly Ramsey and planning the takedown for The MacLaren.
Ambrozic uses time to sum up the complexity of such jobs. “You take it down and, two years later, you put it back up.”
On the Kelly Ramsey, Ambrozic, a mason of more than 25 years, advocated for disassembly rather than shoring up the walls, while a five-storey parkade was excavated and built beneath the side-by-side structures. It would be safer, and it would better protect those precious facades. For his trouble, he earned the right to haul the material to his yard in Winterburn; 100,000 brown bricks on the Kelly building alone, each about six centimetres high and 20 long. When other parts of demolition were complete and the rebuild could begin, his team brought them back by hand, foregoing forklifts “because we don’t want to dump a pallet and break a bunch of stuff that we can’t get.”In some ways, though, working with the old bricks was a snap. After you clean off the original, crumbling mortar, they’re ready to place – almost anywhere, but still according to specs in the drawings Ambrozic made before takedown.
“Think of brick like Lego,” he says. “You can put it in another part of the structure and it wouldn’t affect it.”
Well, almost. He regretted not sorting the custom cuts that made up the intricate designs around windows. His masons – six or seven onsite at a time – picked through the pile for pieces that matched pre-demo photographs, working like painters transferring a portrait to canvas.
Ambrozic estimates that 99 per cent of the bricks on the Kelly building were successfully salvaged. On the Ramsey building, attached to the other’s south side and made of irregularly shaped Indiana limestone, only 50 to 60 per cent made it into the new structure. Blame the fire, which rapidly heated the frozen stone, then blame the water from fire hoses that froze it again. “That quick cycling of freeze-thaw ruined the integrity.” Ambrozic had new stones cut in the United States from the same Indiana stock, and did some custom cutting.
There’s a lot of such puzzle-piece work on The MacLaren, where a parkade is also being added underneath, despite it having a “Lego” brick facade and about a third of the pieces of the Kelly building. Fancy features around balconies and windows require reproduction, says Ambrozic, as will the vintage City Grocer ad, which is being returned to the south wall, its pieces to be numbered and replaced in sequence. The work adds $1 million to the construction bill, estimates Henry Edgar, vice-president of Vancouver-based Edgar Development Corp. Originally from Edmonton, the building’s new co-owner felt the projected demanded such sensitivity.
“We remember that building from our childhood. It’s an important building in Edmonton and we know a lot of people felt that way.”
Business-wise, he feels that the facade rebuild already adds to the marketability of the future apartment-retail complex (what it was originally built as, coincidentally).
John Day had similar interests regarding his project, the Kelly Ramsey block – and a clear understanding of the financial consequences. “Is that a good way of doing real estate development?” asks the veteran local developer. “I think there would be a good case to be made against that from a pure business point of view.”
But he dismisses that notion. “We found a way to match history and economic viability,” he says, noting that the City of Edmonton chipped in half the cost of the restoration work on the south and east facades of the Kelly Ramsey block. Day considers his project – 85 per cent leased as of this past summer – “a statement of wanting to maintain history in Edmonton.”
Downtown among the skyscrapers, the reborn Kelly Ramsey will likely be a welcome addition. Just outside the core, Karen Bishop, chair of the board of the 124th Street Business Association and former owner of the now-closed Daffodil Gallery, sees The MacLaren as a compromise. She and the board worry that the building’s height could alter the folksy, independent charm of the street, and cast an uninviting shadow while inviting similar developments. That said, she appreciates the developers’ intention to, somewhat ironically, maintain the character of the area by preserving the facade. Even if she sees the project as merely transferring the face of one building to another, “I think it was a way for them to ease the pain of losing the Glenora B&B.”
That may result in an illusion rather than true preservation, but it may be convincing enough to offer the comfort of familiarity and the feeling that we care about our origins as a city. Edgar hopes his building provides this for 100 years to come. Thinking of the Kelly Ramsey, Ambrozic is much more optimistic. He may have good reason: he knows the nature of his materials. They’re precious, but tough. “That will last another 200 years,” he says of his work. “Easy.”