Twenty-five years ago, in their song “Alternative Girlfriend,” the Canadian pop band Barenaked Ladies lamented that they were “old at being young, young at being old.” It’s a Gen-X refrain that resonates with Edmonton’s heritage community today, as it races to protect the city’s remaining stock of mid-century modern buildings.
“They’re old enough to stand out, but they’re not standing out in the way that people say, ‘Oh, that’s a very iconic historic structure,’” says Dan Rose, chair of the Edmonton Historical Board. “They’re just like, ‘That’s an interesting, older building, I wonder what the deal is with that thing?’ We haven’t quite got to the point where that turns into appreciation yet, the same way we appreciate the red brick Edwardians that dot the city.”
Rose views mid-century modern buildings as the “definitive architectural style of our city,” and as irreplaceable links to a formative time. They stand as silent witnesses to the population boom that followed the Second World War and the discovery of Alberta oil.
In first-ring suburbs they’re the 1950s and ’60s bungalows, clad in fieldstone with large front windows and low roof lines that extend over carports. Larger structures include the CN Tower, Coronation Pool, Jubilee Auditorium, Idylwylde Library, the former Provincial Museum of Alberta, Jasper House Apartments, Ross Sheppard High School and the Edmonton Cemetery Office.
“We have not planned for the preservation, conservation and adaptive reuse of our mid-century modern buildings,” Rose says. He argues Edmonton has done a poor job of saving buildings from earlier eras, and worries the same loss is poised to happen with this next batch of historic properties.
The City of Edmonton maintains a register of designated historic resources that are protected against demolition. There’s also an unprotected inventory shortlist. Getting listed there is the first step to designation, and is largely up to property owners.
Between the register and inventory, the City has identified more than 1,100 heritage sites, but only around 165 are from the 1950s and ’60s. Few of those, however, are protected with designation.
A 2019 heritage report commissioned by the city identifies 38 sites of historical value in four west-end neighbourhoods alone: Britannia Youngstown, Canora, Glenwood and West Jasper Place. The report notes that the four neighbourhoods originally had 55 sites, but the “vast majority” of heritage sites identified in the mid to late 1970s, as part of the on-going Provincial Heritage Survey, have since been demolished.
“It’s hard to know” how many homes and other buildings of this vintage are being lost, says David Johnston, principal heritage planner for the city. What is known is that around 60 properties on the unprotected inventory have been demolished since 2015.
Each time “it’s a sense of loss,” Johnston says. “It’s like a small piece of Edmonton’s soul has been plucked out and discarded.” Heritage structures face many threats, including redevelopment pressure for houses and high maintenance and renovation costs. Even well-known landmarks like the CN Tower aren’t on the protected list, though current owner Strategic Group is committed to a “thriving modern business tower within a historically significant facade,” according to CEO Riaz Mamdani. It appears safe, for now, from the fate that saw many of Edmonton’s modern buildings crushed under the backhoe.
Johnston shudders at the mention of Edmonton’s 1957 City Hall, torn down in 1989. It was a daring, cutting edge mid-century modern design. “Other cities, at the very least, have their original city hall. We don’t have any of ours. They’ve knocked every single one of them down,” he says.
Edmonton-raised and now Vancouver-based architecture critic Trevor Boddy once published the first local history of modernism, Modern Architecture in Alberta, in which he praises mid-century creations like the 1957 Edmonton City Hall and the 1960s Edmonton Art Gallery. In a postscript to the 2007 exhibition catalogue Capital Modern, titled “In Memoriam,” he notes how Edmonton has destroyed its best building from every decade from the 1930s through to the 1960s, including both of these Churchill Square structures. And in his introduction to Capital Modern, titled “EDMODERNTOWN”, he theorizes Edmonton’s boom-and-bust economy is behind its drive to knock down reminders of the bad times that come with the busts.
“There’s this hostility to what was there before, and this is the reason why Edmonton tends to eat its own past,” says Boddy. Rose hopes Edmonton can break the “vicious cycle of reinvention.” He thinks it contributes to Edmonton’s perpetual identity crisis. “We have no idea who we are because we’ve gutted what we were.”
But preservation involves hard choices. For developers to pursue designation, they need to know building constraints won’t prevent them from recouping their investments. For a homeowner, selling an old property on a double-wide lot can fund retirement. And, for the City, which has measures to designate heritage structures against a developer’s wishes, compensation can be costly and politically risky.
Jim Gendron of the Infill Development in Edmonton Association — who lives in a municipally designated 1915 heritage home in Cromdale — says there’s room for “quality infill replacing older, rundown homes that have lived their life … (thereby) making communities better for people.”
Perhaps there is a balance between old and young, somewhere in the cul de sacs of Ottewell and the construction morass of downtown. Rose just hopes Edmonton can find it before it’s too late.
“I’m not one to chain myself to every bungalow and say infill is evil. It’s just about finding some room in that conversation for preserving what we have as a means to understanding who we are.”
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This article appears in the May 2020 issue of Avenue Edmonton.