Friday, 6 January 2012

Strathcona Centennial

A look at five of Old Strathcona's most iconic buildings

February 1, 2012 will mark the 100th anniversary of the absorption of the former City of Strathcona into the City of Edmonton. A sad occasion for the residents of Old Strathcona? I somehow doubt it. While Strathcona may have ceded political authority to the City of Edmonton in 1912, Strathcona’s past century has been one characterized by passionate commitment to preserving the neighbourhood’s distinct historical character.

There have been numerous challenges to the neighbourhood over the decades, including a proposed freeway in the early 1970s that would have demolished much of the neighbourhood. But the residents of Edmonton-Strathcona and the area’s civic and business leaders have always been there to protect the neighbourhood and the result has been that Old Strathcona is perhaps Edmonton’s best-known neighbourhood to people outside the city. This surely makes this anniversary an auspicious one.

What’s truly remarkable about the former City of Strathcona is how fast it grew in such a short time. Strathcona was only incorporated as a town in 1899 and didn’t become an actual ‘city’ until March 1907 – less than five years before it was absorbed by Edmonton. Nevertheless, those 13 years of autonomy saw a massive influx of people (thanks to the historical Calgary & Edmonton Railway and its Strathcona terminus) and a frenzy of construction that gave the neighbourhood its trademark turn-of-the-century feel. The University of Alberta was inaugurated in Strathcona in 1908, making the city western Canada’s original ‘college town’. And by 1912, Strathcona was already a vibrant municipality that would end up becoming one of Edmonton’s most defining neighbourhoods.

A full list of Strathcona’s historic buildings would probably run into the hundreds. Here are five favourites—in no particular order.

1) Strathcona Public Library (1913)

Strathcona has always been known as a bookish, intellectual place that has long valued education and a thriving civil society. As such, it is fitting that one of the neighbourhood’s most iconic buildings is its venerable public library - Edmonton's oldest.

Built the year after amalgamation, the building is characterized by a restrained classical style, with intricate limestone detailing and a wide stone staircase framed with Ionic columns. A Registered Historical Resource since 1976, the Strathcona Public Library still functions as a library within the EPL network while also serving as a venue for community events.

2) Princess Theatre (1914)

The Princess Theatre was designed by the local architectural firm of Wilson and Herrald for John McKernan, son of Robert McKernan, the builder of the Dominion Hotel. Opened with the promise of hosting “high-class moving pictures varied occasionally with high-class musical vaudeville or musical concerts,” the Princess was considered western Canada’s premiere movie venue and was Edmonton’s only cinema until the opening of the Varscona and Garneau Theatres in 1940.

A Registered Historical Resource since 1976, the cinema that once brought the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to Edmonton audiences still entertains crowds today with offbeat cinematic offerings of all sorts.

3) Strathcona Hotel (1891)
Built a full eight years before Strathcona was officially a ‘town’, the Strathcona Hotel is a true ‘frontier’ building and is the oldest wood-frame building on Whyte Avenue. Originally named the Hotel Edmonton, the hotel has served a variety of functions over the decades.

The building briefly hosted Strathcona’s first public school and Presbyterian church services, and during Prohibition served as the home of the Westminster Ladies College to compensate for its loss of alcohol revenue. A Registered Historical Resource since 1976, the Strat’ still draws crowds today with its mix of historical allure and blue-collar nightlife atmosphere.

4) Fire Hall #1 (1908)

Strathcona’s original fire hall was (don’t laugh) a wooden structure, which was replaced by the still-standing historical structure following a 1902 city ordinance requiring that buildings be constructed with fire-resistant materials – hence the proliferation of brick buildings dating from the City of Strathcona era.

The present building was completed in 1910 and was in continuous use until a newer, more modern fire hall was built across the street in the 1950s. The only surviving fire hall of that era in Edmonton (and one of very few in Alberta), the building has for the past half-century been home to the Walterdale Playhouse, one of western Canada’s oldest and most acclaimed amateur theatre companies.

5) Strathcona Public Building (1913)

One of Old Strathcona’s best-known landmarks, this exemplar of Edwardian Classical Revival architecture was originally built as a home for the local post office and various offices of the Customs and Internal Revenue Bureau. Designed by David Ewart, the Chief Architect of the Canadian Department of Public Works, the building became the South Edmonton Post Office while also housing various federal government offices.

Designated a Provincial Historical Resource in 1985, the building now hosts Chianti Café, the Billiard Club and Squires Pub – and serves as one of the neighbourhood’s most popular (and memorable) rendezvous points.

Happy anniversary, Strathcona!

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