Ancient is coming to Edmonton.
It’s a presence that screams wisdom and the truths of the ages without uttering a word.
For centuries, it has favoured places such as Egypt and Japan and the Mediterranean lands.
It walks down winding streets of Malta, for example, arms outstretched, fingertips caressing 1,400-year-old walls of buildings that have seen more than just the changing weather.
It ducks into a cafe carved into the bastion of a city and orders fine wine as the waiter’s polished shoes echo against time itself.
And now it’s Edmonton’s turn for a visit.
Not any time soon, mind you. But people such as Charles Galan and David Holdsworth (and numerous other Edmontonians eager to preserve and protect) are assuring its arrival.
We may not have the constructive foresight of the Maltese or the ability to leave lasting architectural impressions like the Knights of St. John. But have you noticed the amorous way the Hotel MacDonald presides over the river valley or the way the midday sun reflects off the ornately carved McLeod?
This year, Edmonton’s city council increased the Historic Resource Management Program funding to $700,000 from $284,000.
The increase came without noticeable opposition inside or outside council, says Holdsworth, the city’s heritage planner.
“There’s the warm and fuzzy side, which is preserving our cultural heritage,” says Holdsworth. “But the stronger side is the economic (benefits) of restoring our properties.”
Tourism dollars, the upgrading of neighbourhoods and increasing property values all add up to a favourable return on heritage investment dollars.
The common myth that heritage buildings are millstones around developers’ necks is in the process of being dispelled.
Whyte Avenue is a perfect example of what can be achieved when time and expense are taken to upgrade an older street rather than demolishing it.
Recent city history has shown that developers that apply for grant monies to reinvigorate heritage buildings are putting in $14 for every $1 received from city council.
And reinvigoration is what’s needed if buildings of historical value are to remain on the Edmonton landscape. If a building reaches a certain stage of disrepair, like the late International Hotel, the ability to effectively upgrade it is slim and demolition becomes the only viable alternative.
But it can be a touch-and-go process to bring a building with historical value into modern-day usage.
Groups including the city-commissioned Edmonton Historical Board are dedicated to publicizing the importance of local historical landmarks and, once recognized, buildings are often given either municipal or provincial heritage status.
Holdsworth says the heritage designations are not put into place “to stop development, but to stop unsympathetic development.”
Case in point is the old Hudson’s Bay store on Jasper Avenue.
Its massive stone structure with only four corner entrances is not conducive to today’s retail needs. The owner asked the city to remove the building from the heritage list and made plans to convert the building to a glass box-type exterior.
When Charles Galan, chair of the historical board from 1996 to 2001, heard of the request and plans, he and the board helped assemble a team of local architects and heritage groups to come up with a compromise.
The brainstorming created a solution that allowed for more ground-level entrances and other alterations, but protected all architecturally important features as well as the overall appearance of the building.
Though no significant work has been performed on the Bay building, when the time comes the developers will have a guideline to follow and, as a designated heritage building, be able to apply for grant money.
The grants are handed to developers on a first-come, first-served basis with amounts reflecting the overall costs of the project. For the bigger projects, grant money may be divided into draws available on a yearly basis in order to avoid having to turn down interested parties on any given year.
In 2001, about 10 developers received heritage grants – as many as the 10 years previous combined.
Grant money has been instrumental in helping some developers obtain bank financing for their projects. When the banks see that the city is behind a project, they develop more confidence in it as well, says heritage planner Holdsworth.
Galan, who last year volunteered about 20 hours a week to the Rossdale Plant heritage battle, is excited about the resurgence in the interest in local history.
“Before, (Edmonton) was an oil boom town,” he says.
“If (a building) was two years old, it was too old. It needed to be new and shiny like Dallas.”
As Oilers fans will attest, these days there’s not much love lost on Dallas . . .