In the Central McDougall neighbourhood just north of Edmonton’s revitalized downtown core, top historical billing has traditionally been given to the 1913 John A. McDougall School or the 1915 Prince of Wales Armoury.
But architect and amateur historian Louis Pereira has found a few all-but-forgotten architectural gems in the residential neighbourhood – a handful of homes built by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1920s in an altruistic gesture to provide modest, quality housing for returning veterans of the Great War.
“I’m just in that deep mode of obsession with finding out as much of our city’s history as possible,” says Mr. Pereira, who specializes in residential design. He recently began scouring digital troves such as those in the Glenbow Museum and City of Edmonton archives for historical photographs of the city, and its early housing types.
Mr. Pereira was able to find hundreds of photos of historic Edmonton streetscapes. He says he sometimes splices together separate photos into historic panoramas, sharing the completed piece with fellow local history aficionados in a Facebook group: Historic Edmonton and Northern Alberta.
While searching the archives of The Beaver, a magazine created by the Hudson’s Bay Company for its employees, Mr. Pereira found an announcement for “A Housing Scheme.”
Alongside a column of retail store notices (“Mr. McVicar of the ladies shoe department (since the happy event) is wearing a smile these days which will not come off,”) the story described a project by the company to build eight houses, the first of which was at Portage Avenue between 7th and 8th Streets.
“They will be moderate in size and fully modern. They will not be elaborate or pretentious in respect of non-essential details, but will be built along practical lines of good, solid material. Particular attention is being given to satisfactory heating system.”
Strolling through Google Maps online, Mr. Pereira found that some of the homes were still in existence.
Mr. Pereira says he was drawn to the designs’ simplicity and proportion.
“It’s not over-the-top like a lot of houses of that day,” he says. “And that probably lent itself to it being more affordable. But just its overall shape and detailing was really modest."
In the 1920s, Edmonton was in the throes of a housing crisis with roots dating back to a speculative boom before the war. The Prairie real estate market was overheated, according to former Edmonton historian laureate Shirley Lowe.
“People from all over the place purchased this land because they were speculators and virtually nothing was built on it,” Ms. Lowe says. By the early 1910s, the bustling city of 72,000 people was rife with substandard housing – “what amounted to shacks” – as land values increased beyond the means of most Edmontonians.
By 1912, the Hudson’s Bay Company had sold off most of its lots, and the speculative bubble burst just a year later.
“They made out like bandits on their land sales," Ms. Lowe says. “The timing was insane, they got top dollar and then ... it just died.”
After the war, the city tried to dig out from the real estate collapse. Ms. Lowe says between 1918 and 1920, the city took back 70,000 lots from owners who had defaulted on taxes, in the end owning almost 50 per cent of the property in Edmonton. Even after the population had dropped by almost a third, the city still did not have enough homes available to house everyone.
The Beaver story was critical of the situation, saying the company’s housing scheme was “something even governments are afraid to consider because of the abnormal conditions brought about by the war.”
An Edmonton Journal article from August, 1920, said that the architects had announced “their intention of rushing forward the work in every possible way, so that occupancy may be had at an early date.”
The project again made the pages of the Journal in the fall of 1922. A story headlined Housing Scheme Steadily Progressing; Eighteen Well-Built Residences ran inside while an advertisement in the same issue claimed the homes were for sale “at very reasonable prices” and that they were “specially adapted for families of moderate means.” It boasts exterior walls with inner and outer sheathing and fireplace surrounds in the living rooms and main floors “of best quality hardwood.”
The project predated a small housing boom, Ms. Lowe says, which lasted from the late 1920s until the Great Depression, which once again reversed the fortunes of the prairie town.
“It wasn’t anywhere near the 1910-1912 boom, or the 1970s boom, or the 2003 boom,” she says. “It was a short blip.”
“Mind you, none of our booms have lasted, frankly, more than 10 years.”
Mr. Peirera was able to determine that at least four of the houses still stand today.
One belongs to Jennifer Brost, who is in the midst of selling her 1924 two-bedroom home at 11049 107th Street, N.W., with an asking price of $344,900.
Ms. Brost says when she bought the house a decade ago, part of the lot was still covered by a Hudson’s Bay Co. covenant. The company had placed restrictions on lots in 1928 that relegated development to single family homes, according to a 1997 City of Edmonton redevelopment plan.
“I think it’s just nostalgia with Hudson’s Bay, but they won’t lift it,” she says. Although much of the interior and siding has been redone, the original brick fireplace still remains.
“I still have the marks where they hung their stockings,” Ms. Brost says. “I was going to cover it and paint it and I thought, you know what? That’s ... almost 100 years old.”
“So you don’t want to muck with that.”
None of the houses are currently listed on the city’s conservation inventory, nor have they been nominated.
The Central McDougall neighbourhood is the focus of a renewal construction project set to begin shortly that promises to replace aging infrastructure and reconstruct roadways, curbs, gutters, street lights and sidewalks.
At the same time, Edmonton has directed strategic policy toward infill development, aiming to build more residential units in older neighbourhoods like Central McDougall. Just a block away from Ms. Brost’s home, a lot has already been subdivided into two.
“The irony is that I’m an advocate for infill development as well," Mr. Pereira says. "But I have a deep appreciation for what is genuine and true to a design of that era.”
“And I think it’s always worthwhile to ensure that those kind of houses are preserved."