Revival of a Prohibition-Era Landmark in the Crowsnest Pass

Editor’s note: You can read more of Fraser Shaw’s series on heritage conservation on RETROactive.

Written by: Fraser Shaw, Heritage Conservation Advisor

Gunshots shattered the stillness of 18 Avenue in Coleman on the afternoon of September 21, 1922.

Local bootlegger Emilio Picariello and his accomplice Florence Lassandro sped off in a cloud of dust as Constable Stephen Lawson lay dead outside the Alberta Provincial Police barracks, a cottage-like office and residence where he worked and resided with his family. Hours later, “Emperor Pic”—as he was known locally—and Lassandro were apprehended and charged with Lawson’s murder. Both were later convicted and hanged. Lassandro became the first woman to be executed in Canada since 1899 and the only woman to be hanged in Alberta.

The Alberta Provincial Police Building as it appeared in late 1922 after the murder of Constable Stephen Lawson. Source: Crowsnest Museum.
The Alberta Provincial Police Building as it appeared in late 1922 after the murder of Constable Stephen Lawson. Source: Crowsnest Museum.

The Alberta Provincial Police (APP) Building, a Provincial Historic Resource within the Coleman National Historic Site, is significant for its association with the infamous murder of Constable Lawson and, more generally, with its role in the maintenance of law and order in the mining communities of the Crowsnest Pass during Prohibition until the 1930s.

One of few APP relics left in Alberta, the APP Building looks today much as it did in the 1920s, thanks to community efforts to avert demolition in the 1990s and an ambitious, decade-long conservation program by the Crowsnest Historical Society. Problematic historic construction, decades of deterioration and unsympathetic alterations presented seemingly endless technical challenges. Hurdles included building code requirements for accessibility and fire separation; the replication of missing exterior features based on historic photographs; adaptation of varied historic wall assemblies for insulation and year-round museum operations; documentation of a deeply layered historic interior prior to asbestos abatement; and the adoption of a traditional paint system to conserve as much original wood siding as possible.

Transformation of the once-dilapidated building was completed in June 2017 with the grand opening for Canada’s sesquicentennial. The historic site is part of the nearby Crowsnest Museum and is open to the public as the Alberta Provincial Police Barracks. Restored to its 1922 exterior appearance, interior exhibits and artifacts weave a drama of rum-running and law enforcement in this scenic mountain region into a national narrative of Prohibition era history.

All photos below courtesy of the Historic Resources Management Branch unless other wise noted:

02-1996
The APP Building was dilapidated but still standing in November 1996 after local residents with a vision succeeded in saving it from the bulldozer. The building is comprised of two structures, a 1904 miner’s cottage built by the International Coal and Coke Company, and a front addition built after 1911 and used by the RNWMP (predecessor of today’s RCMP) and by the Alberta Provincial Police from 1916 to 1932. The historic building was deteriorating but basically intact.
A building needs a “good hat and boots.” The original wood structure(s) sat directly on grade and needed a new foundation. A concrete grade beam and pile foundation was constructed in 2009 and the building was moved approximately 1 metre west for more space along the east wall, where a gap of mere inches from the neighbouring residence prevented any access for rehabilitation or maintenance. The move was limited to ensure the west side remained basically as it was in 1922.  A substantial crawl space within the foundation provides space for new heating systems and ducts.
A building needs a “good hat and boots.” The original wood structure(s) sat directly on grade and needed a new foundation. A concrete grade beam and pile foundation was constructed in 2009 and the building was moved approximately 1 metre west for more space along the east wall, where a gap of mere inches from the neighbouring residence prevented any access for rehabilitation or maintenance. The move was limited to ensure the west side remained basically as it was in 1922. A substantial crawl space within the foundation provides space for new heating systems and ducts.
04-2013-roof & chimney
The deteriorating brick chimneys were rebuilt to the original design in late 2012 with traditional step flashings and replacement bricks reclaimed from areas hidden within the attic. The roof had leaked badly but rot was not extensive thanks to a traditional spaced board deck and ventilation from the area’s frequent dry winds. The roof structure was braced to meet current code and two layers of old roofing, one of which may have included the original cedar shingles, were replaced with new No. 1 Grade Western red cedar shingles.
In June 2016, the interior had suffered extensive water damage from roof leaks and moisture penetration through the exterior walls. A welter of finishes recorded decades of change and included the varnished tongue-and-groove walls and ceilings of the former APP office, linoleum flooring and wallpapers dating from the 1930s to the 1960s, and many layers of lead paint.
In June 2016, the interior had suffered extensive water damage from roof leaks and moisture penetration through the exterior walls. A welter of finishes recorded decades of change and included the varnished tongue-and-groove walls and ceilings of the former APP office, linoleum flooring and wallpapers dating from the 1930s to the 1960s, and many layers of lead paint.
06-2017-asbestos removal
To everyone’s dismay, vermiculite insulation in the attic and exterior walls tested positive for asbestos. The interior was extensively photographed and representative samples of wall coverings were collected, bagged and archived before the perimeter walls were stripped for asbestos remediation and repair in March 2017. Interior walls were kept intact beneath new drywall where possible to conserve a physical record of historic finishes for future analysis and interpretation.
07-2017-exterior stripped
In this February 2017 photograph, removal of the exterior siding reveals the stacked 2×4 construction of the original jail cells at the building’s northwest corner, built to resist escape. Farther along the wall, framing of the 1904 structure is fully exposed where shiplap siding was nailed directly onto the studs, resulting in a leaky wall assembly vulnerable to driving rains. The 1910s addition was more conventional construction of shiplap and drop siding on board sheathing. Rehabilitating the exterior walls was like peeling an onion—from both inside and outside—where varied and sometimes problematic construction presented significant technical and conservation challenges. Interventions were extensive but did only what was necessary to meet functional requirements while conserving the historic fabric and integrity. Source: Crowsnest Museum.
08-perimeter wall intervention areas
Original exterior walls were treated in six different ways, illustrated above, as dictated by wall conditions, conservation goals and code requirements. The east wall (A) needed fireproofing because of a neighbouring residence. This was unavoidable because moving the building farther west onto the new foundation would have compromised the site’s character as it appeared from the southwest shortly after Lawson’s murder in 1922. The wall was fire rated with Type X drywall sheathing and sheet metal cladding of the wood soffits and fascia along that wall. Original east-facing window openings were sealed but otherwise left intact. By contrast, the original north wall (F) was left as found and incorporated into the new rear addition, where it is exposed and interpreted in the visitor reception room. Other walls were upgraded with mineral wool batt insulation, moisture and air barriers for better thermal performance and long-term conservation of the wood structure.

09-2017-grand opening

The APP Building is unveiled at the grand opening in June 2017. The west wall consists of both salvaged original shiplap and new wood siding installed onto the upgraded wall assembly. Traditional linseed oil paint provides a flexible, breathable paint surface that retained the rough patina of original painted material without invasive sanding and refinishing. The west door with its restored canopy is now an emergency exit with a large step required by code. The single-hung wood windows with traditional exterior storm windows replicate the missing original elements based on surviving fragments and historic photographs.

A rear addition and boardwalks provide barrier-free access for all visitors to the museum. Conservation standards recommend that new construction be compatible with, but distinguishable from, historic elements. The addition is placed in a way that it remains hidden from the street. Seen from the rear in this photograph, the new exterior suits the site but is distinguished from the historic building by its more modern insulated windows and wood siding that differs from the historic shiplap.
A rear addition and boardwalks provide barrier-free access for all visitors to the museum. Conservation standards recommend that new construction be compatible with, but distinguishable from, historic elements. The addition is placed in a way that it remains hidden from the street. Seen from the rear in this photograph, the new exterior suits the site but is distinguished from the historic building by its more modern insulated windows and wood siding that differs from the historic shiplap.
11-2017-inteiror exhibits
Inside the APP Building, intact historic doors and other elements provide the backdrop for the tragic story of Constable Lawson in the colourful context of rum-running and policing in the Crowsnest Pass during Prohibition. The floor plan was kept almost completely intact. Infill flooring discreetly identifies original door and wall locations openings adjusted for accessibility and emergency egress requirements. Interior features include the restored police office of varnished tongue-and-groove fir, original jail cells and an enigmatic bullet hole in a bedroom closet discovered during documentation of the interior walls.
An exhibit reveals the mosaic of historic wallpaper and other finishes preserved within the drywall interior.
An exhibit reveals the mosaic of historic wallpaper and other finishes preserved within the drywall interior.

One thought on “Revival of a Prohibition-Era Landmark in the Crowsnest Pass

  • What a superb piece. Please pass my regards on to Fraser. I enjoyed it thoroughly and how gratifying to see the APP building is such wonderful shape!

    Ian C.

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