Hidden in plain sight: The story of Edmonton’s Bowker Building

Written by: Dane Ryksen (History undergraduate, University of Alberta)

Editor’s note: Since 2017, Dane Ryksen has been documenting Edmonton’s built heritage on Instragram. Follow @_citizen_dane_ for even more of his research and photography. All photos below were taken by Ryksen unless otherwise noted.

Symbology of all kinds litters the facades of Edmonton’s Bowker Building. Up, down, left, right, there’s something to be found. The Chief and arms. The Wild Rose, symbolizing Alberta itself. The heads of bison, symbolizing power, strength and durability. The Queen’s Crown on each door handle, symbolizing the monarchy. Even its long-time name, ‘The Natural Resources Building,’ a symbol of Alberta’s bountiful wealth.

For being in the throes of the Great Depression, all its bangles, wingdings and baubles may have seemed like another instance of government waste. But for the United Farmers of Alberta it came with good reason. When they commissioned the building it was seen as righting a fifteen-year-old wrong.

The Bowker was born of necessity. As far back as 1914 it was realized that the great minds of the day had made a grievous mistake—they built the new Legislature Building too small. It was designed for the needs of 1907, not 1914 and certainly not the future. The plan had been for complete consolidation under one roof; in that they failed. With its design, no floors could be added, no additions constructed. Those departments left behind just had to grin and bear it.

For a decade that’s what they did. Every other year countless departments were shuffled to-and-fro between the completed Legislature, its old, worn-out predecessor—a block commonly, but affectionately, known as “the barracks”—and a dozen rented offices downtown. A solution was clearly needed and in 1929 the Province figured one out. They’d construct an ‘Administration Building’ in the hopes of relieving the present congestion, while also being able to consolidate a number of government services now occupying office quarters uptown. Unlike last time, they’d also include plenty of room to grow. Reports suggested it would be Edmonton’s largest office block.

But it wasn’t just about space. In part, their plan was also born of speculation. For years the Dominion government had retained control over the western provinces’ natural resources. During the building’s conception Premier Brownlee went to Ottawa to hold face-to-face talks with the Prime Minister. An agreement was struck, including financial compensation to Alberta for its loss of revenue during the years it had not received energy royalties, where control was relinquished to the Province. Brownlee returned to Edmonton in an atmosphere of triumph and was greeted by about 2,000 people at the Canadian National station in freezing weather. That same month, December 1929, tenders for the Administration Building went out. The leading tenant would be the newly created Department of Lands & Mines.

It had been only a month-and-a-half since the October stock market crash. Even so, the Administration Building was already being cited as a boon for a rapidly growing, unemployed population. In that, it may quite possibly be Alberta’s first Great Depression-era ‘make-work’ project. Contract stipulations expressly prohibited the use of power-machinery in hopes that more men would be hired for the job. A considerable number of workmen came to be employed. It happened, “at an opportune time as an element in the winter relief situation,” the Edmonton Journal explained. For one citizen interviewed, it was, “a most laudable purpose… This is one case where the number of men employed is of greater importance than the cost in dollars and cents to the Province.”

H.G. MacDonald Co. was the Province’s winning bidder. For the now-employed among their ranks, work was tough. Twice the Province was accused of employing below-rate, “scab labour.” A five cent lower pay difference between them and new hires was to blame. “When I interviewed the Minister of Public Works, Hon. O.L. McPhearson, about conditions on government jobs, he cooly remarked that as commodity prices go down, wages would have to come down too,” Carl Berg, Edmonton Building Trades Council President, explained.

Provincial Department of Public Works draughtsman Fredrick H. MacDonald drafted the impressive design. Joining him was veteran architect Cecil S. Burgess, the University of Alberta’s resident Professor of Architecture and Public Works’ “Consultant Architect.” As a Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada: 1800-1950 notes, the professor had been serving as, “the de facto Chief Architect for the province, overseeing a team of architects and designers including F.H. MacDonald who prepared designs for numerous provincial buildings including court houses, hospitals, schools, jail buildings and administrative structures.”

Historian Donald G. Wetherell contends that this means Burgess was primarily responsible for the structure’s final form. When it came to MacDonald’s drafts for the Administration Building, the professor was forced to make many changes and to redesign substantial parts of the plan. The changes were apparently so extensive that the building in many respects can be said to be his.

Bowker Building Lobby. Source: RAIC Journal Vol.8, No.10 (1931).

Be it Burgess or MacDonald, the Administration Building became one of Alberta’s best examples of the Beaux Arts style, a grand and theatrical, monumental and self-confident architectural form that dominated public and commercial architecture in the first two decades of the twentieth century. A Guide to Canadian Architectural Styles writes that this type of structure was typically situated along prominent streets or terminating vistas to, “give drama to the urban scene.” For 109th Street, where single family homes, advertising billboards and service stations reigned, it certainly did.

The $900,000 structure opened to widespread acclaim on March 19, 1931. At the time it accommodated the new Department of Lands & Mines, the Workmen’s Compensation Board, the Bureau of Vital Statistics, the Board of Public Utilities Commissioners, the Department of Municipal Affairs, the Fisheries Branch, the Forestry Branch, the Alberta Liquor Control Board and the Edmonton Land Agency.

Considered a cutting edge and exemplary piece of architecture, it received a feature article in the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Journal. “Canadian products were used almost exclusively in the erection of the building,” the piece boasted. “The outer facing is entirely of Tyndall Mountain stone. The steps of the stairs are of Missisquoi marble, and the lower part of the entrance hall has a dado of Nelson Island granite. The walls of the entrance hall are of Travertine stucco work with marble base. The floor is of rubber tile.”

The building’s lobby drew significant praise. “When one enters… one will be struck with the beautiful stairway and the marvelous appearance of the floors of the forum,” the Journal remarked. “This is all the work of the Empire Marble and Tile company and is a credit to the organization.” In their coverage, the Edmonton Bulletin focused on the less pretentious. “Ample toilet accommodation is provided on each floor and the plumbing throughout is of the most modern type,” they commented. Of note were the drinking fountains and bronze mail chutes found on each floor. Wires for, “electrical appliances,” be it telephones or desk lamps, were hidden in floor ducts.

The building’s opening was something of a last hurrah for the Beaux Arts movement. Despite the praise, the Administration Building would be one of the last significant structures of the style commissioned in Canada. Architecture was beginning to embrace modernity and find comfort and inspiration in the rapidly changing times it found itself in as exemplified in the rising popularity of the Art Deco, Moderne and Streamlined styles. Classicalism fell to the wayside as, “other materials became more affordable and, as land prices escalated, low-slung horizontal buildings that covered a big footprint were no longer economically feasible.”

Be that as it may, Art Deco, Moderne and Streamline also fell to the wayside in favour of more Modernist and International styles. Through it all the Administration Building stood tall as a resolute and classical symbol of governance. It would retain its ‘Administration Building’ moniker until 1952, when a new Administration Building — today’s Haultain Building — was constructed next door. The ‘Natural Resources Building’ became its new title, reflecting its two most prominent offices, the Department of Lands & Forests and Department of Mines & Minerals (both born from the original Department of Lands & Mines).

By 1976 it was time for a refresh. The Province had hopes the aging structure could be transformed into the home of its Department of the Attorney General. While the building’s exterior had retained its elegance, decades of abuse had left its interior beyond salvation. Architect Brian Woolfenden was contracted to undertake a $7,000,000 restoration and renovation.

Woolfenden’s team rehabilitated the building to modern standards, and [sought] to preserve those parts which warranted it. Only the front vestibule with its oak doors, stained glass windows, marble flooring, and the washrooms remain the same. The remainder was gutted and renovated in the style of another era. Even so, changes were sympathetic. Woolfenden’s appreciation of the original craftsmanship has been incorporated in a myriad of interior details, from bronze door handles, to mahogany woodwork and vaulted ceilings. A sixth floor addition was the most major change — it’s cleverly designed in such a way as to be invisible from the street.

When it reopened in 1981, the building had gained another new name: the Bowker Building. The change was in recognition of the longstanding contributions to the legal profession by Wilbur F. Bowker. Well known for his keen sense of humour, Bowker was a wise and kindly man, a humanitarian, a scholar, and a superb teacher. He was also the University of Alberta’s long-term Dean of the Faculty of Law. Given the building’s new role as the home of the Attorney General and Department of Justice, it was a fitting tribute.

After a several year exterior restoration program was completed in 2019, the Government of Alberta designated the Bowker a Provincial Historic Resource. It continues to stand as one of Alberta’s premier examples of the Beaux Arts style and as one of Edmonton’s most substantial, and often most overlooked, heritage buildings.

Sources:

“New Parliament Buildings Far Too Small,” Edmonton Journal, January 21, 1914.

“Will Start Work Immediately on Administration Building; To Aid Unemployed in City,” Edmonton Journal, December 5, 1929.

“Provision Is Wise,” Edmonton Journal, December 11, 1929.

“Denies Province Employed ‘Scab’ Labor on New Building,” Edmonton Journal, September 27, 1930.

“Administration Building Opens Thursday,” Edmonton Journal, March 18, 1931.

“Tile Work Wins High Approval,” Edmonton Journal, March 18, 1931.

Jac MacDonald, “Classic Palladian Architecture Rejuvenates Edifice,” Edmonton Journal, February 8, 1985.

“Alberta Government Administration Building,” Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Journal Vol.8, No.10 (1931), https://dalspace.library.dal.ca//handle/10222/74369.

Lawrence Herzog, “The Bowker Building,” Real Estate Weekly Vol.23, No.30 (2005), https://web.archive.org/web/20100226162028/http://www.rewedmonton.ca/content_view2?CONTENT_ID=1107.

Jac MacDonald, Historic Edmonton: An Architectural and Pictorial Guide, (Edmonton: Lone Tree Publishing, 1987), 26.

Leslie Maitland, Jacquelin Hucker, Shannon Rickets, A Guide to Canadian Architectural Styles (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1993), 111.

Donald G. Wetherell, ed. Architecture, Town Planning And Community: Selected Writings and Public Talks By Cecil Burgess 1909-1946 (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2005), LXV.

“Administration Building,” Alberta Register of Historic Places, accessed February 20, 2021, https://hermis.alberta.ca/ARHP/Details.aspx?DeptID=1&ObjectID=4665-0026.

“Bowker Building,” Edmonton’s Architectural Heritage, accessed February 21, 2021, https://www.edmontonsarchitecturalheritage.ca/index.cfm/structures/bowker-building/.

“MacDonald, Frederick Holmes,” Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada: 1800-1950, accessed February 22, 2021, http://www.dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/node/2579.

“Wilbur Fee Bowker, O.C., LL.D. (Hon.), K.C.,” University of Alberta Faculty of Law, accessed February 23, 2021, https://www.ualberta.ca/law/media-library/about/history-of-the-faculty-of-law/builders/bowker.pdf.

2 thoughts on “Hidden in plain sight: The story of Edmonton’s Bowker Building

  • “A sixth floor addition was the most major change — it’s cleverly designed in such a way as to be invisible from the street.”
    The clever design was invisble because it didn’t have any windows and as usual the Fish & Wildlife Division was left in the dark. A senior biologist told me he went to work in the dark, came home in the dark and only saw the sun on weekends.

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