Written by: Fraser Shaw, Heritage Conservation Advisor
The southern Alberta horizon shimmers in the summer heat and seems limitless as one drives across southern Alberta near Brooks. Approaching the region, indistinct bands of green in the distance thicken and, like a mirage, resolve into shelterbelts and dense stands of trees. The striking, even surreal, contrast with the surrounding semi-arid prairie is the result of large-scale irrigation works of the early twentieth century financed and backed by, among others, Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Conceived to make “Palliser’s Triangle” fertile for agriculture and settlement, these works included the Bassano Dam, hundreds of kilometres of irrigation canals and ditches and the Brooks Aqueduct, a 3.2 km-long reinforced concrete flume. One of the largest aqueducts of its kind in the world and an engineering tour de force when built, the decommissioned aqueduct is both a Provincial Historic Resource and a National Historic Site of Canada.
At the epicentre of this transformed landscape, just outside Brooks, lies the Duke of Sutherland Site Complex, a Provincial Historic Resource comprised of a large residence, a barn and pumphouse, Delco generator building and remnants of irrigation ditches on an approximately two-hectare site. This was the administrative heart of a 2,752-hectare agricultural colony of Scottish and English settlers established in 1909 by the Fourth Duke of Sutherland of Scotland. Eager to invest in Canada and to promote irrigation and farming in the Brooks area, the Duke was a major CPR shareholder whose extensive holdings including a large ranching operation on rented CPR land.
The Duke commissioned the CPR’s Architectural Branch to design and build a large residence or “Bungalow” for his personal or relatives’ use when he visited the farm estate. An expansive front verandah offered shade from the intense southern Alberta sun, while the well-appointed interior included spacious living and dining areas with extensive paneling and mouldings, large arched fireplaces and a glass skylight above the main stairs – rare amenities for an early prairie residence. When the Duke was not in residence, the estate manger, his family and their governess occupied the Bungalow.
The Duke made but one visit to the Sutherland Colony before his death in 1913. His successors established the Sutherland Land Company under the direction of a manager reporting directly to the company’s London offices. The successful operation became a showcase for the CPR and the development of irrigation in Alberta until the economic hardships of the Great Depression. The company sold the land in 1935 to the Eastern Irrigation District, which then divided the estate and sold the main farm, comprised of the Bungalow and related buildings, to a businessperson from Washington State.
The current owner’s family purchased the site in 1945 from the U.S. owner. She grew up in the house and recalls changes from the 1940s and 1960s such as new aluminum siding, a wide picture window in the living room and conversion of the original rear porch into a mudroom. Passionate about her home’s history, she applied to the Alberta government for historic resource designation in the early 1990s and embarked on an ambitious, three-decade program of structural upgrades, interior and exterior repairs, and removal of mid-century alterations to restore the pre-1935 exterior of the Sutherland colony years. Completion in spring 2022 will realize a vision of restoring an important legacy of early settlement, irrigation and agriculture in the region and western Canada – an undertaking made possible through the owner’s commitment and the dedication and skill of many local contractors and craftspeople.
Conservation highlights 1995-2021
The 1911 photograph beow shows the residence or “Bungalow” and barn when the paint was barely dry. The expansive verandah, flat dormers and strong horizontal lines echo the prairie horizon even as the wood buildings appear as though transplanted into the treeless landscape. As the headquarters of the Sutherland Colony, the spacious residence with its suite of architecturally matching ancillary buildings differed in pedigree from the CPR’s more popular and affordable “Ready-Made Farms” offered to new settlers in varied designs and price points.
Many decades later, the Bungalow retained strong design integrity even with the 1960s aluminum siding that concealed the original painted wood clapboard and cedar shingle exterior. The August 2007 photograph below shows early conservation work: columns discreetly added beside the porch steps respect the historic architectural character but provide essential structural support where runoff from the gables weakened the wood framing, even in this dry environment.
In 2010, the Bungalow’s asphalt shingle roof was replaced with a historic cedar shingle roof and the east dormer, previously altered with a sloping roof to counter ice dams, was restored to its original flat roof configuration. Aluminum siding was also removed from the front and rear-facing gables to reveal the original wood exterior, which was then extensively repaired and repainted.
The historic skylight was removed by crane to a local shop where the corroded steel assembly was stripped of paint, re-welded, repainted and re-glazed with a mix of original wire glass and clear laminated new glass. Reinstalled in 2018 above the repainted light well, this distinctive original element illuminates and ventilates the second floor hall and main stairway.
Historic skylights can suffer from heat loss and the “stack effect” where moist interior air rises and condenses on cold steel, causing corrosion. In this case, upgrading to double-glazing would have sacrificed original wire glass and required extensive changes for thicker sealed units. An alternative of a protective glass shroud over the entire skylight would have been visually obtrusive and difficult to fit onto the narrow roof footprint. Instead, the rehabilitation approach maintains a historic wood sash in the hall ceiling to control rising air, while a fan washes the skylight from below to reduce condensation.
Starting in 2019, aluminum cladding was removed from the east and north walls to repair and repaint the original wood clapboard, fascia and tongue-and-groove board soffits. The east wall’s architectural centerpiece, a distinctive round “ox-eye” window, was restored by repairing the original sashes and replicating missing trim whose ghost outline remained clearly readable on the clapboard.
Wood windows were repaired with linseed putty (rather than caulking) and other traditional materials for a compatible and long-lasting repair. Covered for decades, the original clapboard was weathered but generally sound. It was pre-treated with raw linseed oil to recondition the wood, then repainted the historic colours using linseed oil paint, probably the original paint on the building. Once produced locally, this traditional product is now again available (as an import) and is being revived at conservation projects in Alberta and across Canada. Linseed oil paint offers good coverage, exceptional breathability and easier ongoing maintenance especially when applied over bare wood. These benefits persuaded the owner and contractor to adopt it despite a higher initial paint cost, longer drying times and other considerations for preparation and application.
Mid-century alterations at the west side were substantial and restoration has proceeded in phases. The original design appears in 1911 CPR blueprints and early photographs. This documentation and physical evidence aided by the owner’s own recollection guided the restoration. Restoring the southwest wall in 2016 required extensive work to remove the 1960s picture window and reinstate the original openings. The new windows are modern assemblies with insulated glazing and simulated divided lights that accurately represent the historic 8-over-1 window configuration. Related interior work included new wiring, new varnished fir window casings and millwork to match the original interior, as well as restoration and refinishing of the original fir living room floor.
Restoration of the missing porch at the rear (northwest) corner and the north wall is now well underway. This major undertaking includes the removal of the aluminum exterior and interior mudroom elements to expose original walls, foundation upgrades, reconstruction of the porch floor and walls, and reinstatement of the historic two-over-two porch windows with modern double-glazed assemblies. When finished in early 2022, this work will complete three decades of restoration by the owner.