Located on a quiet residential street in Redcliff, Alberta, St. Ambrose Anglican Church is distinguished by its buttressed brick masonry exterior, steeply-pitched gable roof and pointed arch windows. These characteristics strongly identify the 1914 church with the Gothic Revival style popular in the Victorian era for ecclesiastical architecture in England, a style also eagerly adopted by Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches across Canada. Unlike many churches, though, St. Ambrose was modelled on small Anglican parish churches in England and is a variant of the Gothic Revival style seldom found in Alberta.
St. Ambrose’s architecture hearkens back to England but the building’s local roots are evident in the “clinker brick” masonry exterior, an overfired brick with distinctive irregular or lumpy shapes and striking colour variations. Clinker brick resulted from high firing temperatures in the kiln which caused the clay to partly vitrify or melt, sometimes to the point where clumps of bricks would fuse together and had to be broken apart. This lack of uniformity was appreciated for its decorative qualities and the clinker brick at St. Ambrose was produced at the Redcliff Brick and Coal Company just blocks away. The combination of far-reaching colonial stylistic influences and distinctive local materials contributed to the church’s designation as a Provincial Historic Resource in 2008.
Historic places are unfortunately fair game for graffiti attacks – sometimes especially so when these places are visible and widely recognized landmarks. Defined as writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or painted illicitly onto walls and other surfaces, graffiti from a heritage conservation perspective is an intervention to be removed or reversed. It clearly differs from old markings that are an acknowledged and legitimate part, or “character-defining element”, of a historic place. Examples of the latter are prisoners’ inscriptions etched into the basement cell walls of the Cardston Courthouse or, on the opposite side of the law, North West Mounted Police members’ initials carved into the sandstone outcrops overlooking Police Coulee at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park. These special cases contribute to heritage value rather than obscure or detract from it. Read more →
The historic downtown of Fort Macleod, one of two Provincial Historic Areas in the province, is well known for its impressive commercial buildings of brick and sandstone masonry. Collectively, these Classical Revival buildings exemplify an Edwardian commercial streetscape just prior to the First World War.
One of the main street’s crown jewels is the Empress Theatre, an elegant brick building with decorative sandstone details built in 1912. Historically a hub of the town’s social life, the theatre hosted plays, vaudeville acts and performers from Alberta, across North America and even overseas, as graffiti preserved in the original basement dressing rooms attests to this day. The original façade was theatrical in its own right and featured a grand arched entrance and recessed box office. As tastes changed and motion pictures grew in popularity, the original entry was enclosed to provide a lobby and concession, the auditorium was renovated with plush upholstered seats in the Art Deco style and neon tulips mounted on the ceiling, and a bold new neon sign and marquee replaced the original blade sign on the front facade. These 1930s and 1950s renovations added layers of architectural history and significance to the building and contributed to its designation as a Provincial Historic Resource in 1982.
The Town of Fort Macleod owns the theatre and has embarked on an extensive rehabilitation project that includes rehabilitation of the historic neon marquee. The marquee was refurbished in the late 1980s by Fort Macleod’s Main Street Project but a generation of exposure to the elements has taken its toll on the galvanized sheet metal, paint, and fragile neon tubing. Removal of the signs for other façade repairs was an ideal opportunity to re-examine and document the marquee’s colour history. Read more →
Peeling paint and powdering plaster were the first indications something was amiss at the Blairmore Courthouse, a Provincial Historic Resource in the Crowsnest Pass. A leak in the cedar shingle roof, replaced just the previous year, was immediately suspected. Detailing around the dormers in particular, part of the 1922 building’s distinctive Spanish Colonial Revival design by architect R.P. Blakey, is tricky and vulnerable to water penetration.
Nippon School of Technology, which owns the building and runs a technical school and exchange program for Japanese engineering students there, inspected the roof from the attic and found no active leaks. Puzzled, N.I.T. engaged a conservation architect to inspect the building and identify sources of moisture causing the paint and plaster failure. The findings were at once surprising and (in hindsight) credible. Read more →
E.P. (Prince Edward) Ranch, established by the Bedingfeld family in 1886, is located in the foothills southwest of Calgary near the Bar U Ranch National Historic Site. In 1919, during a cross-Canada tour, the Bedingfeld’s ranch captured the fancy of His Royal Highness Edward, Prince of Wales, upon his visit to the area. Prince Edward purchased the ranch shortly thereafter from Frank Bedingfeld. Under Edward’s direction, the ranch developed a breeding program for sheep, cattle, and horses with livestock imported from the Prince’s breeding farms in the Duchy of Cornwall in England. Prince Edward, later King Edward VIII, visited the ranch in the 1920s and in the 1940s and 1950s, after his abdication, as the Duke of Windsor. Photographs in the Glenbow Archives show Edward and his wife Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, strolling among the ranch buildings that still stand at the site today. The E.P. Ranch was designated a Provincial Historic Resource in 2004 for its association with Edward, who owned the site from 1919 to 1962. Fans of the 1992 movie Unforgiven will also recognize scenes shot on location at the ranch.
In June 2013, the E.P. Ranch found itself at the epicentre of the torrential rains that flooded communities and historic sites across southern Alberta. Pekisko Creek overflowed its banks and swept through the site, turning grazing lands into a virtual river. While the large and distinctive horse barn was unaffected, four other buildings were damaged. Read more →
The first steps out onto the dome of the beehive kiln are a bit unnerving, with only a thin shell of tightly-fitted bricks supporting a small group of us above the void below. Domes structurally similar to this have been around since antiquity – many notable examples still survive – but it’s reassuring to know that scaffolding inside the kiln will prevent a painful and possibly career-ending collapse.
Kiln No. 2, one of four historic beehive downdraft kilns at Medalta Potteries, is a circular drum roughly ten metres in diameter with brick exterior walls surmounted by the dome and a tall central stack. Encircling the walls are wide adjustable bands of corroding steel which held the kiln together as it expanded and contracted and attest to the rigours of the firing process. Medalta’s beehive kilns historically fired a wide range of ceramic products and now serve as distinctive classroom and exhibit spaces.
A massive brick chimney at Medalta Potteries towers six metres above the roof of “Building 10” and extends roughly the same distance from the roof to the dusty factory floor below. Two meters wide at its base, the chimney and accompanying boiler were vital in the production of clay products from the early decades of the twentieth century until the plant’s closure in the 1960s. Now a Provincial Historic Resource, Medalta Potteries in Medicine Hat has evolved into a vibrant community hub that includes the Medalta archives and interpretive centre, galleries and displays, a working pottery that reproduces classic Medalta ware, a contemporary ceramics centre for professional artists, and a venue for markets, weddings, concerts and other community events. The tall brick chimney and distinctive monitor roofs of the former factory buildings provide the iconic backdrop for these varied activities.
Already leaning slightly to the south, the chimney developed a worrisome new tilt after the June 2013 southern Alberta floods, an event which inundated much of Medalta and the nearby residential neighborhoods. As soil conditions on site gradually normalized in early 2014, the chimney’s foundation shifted and subsided further into the clay-rich soil, raising concerns about its stability. The only practical long-term conservation option was to disassemble the chimney and rebuild it with the original, locally manufactured brick using traditional masonry materials and construction methods.
Conserving the chimney started with extensive photographs and measurements followed by disassembly by a contractor specializing in historic masonry conservation. Medalta’s staff archaeologist monitored and documented the process. As the chimney came down brick by brick, unexpected finds within the masonry included an old whisky bottle; fire bricks from Hebron, North Dakota; and a bizarre series of wasps’ nests occurring at roughly one metre intervals within the stack. This corresponds roughly with the work a team of masons would likely have completed in a typical day – a coincidence that begs further explanation. The chimney-dwelling wasps turned out to be quite blind and fortunately did not harass the masonry crew as dismantling proceeded.
The most intriguing relic, however, was a cluster of bricks inscribed with names and the inscription “IX 44”, presumed to represent a date. The names went unobserved until mortar dust from the disassembly process settled lightly onto the brick and highlighted the writing. Prisoners of war interned in Medicine Hat during the Second World War were recruited for work in local industries to offset the wartime labour shortage. Research now underway may reveal that some of these POWs, possibly even masons in their pre-war lives, helped repair the chimney at Building 10 in September of 1944.
Chimney rebuilding is nearing completion and will replicate its historic appearance — without the lean to the south. Glazed bricks set into the chimney mark the locations of the autographed bricks and, soon, visitors to Medalta will be treated to a new exhibit in Building 10 featuring the original bricks and an account of this chapter in the site’s remarkable history.
Written by: Fraser Shaw, Heritage Conservation Adviser
Prism glass: the stained glass used in storefront windows historically found in commercial buildings on main street. The shimmering, textured surfaces of original prism glass transom windows — running the width of a historic storefront above the main display windows — can be a rare treat when they’re intact.
Sometimes referred to as clerestory windows, traditional transom windows on main street were sometimes equipped with special prism glass: sheets of glass composed of small panels, each roughly 15 cm square, featuring a distinctive prismatic or wedge-like pattern cast into the interior-facing surface (see photograph below). Some panels also featured patterns cast into the outer face too. Assembled into panels using cames, or narrow bars of lead or zinc, prism glass transom windows were popular in pre-World War I commercial buildings when interior electric lighting was relatively weak and inefficient. With sunlight free and plentiful, especially in Alberta, the prismatic panels were oriented in such a way as to capture incoming light and refract or deflect it deep into the store within.
Given their relative rarity, the analogy to stained glass windows of churches and other buildings isn’t entirely out of place. Like stained glass, the glass itself is often coloured: manganese added during the manufacturing process to make the naturally green glass clearer often turned a purplish colour after decades of exposure to ultraviolet radiation in sunlight. (The colour also appears in some old telegraph line insulators and the now almost-vanished sidewalk “skylights” — which are a story of their own). You can spot prism glass in certain parts of Calgary and Edmonton and on some of Alberta’s historic main streets, although it is easily mistaken with so-called “reeded” glass, similar glass panels impressed with narrow ridges rather than the unique prismatic profile specially oriented to pull sunlight into store interiors. Sometimes only close inspection can distinguish the two.
Why is prism glass so rare now? Like many features of historic buildings, particularly in the commercial district, these components were subject to changing fashion, retailing trends and, of course, the rigours of our climate. The benefit of prism glass and transom windows declined as electric lighting improved in efficiency and affordability, particularly with the mid-century introduction of fluorescent lighting. Prism glass transom windows were traditionally paired with retractable awnings, which allowed the store’s proprietor to regulate the amount of light coming into the store. As awnings went out of fashion and were removed, the transom windows often pulled in so much sunlight that stores were often too brightly lit, hot and stuffy. The unrelenting sunlight would also fade display items.
Physical deterioration of course also played a part: decades of thermal expansion and contraction, exposure to moisture, and wind loading took its toll on the delicate assemblies, causing cames and soldered joints to fatigue or break, with the eventual result that many transom windows were removed or covered with painted plywood sheets. Changing retail fashion assisted the process: as automobile use increased throughout the twentieth century, so did the need for larger, illuminated signs. Prism glass and transom windows, having outlived their original purpose, were covered over or removed with “slip cover” remodeling of main street storefronts in the 1930s onward.
Today, historic transom windows, and especially those of rare prism glass, are coveted historic building elements that many building owners want to restore. Sometimes intact original windows are preserved behind later materials; often, however, they need extensive repairs. Where that’s the case, there are excellent resources to assist in restoration.
For information on conservation prism glass or other elements of a historic resource, contact your heritage conservation advisor.
Written by: Fraser Shaw, Heritage Conservation Advisor.