A Crack Runs Through It: Repairing the West Wall of Lethbridge’s Chinese Free Masons Building

Editor’s note: Our first article recognizing #HistoricPlacesDays takes us to southern Alberta. The banner image above, featuring low-lying rear lots with gardens in Lethbridge’s Chinatown in 1956, looking west, is courtesy of the Galt Museum and Archives.

Written by: Fraser Shaw, Heritage Conservation Advisor

Since its construction in 1924, the Chinese Free Masons Building has been an anchor in the physical and social fabric of downtown Lethbridge and on of Alberta’s most intact historic “Chinatowns”. A large crack zigzags across the west wall of the Provincial Historic Resource and propagates east down the block, telegraphing through the walls of its historic neighbours and terminating at the old No. 1 Fire Hall. The crack recently presented repair challenges and is the legacy of a historic landscape and a transformed physical and cultural geography.

1990s photograph from the northwest with the west wall crack and previous repairs clearly visible toward the back (right) half of the building. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

Some 12,000 years ago, as the Laurentide ice sheet retreated toward Hudson Bay, torrents of meltwater carved deep channels across southern Alberta, including today’s Oldman River valley. Long tributary coulees reached like fingers from the valley’s east side, a pattern evident today along the escarpment behind the Galt Museum. One of these coulees extended east between what is now 2nd and 3rd Avenue South and appears in early plans and photographs of Lethbridge. Uneven and difficult to build on, the block attracted Chinese immigrants and entrepreneurs who established new businesses on lots that were strategically close to the fledgling town centre but slightly apart from it, a development pattern reinforced by discriminatory policies of the day that relegated Chinese-owned businesses to marginal land away from the commercial core.

A fire insurance map of 1910 predates the construction of the Chinese Free Masons Building on Block 19 Lot 5 (blue outline) but notes infilling of the ravine or coulee (circle at lower left). Arrows indicate the original extent of the coulee eastward through Block 19. Source: Library and Archives Canada, with added annotations.

Development has infilled the coulee such that the historic landscape today survives only in the sunken rear lots of the Bow On Tong Company Building and Wing Wah Chong Company Building, both of which are Municipal and Provincial Historic Resources. These low-lying back yards were historically put to good use, providing direct access to basement apartments for newly arrived immigrants from China and serving as vegetable gardens (see banner image at top of page). Though hidden, the buried coulee survives as relatively weakly consolidated infill soil under the back portions of the block’s historic buildings. These areas move and crack as soil compacts, takes up water from the poorly drained rear lots, or moves seasonally where shallow rear foundations are susceptible to frost heave. The rear lot at the Chinese Free Masons Building has been infilled but unstable soil conditions persist and cause structural movement and recurrence of the west wall crack despite repeated patching.

1924 photograph, possibly showing the Masonic hall’s grand opening. Source: Galt Museum and Archives photograph 19800128000.

Foundation underpinning on deep piles into undisturbed soil would stop the structural movement and cracking but is very costly. A local architect assessed no immediate threat to the building and recommended a practical and cost-effective crack repair alternative. This consisted of saw cutting a new flexible control joint into the outer wythe or layer of brick beside the old crack, to accommodate ongoing structural movement while maintaining integrity as a weather seal. The existing crack was too irregular for proper installation of a reliable sealed joint. As a precaution, the established crack was also repaired with flexible sealant, into which masonry sand was pressed to resemble a traditional mortar joint and disguise the repair as much as possible.

Conservation work normally favours traditional materials but a deep mortar repair risked “locking” the wall in place and causing cracks to appear elsewhere. Correctly formulated lime mortars can absorb some movement and even “self heal” as free lime recrystallizes within emerging hairline cracks — but structural movement at the Free Masons Building demanded a more elastic joint.

Paint failure on second floor interior west wall, April 2019. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

The second floor offers a large open space that has served as a Masonic hall for almost a century. The interior walls are original plaster applied to the interior face of the brick masonry exterior walls. Coated with many layers of paint, the walls deteriorated rapidly after the interior was repainted to hide smoke damage after a fire in 2009. Driving rain through the west wall crack was initially suspected as a moisture source but the extensive paint failure was actually in another location. Further assessment determined that the problem was excess moisture within the wall combined with the wall’s inability to dry through impermeable layers of paint.

The west wall is thus a highly porous brick that readily absorbs moisture. Like many old brick buildings, the Chinese Free Masons Building uses a high-quality, durable brick on the front facade with less expensive bricks on the side walls that were often intended to be protected by adjacent buildings. Mortar joints also play a role: lime mortar both binds the masonry and actively wicks moisture in the wall to the surface, where it then evaporates. However, as mortar weathers, leaching of the lime binder reduces this wicking action and eroded joints provide more surface area for water absorption, effectively turning a wall into a sponge. On the wall’s inner face, permeability declines with each layer of paint and as old alkyd paint ages. The most recent repainting was the last straw: acrylic latex paint is vapour-permeable but drying of the wall fabric relies on liquid (if microscopic) capillary moisture transfer. The result is that moisture absorbed through the exterior brick trapped within the wall literally pushes the paint off the plaster.

Second floor (Masonic hall) with far wall after plaster repairs and application of clay paint, March 2021. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

To correct the problem, peeling interior paint was stripped by hand and moisture-damaged plaster was patched with a compatible gypsum plaster free of latex or polymer additives that might otherwise impede prevent drying. A special, highly permeable clay-based paint was applied to the wall and colour-matched to the historic interior. Combined with renewing or “repointing” the exterior masonry with a compatible lime mortar, these measures avoid sealing the wall and instead restore the historic fabric’s intrinsic ability to absorb, buffer and release moisture by drying to the interior and exterior. The repaired west wall with its new control joint and evidence of the old crack are a testament to ancient landforms, local history and Lethbridge’s evolving urban landscape.

View from northwest in June 2021 with new control joint on west wall and muted expression of historic crack. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

Sources:

C.B. Beaty and G.S. Young, The Landscapes of Southern Alberta: A Regional Geomorphology (Lethbridge: University of Lethbridge, 1975), 66-77.

For a discussion of the early development of Lethbridge’s Chinatown, see David Chuenyan Lai, Chinatowns: Towns Within Cities in Canada (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1988), 90-91.

Historic sites slowly, surely and safely reopen

Editor’s note: Starting July 3, the National Trust for Canada is hosting Historic Places Days. All next month, RETROactive will feature blog posts highlighting places to explore and events to participate in.

Written by: Jared Majeski, Historic Resources Management Branch

After more than a year of being shuttered, historic sites and museums around Alberta are beginning to reopen. And with some restrictions and caution around traveling, it’s the perfect time to go head out and explore the sites right in your own backyard!

While some self-guided sites like the Okotoks Erractic, Brooks Aqueduct and Frog Lake Provincial Historic Site have been accessible for several months now, some of the larger historic sites, museums and interpretive centres are now ready to open their doors. Below is a quick roundup of reopened historic sites; click on the visitor guideline links to learn how each site is keeping visitors and staff safe.

Frank Slide Interpretive Centre

Located in the stunning Crowsnest Pass, the interpretive centre tells the story of Canada’s deadliest rock slide.
Visitor guidelines

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Through vast landscapes, diverse programming and exhibits, you can experience 6,000 years of Plains Buffalo culture at this UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site.
Visitor guidelines

Provincial Archives of Alberta

The archives acquires, preserves and publicly makes available records from government, individual people and organizations for researchers of all ages. Along with the PAA opening its doors to the reading room again, they are also unveiling a brand new exhibit about the history of beauty competitions and pageants in Alberta.
Visitor guidelines

Remington Carriage Museum

The largest museum of its kind in the world, the Remington Carriage Museum tells the story of horse-drawn transportation in North America.
Visitor guidelines

Reynolds-Alberta Museum

Located in Wetaskiwin, the Reynolds-Alberta Museum interprets Alberta’s mechanical heritage through authentic interactions, exhibits and hands-on programming.
Visitor guidelines

Royal Alberta Museum

The Royal Alberta Museum (RAM) is the largest museum in western Canada and one of the top museums in Canada. Located in the Arts District in downtown Edmonton, the museum helps to collect, preserve, research, interpret and exhibit objects and specimens related to the heritage of Alberta’s people and natural environment
Visitor guidelines

Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology

The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology is Canada’s only museum dedicated exclusively to the study of ancient life. In addition to featuring one of the world’s largest displays of dinosaurs, the museum offer a wide variety of creative, fun, and educational programs that bring the prehistoric past to life.
Visitor guidelines

Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village

A short drive east of Edmonton, at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village you’ll hear stories of solitude, survival, and perseverance while discovering how Ukrainian immigration made a significant impact on Alberta’s cultural identity.
Visitor guidelines

Following in their Footsteps: The Nakota Trail of 1877

Editor’s note: Abawashded! June is National Indigenous History Month, an invitation to honour the history, diversity, strength and contemporary achievements of Indigenous peoples.

Written by: Barry Mustus (Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation) and Laura Golebiowski (Aboriginal Consultation Adviser)

Like many Albertans, I have spent a considerable portion of the last year outdoors. I have become better acquainted with my neighbourhood and city parks, and have spent most weekends hiking, camping or cross-country skiing in the mountains. I am grateful to be in a position (both in terms of privilege and location) to access the diverse and beautiful outdoor spaces that our province provides. 

When you recreate outdoors, do you consider whose traditional territory you are on? Do you think about those who walked these trails and enjoyed these landscapes before you?

Barry Mustus does. An Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation member currently based in Whitecourt, Barry has dedicated numerous years to the research and reidentification of a historic Indigenous trail network which extended from Lac Ste. Anne north to Whitecourt and beyond. To date, Barry’s work has focused on a 30 km stretch of trail from the Hamlet of Blue Ridge, southeast of the Town of Whitecourt, to Carson-Pegasus Provincial Park. Referring to the trail as, “The Nakota Trail of 1877” (the year Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation signed an adhesion to Treaty 6), Barry’s efforts strive to demonstrate how Nakota peoples have shaped, and continue to shape, this region of what is now Alberta.

The Stoney people, also referred to as the Assiniboine, have long occupied this area. In 1859, James Hector, a companion of Captain John Palliser, noted a group of Stoney camping at the confluence of the McLeod and Athabasca Rivers, where present-day Whitecourt is located. Earlier still, fur trader Alexander Henry makes mention of a Stoney presence in the Upper Athabasca in 1808. Today, Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation is the most northwestern representative of the Siouan language family and has four reserves: the largest at Glenevis near Wakamne (Lac Ste. Anne) with three satellite reserves at Cardinal River, Elk River and Whitecourt.

Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation Family, Peter Alexis and Wife, Lac Ste Anne. Unknown photographer or date. Source: Library and Archives Canada. 
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Strathcona garage designated a Provincial Historic Resource

Written by: Ron Kelland, Geographical Names Program Coordinator

A well-known anchor building in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona Provincial Historic Area has recently been designated as a Provincial Historic resource.  And it’s also now listed on the Alberta Register of Historic Places.

Front (north-facing) façade of the Strathcona Garage showing some of the building’s character-defining elements, notably the crenellated parapet roofline, escutcheons and the contrasting ornamental highlights (lintels, sills, name and date stones), 2019. Source: Alberta Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women.

The Strathcona Garage is located in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona neighbourhood on the corner of lot at 81 Avenue and 105 Street. Its heritage significance rests in its association with the early automobile industry in Alberta. It is a significant and rare remaining example of a building from the early twentieth century designed and built specifically for the era’s fledgling, but rapidly growing automobile sector.   

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Recognizing Women with Canadian Place Names

Written by: Ron Kelland, Geographical Names Program Coordinator

At an online event on March 8, 2020, Seamus O’Regan, the Minister of Natural Resources Canada launched Recognizing Women with Canadian Place Names: Women on the Canadian Landscape. This interactive, digital map was developed by the Geographical names Board of Canada to highlight approximately 500 places and geographical features in Canada that are named for women.

Screenshot of the “Recognizing Women with Canadian Place Names” Interactive map. Source: Natural Resources Canada.

March 8 was International Women’s Day; a day acknowledged around the world to raise awareness of issues facing women, such as gender equity, and to celebrate the social, cultural and political achievements that have been made by women to their communities, regions and nations. The map was launched on that day as part of those annual celebrations.

Through history, the recognition of women has tended to be forgotten. For generations, women have been largely voiceless in history; overlooked by default and design. The essential domestic role of settler women has not been discussed to the same extent as the work of their husbands, fathers and brothers breaking the land, even though these women toiled and suffered just as men had. Even women who were admitted to the professional, scientific or professional world have often seen their accomplishments ignored or downplayed in favour of those of their male colleagues. The same trends are found in the world of cartography and place naming.

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Black History Month 2021

Editor’s note: From the largest student occupation in Canadian history to larger-than-life historical figures, here are handful of laws, events and people that contributed to the Black experience here in Canada. Follow the links below for more in-depth information on these events and people.

Written by: Garnett Glashen

Viola Desmond
Not only was Viola Desmond a successful businesswoman in Nova Scotia, she was an advocate for equal and fair treatment of Black people at a time when they were viewed as lesser peoples in Canada. Many will note that Viola Desmond recently became the first woman of colour to be enshrined on any Canadian currency, however few know the battles that were led by Viola Desmond, to provide an equal opportunity for Black Canadians to acquire skills, enter trades and participate in social activities that were traditionally reserved for people who weren’t Black.

Produced by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, this short documentary tells the story of Viola Desmond’s famous act of resistance in a Nova Scotia Theatre.
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Portraiture from the Ernest Brown fonds

Editor’s note: In our continued recognition of Black History Month, the Provincial Archives of Alberta has shared a collection of portraits of Black Albertans from photographer Ernest Brown. The Ernest Brown fonds contain around 50,000 negatives and other materials, predominantly from the years 1880-1960.

One of the earliest professional photographers in Alberta, Ernest Brown moved to Edmonton from England in April 1904. In Edmonton, Brown went to work as an assistant to C.W. Mathers, the city’s first photographer. Three months later, Brown bought the rights to Mathers’ portrait studio and in 1905 the studio expanded into the Ernest Brown Company Ltd.

Little is known about the subjects in the photographs below. Likely, the only records kept from these photo sessions was the name of the person who booked and paid for the session.

Black History at the Provincial Archives of Alberta

Editor’s note: In our continuing recognition of Black History Month, RETROactive contributors from the Provincial Archives of Alberta highlight some of the resources available for researchers wanting to know more about the history of Alberta’s Black community.

Written by: Michael Gourlie, Government Records Archivist and Karen Simonson, Reference Archivist

Researching the history of Black communities in Alberta can be challenging.  Sources can be limited and potentially scattered among many institutions within Alberta’s heritage communities.  Much of the access is dependent on knowing a person’s name or having some additional background clues or information.  But the history of Alberta’s Black communities can be teased out of the records preserved by the Provincial Archives of Alberta (PAA), and all the resources described below are available for researchers to see and consult for themselves during regular opening hours of the reading room.

Unidentified woman with dog, ca. 1920 (Ernest Brown fonds, BP2-15552)

In addition to published books and newspapers providing context to the community, the PAA is fortunate to have received donations of records from private individuals such as Fil Fraser, Selwyn Jacob and Junetta Jamerson.  While these records can only tell part of the story, looking more closely at some familiar holdings at the PAA reveals perhaps some unexplored and unexpected traces of Alberta’s Black history.

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Newbrook Observatory: Photographing world history in Thorhild County

Written by: Matthew Wangler, Executive Director, Historic Resources Management Branch

Alberta has a rich and fascinating history, and occasionally events in our past resonate with happenings of global consequence. That was the case in 1957, when a dedicated scientist working in a meteorite observation station in Newbrook captured the first North American image of Sputnik 1 – an object which came to embody both the fears and aspirations of a generation, and which heralded the beginning of a new age in science and geopolitics.

Sputnik I. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The roots of the Newbrook Observatory can be traced to 1946, when the United States and Canada agreed to work co-operatively on space science projects, particularly meteorite observations. The northerly situation of Newbrook – with its clear view of the night sky and its relative lack of auroral interference – made it an ideal location for establishing an observation station to assist in this joint effort. Constructed in 1951, the Newbrook observatory opened in 1952 as a field station of the Stellar Physics Division of Canada’s Dominion Observatory in Ottawa.

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Introducing the Heritage Note Series

As Albertans begin to safely hunker down for the holiday season, you might think about picking up a project left at the side of your desk. Or maybe you’ll start something new altogether. If you’re someone thinking of learning more about your family history; if you’re a non-profit group wanting to mark a moment in your local history; or a person who wants to preserve the lived experiences of an older generation, these new resources will certainly help.

Developed by staff in the Alberta government’s Heritage Division, the Heritage Note Series so far consists of resource guides covering three topics: historical research, heritage markers and oral history. In these guides, you’ll learn skills like how to properly conduct an interview, how to write text for historical signage and how to manage research notes and materials.

To get started on a new winter project, just follow the links.