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.

Recent Municipal Historic Resource Designations

Written by: Ron Kelland, MA, MLIS, Geographical Names Program Coordinator

Under the Historical Resources Act, Alberta’s municipalities have the authority to designate sites and buildings as Municipal Historic Resources. This designation authority gives municipalities the ability to ensure that the preservation of their community’s history and heritage. Municipal Historic Resources are eligible for listing on the Alberta Register of Historic Places, although there is no requirement for municipally designated resources to be listed on the Register. However, designated resources must be listed on the Register to qualify for Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women’s conservation grants. To be listed on the Register, a Municipal Historic Resource must certain documentation prepared that explain the heritage value of the resource and guide the management of the property.

Historic Resources Management of Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women works with Alberta’s municipalities to list their Municipal Historic Resource Designations. A number of properties designated in previous years by a municipalities across the province have recently been added to the Alberta Register of Historic Places.

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Municipal Historic Resource designation refresher series: Provincial Historic Resources and Municipal Historic Resources

Editor’s note: Welcome to the final post in a series of blog posts developed with municipalities in mind who either have or are considering undertaking Municipal Historic Resource designation. In this post, we will discuss how the evaluation of a historic resource at the provincial and municipal level may result in complimentary or differing heritage values. You can read the previous post here.

For more information, please review the “Creating a Future” manuals available here or contact Rebecca Goodenough, Manager, Historic Places Research and Designation at rebecca.goodenough@gov.ab.ca or 780-431-2309.


Written by: Fraser Shaw, Heritage Conservation Adviser and Ron Kelland, Historic Places Research Officer, Historic Resources Management Branch


Complementary and differing values

Alberta’s Historical Resources Act empowers both the Government of Alberta and municipalities to designate, or recognize and protect, a range of historic resources whose preservation is in the public interest. These resources can be places, structures or objects that may be works of nature or people (or both) that are of palaeontological, archaeological, prehistoric, historic, cultural, natural, scientific or aesthetic interest. Albertans value these historic resources because our past, in its many forms, is part of who we are as a society and helps give our present significance and purpose.

As of July 2020, there are currently 390 Provincial Historic Resources (PHR) and 413 Municipal Historic Resources (MHR) in Alberta, some 60 of which are designated both provincially and municipally. These resources merit designation for various reasons, from their association with significant events, activities, people or institutions; as representative examples of architectural styles or construction methods; for their symbolic and landmark value; or their potential to yield information of scientific value.

Heritage values are described in short Statements of Significance, which are listed on the Alberta Register of Historic Places. In this post, we look at examples of heritage values that municipal and provincial governments recognize and how local and provincial values may align, differ or complement each other.

Plaques or markers are often used to identify designated historic resources. These plaques, affixed to Strathcona Public Library in Edmonton, show that it has been designated as a Provincial Historic Resource and a Municipal Historic Resource. PHRs are identified by a blue, enamel button or marker. MHRs can be identified by a variety of plaques and markers depending on the procedures of the municipality. Source: Historic Resources Management.
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Municipal Historic Resource designation refresher series: Statements of Integrity

Editor’s note: Welcome to the seventh post in a series of blog posts developed with municipalities in mind who either have or are considering undertaking Municipal Historic Resource designation. In this post, we will talk about the importance of developing Statements of Integrity, and how they help to both increase understanding and manage change to historic resources over time. You can read the previous post here.

For more information, please review the “Creating a Future” manuals available here or contact Rebecca Goodenough, Manager, Historic Places Research and Designation at rebecca.goodenough@gov.ab.ca or 780-431-2309.


Written by: Carlo Laforge, Heritage Conservation Adviser and Tom Ward, Manager, Heritage Conservation Advisory Services, Historic Resources Management Branch


Statements of Integrity

The process for evaluating if an historic place merits designation under the Historical Resources Act (HRA) starts with determining if and why it is significant. Then, determining whether it retains sufficient physical integrity to convey that significance. Earlier blog posts described how to develop a Statement of Significance (SOS). The next step works through whether enough of the physical features that relate to the heritage values exist, and are in acceptable condition to convey heritage values. Not all places merit designation as historic resources, especially if integrity is in question.

Below is an outline of what goes into determining integrity and how to summarize findings in a Statement of Integrity (SOI). It is important to remember that the development of an SOS and SOI are complementary processes. The information and facts discovered by each related investigation help to compliment, influence and improve each document to enable the best decision possible in terms of proceeding with a designation.

Understanding what is of value

A review of the heritage values expressed in the SOS provides the person analyzing the integrity of a place with a reminder of why it is potentially of historic significance and what details may be important. The heritage values and the period of significance are critical to keep in mind when observing and evaluating the historic place.

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Municipal Historic Resource designation refresher series: period of significance

Editor’s note: Welcome to the sixth post in a series of blog posts developed with municipalities in mind who either have or are considering undertaking Municipal Historic Resource designation. In this post, we will introduce the concept of a “period of significance” and explain why it is important to establish as part of the designation process. You can read the previous post here.

For more information, please review the “Creating a Future” manuals available here or contact Rebecca Goodenough, Manager, Historic Places Research and Designation at rebecca.goodenough@gov.ab.ca or 780-431-2309.


Written by: Stefan Cieslik, Heritage Conservation Adviser and Rebecca Goodenough, Manager Historic Places Research and Designation


Period of Significance

Simply put, the period of significance of a historic resource is the time frame when the place acquired its significance. The heritage value section of the Statement of Significance (SOS) articulates why the place is historically significant, such as an association with an event, person, theme, institution, style of design, etc. Each of these heritage values will have an associated time frame, which informs the period of significance.

Some associations will have start and end periods while others will still have the association today. The period may be very specific if the resource is significant for a single event, or it may span hundreds of years if it is a prehistoric cultural landscape. A period of significance is specific to a site—it is not a general era of development for a community or other reference point. Where the historic place is a building, it should never predate the date of construction.

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Municipal Historic Resource designation refresher series: character-defining elements

Editor’s note: Welcome to the fifth post in a series of blog posts developed with municipalities in mind who either have or are considering undertaking Municipal Historic Resource designation. In this post, we will continue to discuss Statements of Significance as the primary tool for summarizing the significance of designated historic places. You can read the previous post here.

For more information, please review the “Creating a Future” manuals available here or contact Rebecca Goodenough, Manager, Historic Places Research and Designation at rebecca.goodenough@gov.ab.ca or 780-431-2309.


Written by: Dorothy Field, Heritage Survey Coordinator, Sandy Aumonier, Heritage Conservation Adviser and Allan Rowe, Historic Places Research Officer, Historic Resources Management Branch


As previously mentioned, a Statement of Significance (SOS) is a one- to two-page summary document written as a clear, concise and brief narrative of a historic resource. It is written for a broad audience that is not familiar with the resource. The SOS has three sections: description of historic place, heritage values and character-defining elements.

An SOS is central to understanding a resource and any of its elements that might be protected and why.

If a historic resource is designated, the SOS will thereafter be an important planning and property management tool and essential for developing a conservation plan for ongoing management of the resource.

Read more

Municipal Historic Resource designation refresher series: heritage value

Editor’s note: Welcome to the fourth post in a series of blog posts developed with municipalities in mind who either have or are considering undertaking Municipal Historic Resource designation. In this post, we will continue to discuss Statements of Significance as the primary tool for summarizing the significance of designated historic places. You can read the previous post here.

For more information, please review the “Creating a Future” manuals available here or contact Rebecca Goodenough, Manager, Historic Places Research and Designation at rebecca.goodenough@gov.ab.ca or 780-431-2309.


Written by: Dorothy Field, Heritage Survey Coordinator, Sandy Aumonier, Heritage Conservation Adviser and Allan Rowe, Historic Places Research Officer, Historic Resources Management Branch


As previously mentioned, a Statement of Significance (SOS) is a one- to two-page summary document written as a clear, concise and brief narrative of a historic resource. It is written for a broad audience that is not familiar with the resource. The SOS has three sections: description of historic place, heritage values and character-defining elements.

An SOS is central to understanding a resource and any of its elements that might be protected and why.

If a historic resource is designated, the SOS will thereafter be an important planning and property management tool and essential for developing a conservation plan for ongoing management of the resource.

Read more

Municipal Historic Resource designation refresher series: Statements of Significance

Editor’s note: Welcome to the third post in a series of blog posts developed with municipalities in mind who either have or are considering undertaking Municipal Historic Resource designation. In this post, we will introduce Statements of Significance as the primary tool for summarizing the significance of designated historic places. You can read the previous post here.

For more information, please review the “Creating a Future” manuals available here or contact Rebecca Goodenough, Manager, Historic Places Research and Designation at rebecca.goodenough@gov.ab.ca or 780-431-2309.


Written by: Peter Melnycky, Historian and Gary Chen, Heritage Conservation Adviser, Historic Resources Management Branch


A Statement of Significance (SOS) is a one or two page summary document written as a clear, concise and brief narrative of a historic resource. It is written for a broad audience that is not familiar with the resource.

The SOS is comprised of three sections:

  • Description of Historic Place – concisely describes the resource
  • Heritage Values – explains the reasons why the resource is valued
  • Character-Defining Elements – lists the physical elements of the resource that are central to the site`s significance, features which would be essential for preservation upon designation

An SOS is central to understanding a resource and any of its elements that might be protected and why.

If a historic resource is designated, the SOS will be an important planning and property management tool, and essential for developing a conservation plan for ongoing management of the resource.

Read more

Municipal Historic Resource designation refresher series: determining significance

Editor’s note: Welcome to the second post in a series of blog posts developed with municipalities in mind who either have or are considering undertaking Municipal Historic Resource designation. In this post, we will be discussing how to determine if a historic place is eligible for designation.You can read the first post here.

For more information, please review the “Creating a Future” manuals available here or contact Rebecca Goodenough, Manager, Historic Places Research and Designation at rebecca.goodenough@gov.ab.ca or 780-431-2309.


Written by: Dorothy Field, Heritage Survey Program Coordinator, Sandy Aumonier, Heritage Conservation Adviser and Allan Rowe, Historic Places Research Officer.


Determining significance

Typically, most folks agree that preserving significant historic resources in our province is important. While it is relatively easy to identify the ‘old’ stuff, how do you go about determining which historic resources are significant and should be considered for protection?

In order to be considered for protection as a Municipal Historic Resource (MHR), a site needs to:

  • be an eligible resource type
  • possess historical significance
  • have sufficient material integrity

If a site meets all three of these of these criteria, it can be considered for MHR designation.

Read more

Municipal Historic Resource designation refresher series: Determining eligibility

Written by: Peter Melnycky, Historian, Historic Resources Management Branch

Editor’s note: Welcome to the first in a series of blog posts developed with municipalities in mind who either have or are considering undertaking Municipal Historic Resource designation. This series is intended to serve as a refresher on how to evaluate sites, develop Statements of Significance, determine periods of significance and develop Statements of Integrity.

For more information, please review the “Creating a Future” manuals available here or contact Rebecca Goodenough, Manager, Historic Places Research and Designation at rebecca.goodenough@gov.ab.ca or 780-431-2309.

Determining eligibility

In our first post, we will be discussing how to determine if a historic place is eligible for designation.

Historic resources include structures, buildings, landscape and archaeological features, all of which can be considered for protection by a municipality. Under the Historical Resources Act, municipalities have the ability to designate historic resources under a bylaw to ensure their protection.

historic-resources-act
The Historical Resources Act (Source: Historic Resources Management Branch).

In order to be considered for protection as a Municipal Historic Resource, a site needs to:

  • Be an eligible resource type
  • Possess historical significance
  • Have sufficient material integrity

If a site meets all three of these of these criteria, it can be considered for Municipal Historic Resource designation.

Read more