In Search of Historic Colours: The Empress Theatre Marquee

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 Empress Theatre in April 2016 (top). Bottom from left: View west along 24 Street in 1953, Glenbow Archives photograph NA-5600-6653 (cropped slightly from original); detail of 1953 streetscape showing the Empress marquee in essentially its present form; historic colours exposed on a blade sign letter; a plywood mock-up to evaluate proposed blade sign colours.

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.

To do this, fine sandpaper was used to create “paint craters” of exposed early paint layers on various portions of the sign. Surprisingly, a veritable rainbow of black, white, red, yellow, and even orange emerged from the sides of the projecting sheet metal letters on the blade sign, while other parts of both the upper and lower marquee signs revealed various shades of brown, orange and other trace colours. Vivid as they are, though, spot samples don’t necessarily indicate the actual colour scheme, or combinations of colours, that prevailed during a particular period. For more information, we then need to look to historic photographs.

Early photographs from 1912 and the 1920s show the theatre with its original sign. Later photographs are views of the overall street but the images’ amazing detail is such that the theatre marquee is actually clearly visible on close inspection. By 1930, the current neon marquee replaces the original blade sign, possibly as an upgrade to the latest sign technology, but with bold dark letters against a contrasting light-coloured background. In a 1953 photograph (see image above), the curved lower sign familiar to us today joins the blade sign along with another neon sign, faintly visible just above the entrance, reading “Air Conditioned” – an important new amenity enjoyed by moviegoers in the 1950s. (Remarkably, this old sign, absent from the facade for many years, was rediscovered in a local storage vault just weeks ago.) It was at this time that the colour scheme reversed to light letters on a dark background with a slightly lighter – perhaps orange? – edges on the blade sign. Interestingly, the paint record gives no hint of the sign’s early 1930s appearance, suggesting the sheet metal “can” had at some point been stripped for repainting.

What to do? Canada’s conservation framework as laid out in the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places provides three conservation approaches: preservation, restoration, and rehabilitation. A preservation treatment maintains things essentially as they are and is foundational to all conservation work. It’s a preferred treatment since minimal intervention generally means less potential impact to heritage value. For the marquee, leaving the colours unchanged was a valid option, but evidence of earlier colour schemes invited an exploration into alternatives. Restoring the 1950s appearance is an enticing option but, without a colour photograph to decipher the paint samples, the evidence was too inconclusive to a strict restoration approach.  As a result, the currently preferred approach is a rehabilitation treatment that is compatible with the building’s heritage character but stops short of purporting to recreate the mid-1950s marquee. In this approach, individual colors actually found on the marquee are combined in a way that, while not necessarily historic in their specific combination, are nonetheless consistent with the available evidence and work well together for a bold and effective sign.

The current plan is for bright yellow letters on a dark brown sign with orange edges – essentially, a slightly more colourful version of the marquee familiar to many of us from recent years. These colours are all well represented in the paint record on their respective areas of the sign – we just can’t be sure that they coexisted historically. A painted plywood mock-up has been built to evaluate the colours in three dimensions against the building and under varied lighting conditions. In keeping with good conservation practice and the principle of minimal intervention, repainting of the marquee will leave the underlying paint intact, as a physical record of the building’s history and potential resource future conservators may use, with the aid of new evidence, in a future restoration. If readers of this blog have old photographs of the theatre, please contact the Town of Fort Macleod!

Written by: Fraser Shaw (Heritage Conservation Adviser)


Rocky Mountain Alpine Project: Willmore Wilderness Park

From August 8-12th, 2016, Todd Kristensen (Northern Archaeologist), Robin Woywitka (Cultural Land Use Analyst), Courtney Lakevold (Archaeological Information Coordinator) and graduate student Timothy Allan visited Willmore Wilderness Park as part of the Rocky Mountain Alpine Project (RMAP). RMAP is focused on the recovery of archaeological artifacts and other organic remains (e.g., feathers, bones, caribou antlers and dung) from melting ice patches. Amazing artifacts have been found melting out of ice patches in alpine areas in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, United States and Norway. These finds have been very important for understanding how people used alpine areas in the past.

Alberta has vast stretches of alpine environments, many of which are quite fragile. One element of those fragile alpine habitats are ice patches that are currently melting at a rapid pace. The goal of RMAP is to explore Alberta’s ice patches to see how people in the past used alpine environments and see how it compares to that of people in other parts of Canada and the world. Last summer, the first RMAP expedition took place in Jasper National Park where many organics were found, as well as a piece of leather that was radiocarbon dated to A.D. 1670. (more…)


Stone tools, Bugs, and the Boreal Forest: Adventures in Northern Archaeology

When people think of archaeology in Alberta they might picture buffalo jumps, rock art, or medicine wheels. These are dramatic types of sites on the prairies but what about the north? Alberta’s boreal forest has a unique record and requires a unique breed of archaeologist to find it. This blog is a small window to archaeological work in the northern half of the province and some of the interesting archaeological sites hiding in our forests.

Boreal Breed

Archaeologists working in northern Alberta brave bugs, blowdown (piles of fallen trees stacked like a cruel game of KerPlunk) and a range of conditions from blistering hot to bitterly cold. Forests are quite good at concealing sites so archaeologists dig hundreds of small shovel tests to find them. Most archaeology in the ‘Green Zone’ (typically forested Crown Land) happens in advance of forestry, oil and gas activity, gravel operations, and construction of transmission or road corridors. The hard work and skill of consulting archaeologists has resulted in over 8000 archaeological sites in the Green Zone.

Roughly 8000 sites have been found in Alberta’s boreal forest.

Roughly 8000 sites have been found in Alberta’s boreal forest (highlighted in green).

The Nature of Northern Sites

Most of the successful shovel tests yield small collections of stone debris from pre-contact human tool making. Sites in the north are typically smaller than on the plains. Why? Pre-contact people in the north were generally more mobile and lived in smaller groups; southern bison herds supported bigger groups that stayed in one spot for longer periods, which produced bigger collections of artifacts. Archaeological visibility is also a factor. Prairie landforms are often easier to locate and interpret while artifacts, bones, or stone features on the surface can help guide archaeologists to productive areas under the ground. Not so in the north. Hot spots for artifacts are often harder to access, are covered in vegetation and dense roots, and are challenging to interpret (e.g., ‘how has this terrace changed over thousands of years’).

Shovel tests are dug on landforms in the boreal forest to locate sites.

Shovel tests are dug on landforms like these in the boreal forest to locate sites.

Careers in the North

So what can you expect if you want a career as a consulting archaeologist in the boreal forest? Long days of long hikes, clouds of bugs, and sore legs from lugging around safety gear, shovels, screens, electronics, notebooks, and that rack of moose antlers that you found on a cut line that were just too cool to leave behind. Is the sacrifice worth it when you find a handful of stone flakes from pre-contact tool making? Yes. Those artifacts are often the tip of the iceberg, so their identification helps protect significant collections that still lay hidden in the ground. Small scatters of stone flakes also tell interesting stories about where people moved and who they traded with. And, it’s not all small sites: Alberta’s boreal forests have yielded amazing fur trade sites, pre-contact stone quarries (one of which has produced over 4 million artifacts), historic logging camps, trapper’s cabins, tipi rings, and other fantastic cultural material that epitomizes life in the north. The boreal forest is a challenging but rewarding place to work and the archaeological record of it reveals how people from 10,000 to 50 years ago successfully adapted to this place.

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Here’s a quick guide to the common gear of a boreal forest archaeologist working in cultural resource management.

Written By: Todd Kristensen (Northern Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey)

Appendix 1. The following technological innovation is yours to enjoy now that my dream of making millions from it have faded. The ‘debuginfacemizer’ was designed to avoid bug spray and avoid hindered vision of artifacts by trying to see through bug net. It works and I bring it along on every northern trip.

Figure 3. The ‘debuginfacemizer’ is a response to running into trees and not being able to see artifacts through a bug net. It has made a world of difference and I’m sharing it with the northern archaeological community to bring happiness to others. Step 1: Take some big and clunky safety glasses or racquetball goggles and use hot glue to seal the edges onto your bug net. Step 2: Cut out the bug net over the goggles. Step 3: Put another layer of hot glue on top of the edges of the goggles (so that there is a glue sandwich with mosquito net in between). Step 4: never use bug spray again. Step 5: Find tons of sites!

Step 1: Take some big and clunky safety glasses or racquetball goggles and use hot glue to seal the edges onto your bug net. Step 2: Cut out the bug net over the goggles. Step 3: Put another layer of hot glue on top of the edges of the goggles (so that there is a glue sandwich with mosquito net in between). Step 4: never use bug spray again. Step 5: Find tons of sites!

Historic Archaeology at Edmonton’s Mill Creek Ravine – Volunteers Welcome!

Attention Edmontonians!

Have you ever wondered about archaeology in your own city? Have you ever wanted to be an archaeologist? This summer an archaeologist from the University of Chicago is leading an archaeological investigation in the Mill Creek Ravine! Haeden Stewart is looking for remains from historic settlements to learn more about daily life in the early 20th century, as the city was industrializing. In the early 1900’s, the Mill Creek Ravine was home to several mills, meat packing plants, a railway line, and homes of the ravine’s workers.

mill creek crossing

Early industrial Edmonton – View of the C.N.R. crossing Mill Creek, 1900-1925. Library and Archives Canada MIKAN 3335022

Haeden will be excavating two locations this summer. The first is a shanty town located at the north end of the Mill Creek Ravine. This town was one of many that settlers built in the first few decades of the 20th century. Some shanty towns were more temporary, but some, like the Ross Acreage in Mill Creek, were more substantial and housed settlers for many years. Haeden’s team has already been working at the shanty town for several weeks, where they have unearthed some great finds, including animal bones, glass bottles, and the remains of two chickens buried in a pit!


Glass bottles excavated at a historic shanty town in Mill Creek, Edmonton. Photo credit: Haeden Stewart


Toy saucer from a historic shanty town in the Mill Creek Ravine, Edmonton. Photo Credit: Haeden Stewart.


Chicken bones buried in a pit in a Shanty Town in Mill Creek Ravine, Edmonton. Photo credit: Haeden Stewart

Next, Haeden plans to excavate at Vogel’s meatpacking plant in the south end of the ravine. Vogel’s was one of three large meatpacking plants built by 1910 in the Mill Creek Ravine.


Vogel’s meatpacking plant in 1902. Image credit: Edmonton – A City Called Home EA-10-1134

Haeden will be excavating every day of the week, from approximately 830am-530pm, except for Tuesday.  If anyone is interested in volunteering to help out with the excavation please contact Haeden at, or call\text him at 773-827-4004 to make arrangements.

Edmonton’s River Valley: The Glitter of the Gold Rush

Every summer around this time of year, I look forward to checking out the sights and sounds of Edmonton’s local exhibition formerly known as Klondike Days. Its very name conjures childhood memories full of non-stop carnival rides, piping hot corn dogs and the sweet smell of freshly spun cotton candy. The name Klondike Days was originally brought in by exhibition organizers in the 1960’s and the Klondike gold rush theme was enthusiastically embraced by the public. I’ve always wondered what our local historical connection to the gold rush really was. Is there really gold to be found in the river valley?


Man washing gold at Edmonton, 1890. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, B5280


Gathering at Victoria Settlement

Students at Victoria School, circa 1910: Left to right Frank Whitford, Fred Kuzemsky, unidentified, Wasyl Kotyk, Wayne Kozub or Esepenko, teacher Mr. Rowbottom, Demetrius Ponich, Metro Starchuk, David Thompson, Elena Brucenorsky, Wasyl Brucenorsky [in doorway] and two unidentified at far right (Photo: Rev. D.M. Ponich Collection, Alberta Culture and Tourism).

Students at Victoria School, circa 1910: Left to right Frank Whitford, Fred Kuzemsky, unidentified, Wasyl Kotyk, Wayne Kozub or Esopenko, teacher Mr. Rowbottom, Demetrius Ponich, Metro Starchuk, David Thompson, Elena Brusanowsky, Wasyl Brusanowsky [in doorway] and three unidentified at far right (Photo: Rev. D.M. Ponich Collection, Alberta Culture and Tourism).

Descendants of settlers from Alberta’s historic Victoria Settlement district, and enthusiasts of Alberta’s history generally, are invited to take part in a special gathering and genealogical symposium on the 6th of August 2016 at the Victoria Settlement Provincial Historic Site.

The agenda for the day’s events are listed below. An area map illustrating the location of Victoria Settlement Provincial Historic Site can be found below or at the site’s website:

Gathering at Victoria Settlement

Saturday, August 6, 2016

9:00-9:30                     Set up of tents, tables, registration, displays from participants.

9:30-10:00                   Registration – meet and greet.

10:00-10:30                 Ross Stromberg: Program Coordinator, Alberta Culture and Tourism.

10:30-10:45                 Elaine Breadon Peiche: Victoria Home Guard Society.

10:45-11:45                 Peter Melnycky: Historian, researcher, author of 

                                      ‘A Veritable Canaan – Alberta’s Victoria Settlement.’

11:45-12:30                 Linda Collier: President of Historical Society of Alberta; historian and

                                      great-granddaughter of Rev. George McDougall.

12:30-1:00                   Enjoy your picnic lunch and mingle!

1:00-1:45                     Graham Dalziel: Member of Smoky Lake Heritage Board; owner of

                                      historic Riverlot #3 – with a suitcase full of found treasures!

1:45-2:30                     Donna Shanks and John Althouse: Donna is President of Edmonton

                                      branch of the Alberta Genealogical Society. John is a member of E.A.G.S

                                      and Editor of Clandigger.

3:00-3:30                     Steven Bentley: Historian and genealogist with some ‘Whitford’ stories.

3:30-4:00                     Group photo and closing.

4:00                              Carpool to cemetery for those who wish to explore it.

5:00                              Victoria Settlement Historic Site closes.

BONUS: There will be THREE genealogical consultants on site to help with family histories! Steven Bentley plus Bill and Sandy Macdonald.

Please bring your picnic lunch!  AND, your family history, stories, research to share.

Everyone is responsible for their own entrance fee to V.S. ($5.00 per person).

Check the Victoria Settlement website and Plan Your Visit:

If you plan to join us, a quick email to would help us with our planning.



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Changing Animals: Alberta’s Ice Age Megafauna and Wally’s Beach

When St. Mary Reservoir in southern Alberta was filled in the 1950s, no one knew that it submerged an incredible record of life from 13,000 years ago. That record, including footprints of mammoth, camel, and horse, was recently exposed – the internationally significant site is now informing opinions about the role humans played in the extinction of Alberta’s ‘megafauna’.

Rare and information-rich trackways from lumbering mammoth were revealed by scouring winds at St. Mary Reservoir (courtesy of Shayne Tolman).

Rare and information-rich trackways from lumbering mammoth were revealed by scouring winds at St. Mary Reservoir (courtesy of Shayne Tolman).

Wally’s Beach

Shayne Tolman, a teacher from Cardston, is responsible for drawing attention to St. Mary Reservoir and Wally’s Beach, a site complex on an ancient island in St. Mary River that is currently being investigated by Dr. Brian Kooyman and a team from the University of Calgary. Archaeologists have discovered that the menu of some of Alberta’s oldest humans included megafauna like camel, horse, and perhaps mammoth. Over six thousand artifacts indicate that people were hunting big game at a time when these animals were likely struggling to cope with climate change. Did human hunting lead to megafauna extinction or are warming temperatures to blame? Many researchers argue that pre-contact human populations were too small to impact big game while others suggest that targeted hunting patterns among small groups could have big consequences.

Megafauna of Alberta at the end of the last Ice Age (produced by Todd Kristensen)

Megafauna of Alberta at the end of the last Ice Age (produced by Todd Kristensen)