Fraser Shaw

A New Roof for St. Ambrose Church

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.

St. Ambrose Church from the northwest in 1914, with inset showing the original narrow exposure, traditional step flashings, and rows of slightly offset shingles (inset) to create shadow lines and decorative horizontal bands across the roof. Glenbow Archives photograph NA -2701-5.

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Dealing with Graffiti at Historic Places

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. (more…)

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.

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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. (more…)

The Butterfly Effect

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.

1920s view of Blairmore Courthouse from the southwest (Photo Credit: Glenbow Archives)

1920s view of Blairmore Courthouse from the southwest (Photo Credit: Glenbow Archives NA-712-3)

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.   (more…)

Conservation at the E.P. Ranch

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.

The main ranch (or Prince's) house prior to restoration, April 2014.

The main ranch (or Prince’s) house prior to restoration, April 2014.

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. (more…)

Rebuilding the Beehive Kiln

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.

Beehive dome interior, Medalta Potteries, 2011.

Beehive dome interior, Medalta Potteries, 2011.

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Floods, Bricks, and POWs: Rebuilding Medalta’s Historic Chimney

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.

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Medalta Potteries in 2014, looking west to Building 10 before rebuilding of the chimney.

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.

Medalta map draft

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