Edmonton | One comment
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Edmonton’s downtown tourist attraction
The Gibson block was built in 1913, by A.W. Cowley Architect. It is currently home to the Women’s Emergency Accommodation Centre (WEAC)…
In thousands of hours of research and interviews for her 1995 book Flatiron Legacy One of Heritage and Help, Edmonton historian Kathryn Ivany was repeatedly struck by the love people have for the Gibson Block. There is a connection to this structure that few other buildings can top, she says.
Resurrected as the Women’s Emergency Accommodation Centre (WEAC), the story of the Gibson Block, Edmonton’s flat iron building, is one of salvation and hope. Now, as a place for homeless and transient women, the triangular building at 9608 Jasper Avenue again offers refuge to those in need – as it has for much of its 90-year existence.
Derelict, decaying and seemingly destined to be a forgotten footnote in time, the Gibson Block came within a whisker of vanishing from our urban landscape. Until city heritage planner Daryl Cariou raised the alarm in the autumn of 1993, the Gibson Block appeared headed for the wrecking ball.
But after Mayor Jan Reimer agreed to call a public meeting to seek solutions, something magic happened: Edmontonians rallied around a cause with the spirit that built this great city. The Edmonton City Centre Church Corporation (ECCCC) came forward with a plan to convert the building into a shelter for women in need. And a landmark was saved.
Designed by architect A.W. Cowley on commission from realtor William Gibson and constructed by contractor J. Sheridan at a cost of $40,000, the Gibson Block was unique even when it was completed in 1913. Inspired by the flatiron style first utilized in New York in 1902 and necessitated by the triangular lot at the corner of Jasper Avenue and what was then Rice Street (now 96th Street), the building boasted design elements popularized by the Chicago School of Architecture.
Main floor tenants in 1914 included the Gibson Cafe, Donald G. Ross’s Hardware and Loptson and Son Jewelers. That year, offices on the top three floors were converted to residential units. The basement housed the Turkish Bath, which remained in operation under various names including Edmonton Steam Baths and Georgia Turkish Baths until 1978.
Ivanys book, the brainchild of the Beckie Garber-Conrad of Active Voice Communications, was nurtured by people like Edmonton Public Schools Archivist Mike Kostek and City of Edmonton Archivist Bruce Ibsen and reference librarian June Honey. It was completed as a tandem project with the rejuvenation of the building and designed by restoration architect Barry Johns.
Among those at the launch was Carol Schubert, granddaughter of Paul Schubert, who bought the building from Realtor William Gibson in 1914, the year after Gibson built it. Carol, who lives in New Orleans, just happened to be in Edmonton during the book event.
Its amazing to see what they have done with this place, she marveled. My grandfather would be astonished and delighted, I’m sure. During the research, Kathryn talked with dozens of people who recall the area as vibrant and exciting. The Jasper East Block was, after all, Edmonton’s original downtown.
For many years, the toe end on the main floor of the triangular building housed various grocery stores, operated by families like the Klimoves, Rodins and Wynes. The stores were known for some of the best fruit and produce in the city.
People used to come to buy their groceries and socialize, Kathryn says. It was a real gathering place. But by the 1980s, the building had fallen into disuse and decay. The roof leaked, water cracked mortar on the north wall, pigeons reigned. The once glorious Gibson Block became an eyesore at the eastern entrance to downtown.
That the building was rescued at all is a testament to the power of people. The formation of the Gibson Block Action Committee (GBAC), drawing members from many segments of the community, helped ECCCC make the dream a reality. The two groups launched an ambitious campaign to raise money for restoration of historically significant elements – like glass girdled storefronts, four alcove entrances, rare prism glass and superb brick craftsmanship. The groups established an endowment fund to help pay for future maintenance.
Original plans acquired at the city archives and studied by architect Barry Johns in designing the rejuvenation show the structure was out by just one-eighth of an inch. “They knew what they were doing,” he smiles. “The restoration of the Gibson Block was all about building together,” says Martin Garber-Conrad, ECCCC executive director. Everything just came together at the right time, thanks to a lot of hard work by a great number of people.
Just like the very rescue of the building itself. We should apply the lessons learned with the Gibson Block to other historic structures facing uncertain futures or in need of some loving urban renewal.
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