Shutting down a street is hard. But an alley? So long as you’ve got a van to block it off and a couple of rowdy queens on guard you’re set. At least that was the thinking during the days of Flashback—a gay bar considered one of the hottest clubs in Edmonton if not Canada in the 1980s. Some even called it “Studio 54 of the Prairies.”
For one weekend every summer the alley alongside the warehouse on 104 St.—which was later converted into the Excelsior Luxury Lofts—hosted the Drag Races, a ritual marking the end of one Ms. Flashback’s reign and the crowning of another. Spectators, mostly gay men, crowded the loading docks or stood amidst garbage bins for a view of the gravel strip where young men challenged each other to tug-of-war fights and three-legged races, and drag queens stumbled and clambered in their heels (the libations didn’t help).
It was great summer fun. But much more than that, it was a public show of support and defiance.
The “Bay” building, as it’s affectionately known, tells a story just by looking at it. It’s the finest example of moderne architecture in Edmonton, with architectural “clues” that define the period as well as the prominence and power that the Hudson’s Bay Company had in 1939. The streamlined details—curved corner details and horizontal lines—evoke the speed of the Machine Age and reflect austere economic times.
Look at the materials: The base is polished black granite, also known as Cambrian Granite, one of the few Canadian granites quarried, mostly in Ontario, for decades. Tyndall stone, from Manitoba stands above it. Trims around windows and door frames, all original, are of fine stainless steel. Main floor windows were designed for elaborate store displays, attracting pedestrians who animated the street and enjoyed the intriguing merchandise.
The engraved images above each entrance tells the story of how the First Nations people on the Prairies came into contact with the company’s exclusive fur traders, and ultimately transformed the economy into an agrarian focus. The words “Pro, Pelle, Cutem” mean “a skin for a skin.” Edmonton was recovering from the depression when it was constructed.
Few buildings were completed between 1914 and 1950. By contrast, the Winnipeg architectural firm Moody and Moore’s design was extraordinarily refined, and therefore optimistic about the city.
Downtown is a fascinating menagerie of sights. It inspires me to wander its streets seeking out serendipitous moments with my camera, such as this one that I captured last spring. The basset hound’s droopy and curious face drew me in while its owner was waiting for the light at the southwest corner of Churchill Square. The man briefly looked back at me as I was composing the shot, which completed the picture. He then turned to cross the street, but not before the moment provoked the couple waiting at the light to snap their own photo of the dog. Sometimes it takes very little to make us appreciate the intrigue of our city.