Playing the title role

The former Land Titles Office sits inconspicuously on 100 Ave at 106 Street surrounded by temporary fencing as it sheds its stucco cocoon. No butterfly will result, only an honest red brick chestnut – a seed that grew into the Alberta capital.

In the 1890s there was a plan afoot to move the office to Strathcona, south of the North Saskatchewan River. This would have effectively shifted government operations to Strathcona. If not for a plucky group of protesters led by militant merchants, the downtown core and the Alberta capital would likely be in an altogether different place.

Strathcona was the terminus of the Calgary and Edmonton Railway and landholders had to cross the river on John Walter’s ferry to do their business in Edmonton. In June of 1892 the federal government packed land titles documents and furniture on to wagons for the trip south. 

Edmontonians balked and sabotaged the wagons knowing if the office moved it would be the end of their hopes to make Edmonton a major city. Edmonton mayor Matthew McCauley led a disabling party as officers of the North-West Mounted Police looked on. The town’s burgers set out to build a permanent structure that could not so easily be moved. It was a solid beast, made of concrete and brick, 45 cm thick. Doug Gelbert, in his book Look Up Edmonton – A Walking Tour says this sturdy structure was entered through iron doors and Inside was douglas fir woodwork, imported from British Columbia. It was an anchor which held Edmonton and its hopes in place. 

The building design was based on a plan by Thomas Fuller, who held the august title of Chief Architect of the Dominion. It’s similar to Hudson’s Bay Company warehouses of the time. Fuller was responsible for some of Canada’s most iconic structures, including Ottawa’s Parliament building and the revered Parliamentary Library. Over the years there have been two additions to the building. 

The Alberta capital outgrew the one-and-a-half storey building and the office was moved in 1912. It then became an armory through both world wars. After the Second World War it housed the offices and labs of the Alberta government’s Department of Health. Most recently it housed the Elizabeth Fry Society which works with women caught up in the justice system and helps  some transition from prison to life on the outside.

For much of its history the Land Titles/Victoria Armoury building was accompanied by its much larger brick cousin across the street, Arlington Apartments. Sadly that building was gutted by fire in 2005. There had been hopes the facade could be saved but it was demolished in 2008.

The Arlington’s humbler companion across the street is currently under extensive restoration. Most Edmontonians who notice the building could be excused in believing it was always white stucco. But as the metamorphosis continues it won’t be long before the red brick that characterizes most of the city’s remaining historic buildings is again exposed. To some the loss of the building’s white cladding means loss of and identifiable non-brick landmark, but many people embrace the red brick genesis of 19th century architecture and welcome one such landmark back after losing so many others.