There have been more than a few occasions when Edmonton could simply have ceased to exist. In the 1780s the Hudson’s Bay Company decided to pursue an aggressive strategy of setting up more and more trading posts further west ahead of its competition. In 1795 one of those on a bend in the North Saskatchewan River was named Fort Edmonton after a London suburb by a Hudson Bay employee now lost to the fog of history. Hudson’s Bay Edmonton House was built nearby the North West Company’s Fort Augustus. It was such wild country that even fur traders engaged in cut-throat competition saw the merits of teaming up so the two moved into the same stockade, with the post separated by a dividing wall. Although Fort Augustus was much larger, it was Fort Edmonton that emerged out the other end when the North West Company lost the fur trade battles in 1821. 

The next crisis came with consolidation of posts. Edmonton was on the chopping block until the company’s chief trader John Rowand convinced his bosses otherwise and Edmonton emerged as the company’s most important location west of Fort Garry, and the virtual “Gateway to the North.” As the dominant administrative and transportation centre for the next half-century was assumed to be the natural pathway for the Canadian Pacific Railway when it planned to breach the continent but Parliament amended the railroad’s charter in 1882 to send the route south through an unknown outpost called Fort Calgary.

Some of the early settlers moved away but others banded together to found the Edmonton Board of Trade and kickstart the Calgary and Edmonton Railway to link the settlement to the rail line. But when it arrived in 1891 the road only ran to the south shore of the river. Edmonton was faced with an existential crisis. Pack up and pivot development to the railhead where the settlement was likely to become a satellite of Calgary or stubbornly stay on the north bank and attempt to carry on its position as “Gateway to the North” without rail service.

Civic leaders responded by incorporating as a town and working to bring a competing railroad north of the river. The discovery of gold in the Yukon several years later helped validate the decision. When consolidation came in the early 1900s it was South Edmonton, which incorporated as Strathcona, that was swallowed up by Edmonton. When Alberta was made a province in 1905 Edmonton got the capital and the University of Alberta. A population of only a couple thousand that walked on dirt streets at the dawn of the 20th century was 72,000 riding streetcars down paved streets a decade later. 

The general malaise that settled over western Canada with war and economic hard times beginning in 1913 affected Edmonton more than most. But once again its position as “Gateway to the North” shook the community out of its somnambulence as an agricultural and government town. During World War II Edmonton was a base for the United States to build the Alaska Highway and the municipal airport, Blatchford Field that had been Canada’s first licensed airfield in 1929, became the hub for the Northwest Staging Route flying planes from Montana to Alaska. Edmonton also became the staging point for developing the oil sands of northern Alberta and diamond mining operations in the Northwest Territories. 

Our walking tour of North America’s northernmost city with a population over one million will begin with a landmark whose days of dominance were once as imperiled as the the town’s, but is now perched on a lookout above the North Saskatchewan River as prominent as ever...

Hotel Macdonald
10065 - 100 Street at the southeast corner of Jasper Avenue

Before this site housed the Hotel Macdonald it was home to a decidedly different sort of “hotel.” In the 19th century this spot was known around Edmonton as the Galician Hotel because immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia squatted in tents or small caves dug into the hillside above the river. In 1912 George Allen Ross and Australian Robert Henry Macdonald, two of Canada’s finest architects, were called from Montreal to design this hotel for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. Like most of Canada’s grand railway hotels it was modeled after 16th century French castles and dressed in Bedford Indiana limestone. The eleven-storey confection was capped with a copper roof and when it was completed in 1915 the price tag was $2.25 million. A sixteen-storey addition was raised in 1953 but the entire property slipped into disrepair and closed in 1983. The addition was torn down but the Hotel Macdonald (named for Canada’s first prime minister, John Macdonald, not the architect) was spared. A multi-million dollar facelift restored the heritage hotel to its former brilliance.  


Telus Plaza
10020 100 Street NW at southwest corner of Jasper Avenue

A library built with monies donated by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie stood here for half a century until the first of two towers was raised in 1969. When the second tower, Telus House, went up in 1971 it became Edmonton’s Sky King and remained the city’s tallest building for a decade.

Union Bank
10053 Jasper Ave NW

Only one bank remains standing in Edmonton that dates to before World War I and this Italian Renaissance vault is it. The architect was British born and trained Roland Walter Lines who was one of the town’s busiest architects before dying on the battlefield in Europe at the age of 40 in 1916. Lines left scarcely a foot of his three-storey confection undecorated. The ground floor is created with a rusticated base and Ionic pilasters separate the five bays on the upper two floors.The windows are adorned with open-bed pediments and fancy keystones. The Union Bank took its first deposits here in 1910 but was a victim of consolidation by 1928 when the building was purchased as a base for the James Richardson & Sons grain brokerage. Today the building enters its second century doing duty as an inn.

Empire Building
10080 Jasper Avenue at northeast corner of 101 Street SW

This eleven-storey International Style office building from 1962 shows how the service elements of a modern skyscraper are housed in a camouflaged separate tower from the leasing space.  

Canadian Bank of Commerce
10102 Jasper Avenue at northwest corner of 101 Street NW

By the time this bank branch was constructed in 1929 not many classical banking temples were still being constructed but that did not dissuade Toronto architect J. Horsbarch from tapping the elements of the Italian Renaissance for his design of the Canadian Bank of Commerce. The Toronto-based bank had seen plenty of its branches look like this since its founding in 1867. 


McDougall United Church
10086 - 101 Street at northeast corner of Macdonald Drive

The Hudson’s Bay Company had an image problem in the early 19th century as it managed its business interests in Rupert’s Land in western Canada. To put a more civilised face on its wilderness operations the company worked a deal with the Wesleyan Missionary Society to promote Christianity in the wilderness. So twenty-nine year old Methodist missionary Robert Rundle shipped out from Liverpool in March of 1840 and paddled into Fort Edmonton in October of that year. But the settlement did not get a resident minister until George McDougall set up a church school in 1871. When the second Methodist meetinghouse was erected in 1892 congregants began calling it the McDougall Church. The current Italianate style brick building dates to 1910. Architect Herbert Alton Magoon, a native of Quebec who was active in Nova Scotia and arrived in Edmonton in 1904 at the age of 41, drew up the plans. Magoon would be one of the busiest architects in the city for almost four decades.


Salvation Army Citadel
10030 - 102 Street

Former Methodist minister William Booth started the Salvation Army in London in 1865 and the charitable organisation has built a presence in 126 countries. Structures like this that were conceived as places of worship were known as “citadels.” Architects George H. MacDonald and Herbert Alton Magoon gave the Edmonton citadel the appearance of a Norman fortress. Dark clinker bricks were used for the exterior. In the 1960s the building was adapted for the Citadel Theatre Company that presented its first production, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, here on November 10, 1965. After the troupe moved on to Churchill Square in 1978 the former citadel was converted into a bar and music venue. In the 1990s the Rev Cabaret hosted shows by the likes of Nirvana and Green Day before they became major acts.    


Masonic Temple
10318 - 100 Avenue at northwest corner of 103 Street

The various Edmonton Masonic lodges in the early 20th century used a rented building a block away for meetings, a facility they realized was inadequate. But it took 19 years of selling shares in the Edmonton Masonic Temple Association Limited to raise enough money for a centrally located lodge of their own. Brother E.H. Braithwaite of Edmonton Lodge No.7 sold this land that he inherited from his mother for $12,500 to the Masons and he turned the first sod for construction on July 12, 1930. William Blakely, a well-respected local architect and member of Ivanhoe Lodge No. 142, contributed the Gothic Revival design and R.W. Ritchie, a member of Empire Lodge No. 63, oversaw construction. Some $170,000 later the four-storey temple dripping in medieval tracery was dedicated. 

Gariepy House
9947 - 104 Street at southeast corner of 100 Avenue

Joseph Hormisdas Gariepy was born in Quebec in 1852 and began clerking in a Montreal grocery business at the age of sixteen. He spent 24 years in the trade, eventually becoming a partner. In 1893 Garipey headed west and established a general store in partnership with Joseph Chenier. By 1902 he was able to build this eclectic brick mansion which stands as a rare pre-incorporation structure in Edmonton. Notice the corner turret and French Second Empire-style mansard roof. After the property passed from the Gariepy family it spent many years as a convent.     

Land Titles Office
10523 100th Avenue

The downtown Edmonton streetscape does not cling to many 19th century souvenirs but the Edmonton Crown, Land, Timber and Registry Office Building is one. In many ways it was the city’s first building. In the early 1890s Edmonton and Strathcona on the south side of the North Saskatchewan River were jostling to become the lead city of the region. When the Calgary and Edmonton Railway stopped on the south shore in 1892 Stratchcona seemed to have won the battle. With the blessing of Interior Minister Edgar Dewdney the existing land office was even loaded on carts and prepared for a move from Edmonton to the railway head in Strathcona. When Edmonton mayor Matthew McCauley learned of the scheme led a disabling party to cripple the carts and stared down a detachment of North-West Mounted Police. Indignant civic leaders set out to build a more permanent structure to stand as a symbol of their viability as a town. To make sure the new land titles office was not going anywhere it was constructed with concrete and brick 18 inches thick. Inside were double vaults with inner and outer iron doors and woodwork fashioned from British Columbia fir. Unfortunately the office was not conveniently sited and its functions were stripped by 1909 - by which time, however, Edmonton had established itself as a viable city aiming for the future. 


First Presbyterian Church
10025 105th Street

The first Presbyterian services were held in Edmonton in 1881 and the following year a meetinghouse was constructed. This is the third home for the congregation, raised in the the Gothic Revival style with red bricks and sandstone trim in 1912. Local architects Arthur Gordon Wilson and D. Easton Herrald who decorated Strathcona and the University of Alberta with many landmark buildings in a brief flurry of activity between 1907 and 1916, drew up the plans. This monumental Gothic design was their only ecclesiastical commission. David George McQueen, who has a neighbourhood in Edmonton and a peak in the Rockies named for him, served as minister here for 43 years beginning in 1887. 

Expert Cleaners Building
10050 - 105 Street

There are few remnants of the International Style where function trumped aesthetics left in Edmonton but this 1950s two-storey bring building modestly carries the torch for mid-20th century modern architecture. True to its mission the building still operates as a cleaning facility more than a half century later. 


Jasper Block
10514-10520 Jasper Avenue

Here is a rare glimpse of the Edmonton streetscape from a century ago. Street after street would have been lined with functional, commercial brick buildings like this one. Affectations were minimal - there is arcaded red pressed brick ornamentation and a stone nameplate embedded in the central parapet. The money man was John Kelly who began his working life in Edmonton in 1902 as a blacksmith but by 1909 was developing real estate like this property. The architect was Edward Colis Hopkins who was Provincial Architect for a time before moving to private practise. The Jasper Block came out of a short-lived partnership with Edmund Wright. Like most commercial blocks of the day the upper floors were used as living quarters and business was carried on down below.


Birks Building
10113-10123 104 Street at northeast corner of Jasper Avenue

Henry Birks & Sons, jewellers headquartered in Montreal, embarked in the early decades of the 20th century to place stores in all the major stores in Canada. For their Edmonton branch they hired go-to architect Percy Erskine Noles to create a building worthy of the gemstones inside. Designed around an eye-catching curved corner Noles worked patterned brickwork, ornate tiles, cast bronze panels and carved stone into the facade. The Birks always included medical and dental facilities into the upper floors of its buildings as a public service and their Edmonton store was no exception when it opened in 1929 - there was such a demand for the services that two additional floors were worked into the plans. 


Armstrong Block
10125 104 Street

This neighbourhood was the heart of Edmonton’s bustling warehouse district in the years before World War I. More than two dozen warehouses were constructed including this one as a speculative venture by the Armstrong family in 1912 that operated a printing business. The lower floors of the four-story mixed-use brick building were used for wholesale selling and the upper floors were sectioned off into apartments and office space. David Hardie, a busy local architect, provided the Edwardian-influenced Commercial styling.    

Great West Saddlery Building
10137 - 104 Street

Elisha F. Hutchings was born in Ontario in 1855. He heeded the call of the West in 1876 andmade his way to Manitoba working for the Canadian Pacific Railway and covering much of the distance on foot. He wound up working in a lumber camp before founding the Great West Saddlery Company and emerging as Winnipeg’s Saddle King. By the time he financed this five-storey retail and wholesale warehouse in 1911 his company was worth $2 million with 300 workers on the payroll. Although the future did not seem promising for one of the world’s largest leatherworks companies at the dawn of the automotive age the Great West Saddlery Company stayed in business here until 1958.  

Metals Limited Building
10190 104 Street at southwest corner of 102 Avenue

The heaviest financial hitters in Calgary - James Lougheed, A.E. Cross and future Prime Minister R.B. Bennett - pooled some of their assets in 1910 to form a plumbing supply business, Metals Limited. Edmonton architects George H. MacDonald and Herbert Alton Magoon created a building almost as unassuming as the line of business and the company name. But they did give the three-story warehouse a memorable chamfered entranceway. Metals Limited and its successors stayed for forty years until 1954 and in the 1970s the property was given new life as retail and office space; it stands as the last remaining historic warehouse west of 104 Street.

McKenney Building
10187 104 Street at southeast corner of 102 Avenue

Here is another building from architects MacDonald and Magoon which is typical of the utilitarian Commercial Style and almost completely unadorned save for the classically-flavoured entranceway. The money man was Henry William McKenney who was born in Ontario in 1848 and became a fur trader like his forbearers. He passed through Fort Edmonton in 1875 and later returned to open one of the first mercantile businesses in St. Albert. He came to wear many hats - school board member, postmaster, license commissioner, police magistrate, justice of the peace, grist mill operator and more. McKenney also acquired large swaths of land around the city. He was serving in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta when he had this building commissioned in 1912. Among the original tenants were a cobbler, a fruit market and a school supply company.   

Revillon Building and Annex
10201-10247 104 Street at northeast corner of 102 Avenue

Revillon Frères was a French luxury goods company with roots in commerce stretching back to 1723. After Louis-Victor Revillon purchased the business in 1839 it became the largest fur company in France and had retail stores in London and New York. As the 19th century ticked down to a close the French furriers took dead aim at the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Canadian market. Victor Revillon broke the country into an eastern and western division with Montreal the commercial hub in the east and, in 1902, Edmonton in the west. A flagship store and warehouse were set up to act as a distribution centre along the North Saskatchewan River and soon Revillon Frères had 23 stores across Canada and fur-trading posts across northern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The Paris-based company was incorporated in Canada in 1912 as the Revillon Frères Trading Company and set about constructing the largest and most modern warehouse in Western Canada on this site. Such contrivances as pneumatic tubes, electric elevators, spiral shipping chutes and an automatic telephone exchange made their debut in Edmonton here. Scottish-born architect and builder James McDiarmid out of Winnipeg was a leader in such innovative warehousing techniques and he provided the utilitarian design for this brick-facedbehemoth constructed of reinforced concrete. He came back in 1920 to create a two-storey annex. Hudson’s Bay Company bought a majority interest in its upstart rival in 1926 and by 1938 had purchased the operation outright, Anglicizing the name to Rupert’s Land Trading Company. In 1986 the six-storey landmark was combined with the Boardwalk Building to the east to create an award-winning mixed-use complex.


Ross Brothers Warehouse/Boardwalk Building
10310 102 Avenue at northwest corner of 103 Street

James “Charlie” Ross and his brother, Frederick, came west from Toronto in the 1880s, working in the building trade as carpenters and tinsmiths. In 1884 they opened Edmonton’s first hardware store at the corner of what would become Jasper Avenue and 98 Street. In 1910 the Ross Brothers’ success called for a wholesale warehouse and popular local architect Edward Collis Hopkins designed a new headquarters in a Second Renaissance Revival style with a quartet of oversized arched windows marching down 103 Street. The Rosses sold the hardware business the next year but Fred kept the building. In 1928 J.H. Ashdown Hardware Company out of Calgary bought the property and hired Herbert Alton Magoon and George Heath Macdonald to add five more identical arched bays. Still four more were added after World War II. Ashdown Hardware operated here until 1971 when the building was joined with the Revillon Building next door; the trademark Ashdown “A” in the white diamond emblazoned on the elevator penthouse lives on four decades later.    

City Centre
10025 102 Avenue

Timothy Eaton’s retailing philosophy of “Goods Satisfactory or Money Refunded” and his no-haggle one price selling philosophy when he opened for business in Toronto in 1869 led to Canada’s largest retail operation. A century later the company opened “Eaton Centres” in downtowns across Canada. In 1999 Eaton’s went bankrupt and the downtown mall was teamed with the Edmonton Centre to the east to form a single shopping complex with a glass pedestrian bridge linking the two across 101 Street. 

Manulife Place
10180 101 Street NW at southwest corner of 102 Avenue

This is Edmonton’s highest roof - the flagpoles atop Epcor Tower are a few metres higher. The 146-metre glass tower was topped off in 1983 from plans drawn by Clifford Lawrie Bolton Ritchie Architects. It replaced the King Edward Hotel that had stood since 1904 on this corner but burned to the ground on April 23, 1978 in a blaze that left two people dead. The ground floor is occupied by high end retailer Holt Renfrew that sold its first luxury goods in its fur shop in Quebec City in 1837.


Moser and Ryder Block
10169 - 101 Street

This rare splash of Art Deco on Edmonton streets came courtesy of a facelift to a Neoclassical facade that had been damaged by fire in 1944. Gone were the columns, keystones and balustrade. In their place came sleek polished stone, glass blocks and vertical elements. Left unchanged are the ghosts of the 1910 design by architects Almer Moser and Ernest Ryder on the north side of the building facing the alley. It had been constructed as offices and 24 stylish apartments, hence the elaborate facade. J.R. Friedman purchased the property after the fire for his Walk-Rite shoe store and he engineered the modernistic transformation.


Bell Tower
10104 103 Avenue NW at northwest corner of 101 Street

The Canadian Commercial Bank constructed this 130-metre tower in 1982 but failed three years later. With 31 stories it was Edmonton’s second tallest structure at the time.


City Hall
1 Sir Winston Churchill Square

This is the third seat of Edmonton government. The original city hall from 1913 was little more than a converted warehouse; it was brought down in favour of a modern style, nine-storey edifice in 1957. That was one of Canada’s first modernist civic buildings and not many thought the $3.5 million was well spent. Words like “bizarre” appeared in the Edmonton Journal and when a bronze fountain called “The Migrants” featuring five geese by University of British Columbia architecture professor Lionel A.J. Thomas was unveiled it was dubbed by naysayers “the spaghetti tree.” The building’s design came to be appreciated in time but not until it was outdated and too expensive to operate. It came down in 1990 and was replaced with an award-winning design by Edmonton architect Gene Dub that features two steel-and-glass pyramids, one with natural light for an atrium and the other for council chambers. The 66-metre Friendship Tower boasts a 23-bell carillon. “The Migrants” was incorporated into the design of the 1992 building. This time the price tag was $49 million.


Churchill Square
bordered on the north by 102A Avenue, on the west by 100 Street, on the south by Harbin Road (102 Avenue) and on the east by Rue Hull (99) Street

Edmonton’s main open-air market operated one block to the south beginning in 1900. It was enclosed in 1915 and operated until 1965. With the coming of the new city hall and the building of the Stanley A. Milner Library on the former market site in 1967 a downtown square was developed as a civic centre hub. Buildings on the square included the futuristic Art Gallery of Alberta, completed in 2010 at a cost of $88 million. Churchill Square’s busy event calendar have helped burnish Edmonton’s reputation as the “City of Festivals.” 

Churchill Wire Centre (1945-1947)
#9 Sir Winston Churchill Square at southwest corner of 100 Street NW and 101 Avenue NW

Edmonton’s first phone calls were routed through the municipally-owned telephone building on this location in 1907. The current stylish building dates to 1945 and is the last of a phalanx of civic buildings that once populated the outskirts of Churchill Square. The Moderne Styling was contributed by City Architect Max Dewar whose grand plan for the square was never executed. This one specimen, however, stands out with its polished black granite base, glass block windows and white terrazzo sheathing. In recent years it has done duty as a bank.

The McLeod Building
10136 100 Street at southwest corner of 101A Avenue

Kenneth Archibald McLeod was born in Ontario in 1858 but spent his formative years in the United States on the family farm in Kansas and in the construction business in Virginia. He returned to Canada in his early twenties and came to Edmonton in 1881 on foot with ox carts. He worked as a carpenter and builder until he was able to open his own plaining mill in 1893. Also that year McLeod entered politics, winning election to the Edmonton City Council as an alderman. As he reached his fifties McLeod set his sights on building the town’s first skyscraper. He even had a model in mind - the Polson Building he had seen in Spokane, Washington. McLeod brought in its creator, John K. Dow, to replicate the design in Edmonton. The final cost was $600,000, a figure driven up by the old builder’s insistence that the footing be large enough for a fifty-story building instead of the nine stories planned. Dow’s tripartite base-shaft-capital design reminiscent of a classical column was typical of early skyscraper construction - an oversized ground floor, unadorned central stories and an ornate cornice. Edmonton’s first skyscraper remained the city’s tallest building for almost 40 years after its completion in 1915.

Canada Permanent Building
10126 - 100 Street  

Architect Roland Lines tapped the Baroque era for the exuberant facade of this three-storey branch of the Canada Permanent Mortgage Company. J. Herbert Mason organised the business in Toronto in 1854 with a series of investors intended to carry on mortgage lending indefinitely. The company came to Edmonton in 1910. Perhaps there is magic in the name “Permanent” because the little jewel of a building has managed to hold its position among hulking modern neighbours for over 100 years - as unlikely as that seems.

Imperial Bank of Canada
9990 Jasper Avenue

The Imperial Bank of Canada took its first deposits on this site in 1891 inside a small brick building. In 1906 the bank picked up a more fitting classical temple radiating strength and security to wary frontier depositors. That building was torn down in 1950 to make way for this Moderne Style banking hall fashioned from black granite and Indiana limestone. The firm of Rule, Wynn, and Rule that drove modern architecture in mid-century Alberta drew up the plans. The Imperial Bank moved on in 2000 and the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce purchased the property and operates its international division, the World Trade Centre, here.