Both of my parents moved to Canada from Europe when they were young. They settled in Alberta and eventually started a family in Edmonton. My dad was an entrepreneur, and my mother was studying at the U of A and working in the old courthouse downtown… Eventually, they started having kids and my mom dedicated her life to raising us boys, but she looks fondly back on her days working among judges and lawyers.
We spoke a little bit a few weeks back about the history of Edmonton and some of the characters that she grew up around. My mom, a citizen of Calgary for about 6 or 7 years now, still misses the city.
“It seems like you and dad knew all these strange people who used to populate Edmonton and were all connected,” I told her. She laughed, as I asked her to tell me the story about “Sweaty Betty,” apparently a slum landlord on 124th Street years ago.
Eventually, we started talking about the physical changes in Edmonton. That’s when she said, “I couldn’t believe when they tore down the old courthouse. What a shame.”
I thought, “Old courthouse? I don’t remember an old courthouse.”
That’s because it was torn down in 1972, eight years before I was born. It was demolished to make way for a mall. The City Centre Mall.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to walk the grounds of Sylvancroft, an old estate home built by one of Edmonton’s first mayors, Harry Marshall Erskine Evans — you can read some great info on the history of the home at EdmontonHeritage.ca.
When I’d first heard of Sylvancroft, its history and its potential demolition (though now uncertain), I was angry. This is the symptom of a much larger problem in Edmonton: a complete and utter disconnect to the physical beauty and history of our city, particularly among young people — myself included.
The Evans family lost its Sylvancroft legacy. We, as Edmontonians, mustn’t make the same mistake. The property seems to have come to an idealistic developer with strong local roots, someone who cares about creating a vibrant city core. Surely it’s not too much to hope that city planners and politicians, perhaps with provincial support, could find some way to co-operate with [Ivan] Beljan to preserve the house.
In our conscious or unconscious desire to position ourselves as a “world-class city,” we seem to be forgetting what makes actual “world-class cities” world class. It isn’t centres of commerce, or sports teams, or freeways — though those can be contributors to such status.
A huge part of being a world-class city is its history.
Our willingness to tear down our history comes at the expense of our future. Sometimes old, decrepit buildings need to be demolished. Not every structure ever built has deep history or architectural relevance to it, certainly not the founding our building of a city — as Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But we carry on with this demolition with seemingly little thought or notice.
Edmonton’s story — its founding, how it was built, and how it continues to grow — is its identity. When we tear down historic houses and buildings, we lose that identity. Those buildings link us to the people who’ve lived here and made the city what it is today. With every residence, school or building we tear down, we erase the tangible connection to the people that built this city into what it is.
I don’t want to live in a city that does that to itself.
I’m not sure what happens next for Sylvancroft, but I hope something can be done to save it, to integrate it into a new development, and to preserve the history of a once-grand home that bore witness to the beginnings of Edmonton.