Saving Sylvancroft, our history and our future

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Sylvancroft, former residence to Mayor Harry Evans | Photo by Raffaella Loro

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.

Built in 1911, demolished 1972 - from EPL's "Lost Buildings"

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.

Paula Simons wrote a great story on Sylvancroft yesterday in the Edmonton Journal:

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.

Front of Sylvancroft | Photo by Raffaella Loro

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.

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9 Responses to “Saving Sylvancroft, our history and our future”

  1. Dawn Stiles
    August 3, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    Adam,

    Thanks for raising awareness about this hidden gem of Edmonton and her possible fate.

  2. Gary
    August 3, 2011 at 10:39 am #

    Nice words, said with passion. And I say the following honestly, with ALL due respect. This is a private property, surrounded by all sorts of legal and financial issues and clearly a VERY sad thing for the family members who, for the most part, have been shut out of keeping “family control” in a sense. In addition, the location makes “how wonderful this place is”, out of the visible eyes of local main stream traffic. And I have to ask why taxpayers should have any responsibility for this? It’s not like you can clear a path for people to see it and for sure the residents in the area want to protect their privacy. Nothing like creating some form of tourist attraction in a rich area, where the criminal element is openly invited to take a tour of the area.

    Do you pick it up and move it to Fort Edmonton Park? Do we do that with all of the “nice places” around? Where do you draw the line? One also has to think, if the place is in such a state of dis-repair then why didn’t the family and lawyers and all of the other proceedings demand that maintenance was kept up on it? And because they didn’t, the taxpayers should? The logic in that makes no sense.

    Yes… I get it… heritage, our past, how important it is to preserve etc etc etc.

    Of course, our airport in the middle of the City also has heritage. I could post really cute pictures of the past, the float planes, and use cute fancy words like how vibrant it is and the excitement and enjoyment it brings for people to go see. Our airport saves lives, or it used to until they closed the runway the medivac needs. You did say you don’t want to live in a city that tears down it’s identity… And I’m just saying, again with all due respect… that if we can keep that passion into saving a house that “looks pretty” then why aren’t we putting that same passion into property that saves lives. This house certainly won’t do that.

    Just my 2 cents… not looking to create a debate, won’t be coming back to view comments… Just pointing out many things have value, and your words and passion can apply everywhere.

    Peace

    • Jeff
      August 3, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

      float planes?

      • Adam Rozenhart
        August 3, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

        Yeah, I was scratching my head about that too, but didn’t bother responding, since Gary said he wouldn’t come back and read the discussion.

        • Wanye
          August 7, 2011 at 1:34 pm #

          FLOAT PLANES!

          *runs to capitalize on the idea*

    • grypewater
      August 8, 2011 at 2:32 pm #

      … and there it comes, all those paragraphs, and you just wanted to talk about the airport. AGAIN. for gosh sakes, not everything is about the airport or the arena.

      edmonton is home to the grumpiest bunch of curmudgeons that ever existed.

  3. colin
    August 3, 2011 at 12:00 pm #

    Agreed. Parking lots and starbucks do not a city make.

  4. Michael Senchuk
    August 3, 2011 at 12:07 pm #

    That is a shame about the old courthouse; I never knew about it until reading this article either, but it DEFINITELY looks like a building we should’ve saved, and perhaps the city could’ve helped out the developer to somehow include it in the mall.

    I agree with Adam, but also with the caveat we need to be careful not to overcompensate and swing back to the other side, saving every building. There are plenty that are ugly; were always ugly; and have little or no historical significance. But we do need to do a much better job of preserving the ones that do.

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