Nestled within the picturesque landscapes of Alberta, Edmonton, a city with a rich history and vibrant culture, offers a treasure trove of historic buildings and sites waiting to be explored. Steeped in a past marked by both heritage and progress, Edmonton’s historical architecture and landmarks stand as testaments to the city’s enduring legacy.
One can embark on a journey through time by visiting the iconic Alberta Legislature Building, where the province’s governance comes to life.
The Princess Theatre, a local gem since the early 1900s, continues to captivate audiences with its timeless charm. The Walterdale Playhouse and Connaught Armoury pay homage to Edmonton’s cultural and military heritage, respectively. The Ritchie Mill, dating back to 1892, reminds us of Edmonton’s industrial roots.
For those seeking grandeur, the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald stands tall with its luxurious elegance, while Government House exudes regal history.
The McLeod Building, Strathcona Library, Strathcona Public Building, and the Strathcona Canadian Pacific Railway Station offer diverse architectural wonders, each with its unique story. Lastly, the Old Scona Academic High School epitomizes a commitment to academic excellence.
In this exploration of Edmonton’s history and historic sites, we’ll delve deeper into the narratives that have shaped this fascinating city. The historic churches of Edmonton and the history museums you can visit here have been covered in other articles on our website.
A brief history of Edmonton
The history of Edmonton stretches back thousands of years, with early inhabitants arriving around 3,000 BC.
This land was originally inhabited by several First Nations peoples, including the Cree, Nakota Sioux, Blackfoot, Tsuut’ina, Ojibwe, and Denesuline. The North Saskatchewan River Valley, including the Edmonton area, was home to these communities for centuries, providing essential resources like fish, medicine, and materials for tools.
European exploration began in the 18th century, with Fort Edmonton established in 1795 as a major trading post for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Treaty 6 was signed in 1876, incorporating the region into Canada. The arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885 and the Calgary and Edmonton Railway in 1891 boosted Edmonton’s economy and population.
Incorporated as a town in 1892 and then as a city in 1904, Edmonton became the capital of Alberta when the province was formed in 1905. The arrival of the Canadian Northern Railway in 1905 further accelerated the city’s growth.
During the early 1900s, Edmonton experienced a real estate boom but faced challenges, including a population decline during World War I. However, it rebounded in the 1920s and thrived after World War II.
The city’s significance was underscored by the opening of the Edmonton City Centre Airport in 1929, serving as Canada’s first licensed airfield and a gateway to the North.
Edmonton’s history is not without its challenges. On July 31, 1987, a devastating F4 tornado struck the city, leading to significant loss of life. This tragic event, known as “Black Friday,” also earned Edmonton the title “City of Champions” for its resilience.
Throughout its history, Edmonton has evolved into a vibrant and diverse city with a rich and storied past.
The Alberta Legislature Building
The Alberta Legislature Building, also known as “the Ledge,” stands as a remarkable testament to the history and governance of Alberta.
Located at 10801 97 Avenue NW in Edmonton, this iconic structure serves as the official meeting place for the Legislative Assembly of Alberta and the Executive Council of Alberta.
Perched atop a promontory overlooking the North Saskatchewan River valley, the Legislature’s strategic position near the historic Fort Edmonton site reflects its importance as a center of administration and commerce in the region.
Originally constructed between 1907 and 1913, the building boasts an architectural style rooted in the Beaux Arts tradition, a symbol of power and tradition, characterized by grand arches, monumental columns, and a spacious central rotunda crowned by a striking dome. The exterior is adorned with Vancouver Island granite and sandstone from the Glenbow Quarry in Calgary.
Visitors to the Alberta Legislature Building can explore its rich history through free guided tours, discovering the significance of the building and its role in Alberta’s development. Additionally, the building is connected to the Government Centre station and Government Centre Transit Centre via an underground walkway, providing easy access for all.
The building is more than a functional government facility; it is a living testament to Alberta’s past and its continuing journey towards the future.
The Princess Theatre
The Princess Theatre, nestled on 10337 Whyte Avenue in Edmonton’s enchanting Old Strathcona neighborhood, is a captivating testament to the city’s architectural heritage and cinematic history.
Designed by the esteemed architects Wilson and Herrald, who also contributed to the designs of other historic Edmonton sites, this theater has evolved over the years to become a treasure trove for history enthusiasts and film aficionados alike.
Originally known as the McKernan Block, the Princess Theatre opened its doors on March 8, 1915, offering a lavish cinema experience. Its first feature, “The Eagle’s Mate,” starring the iconic Mary Pickford, was met with great acclaim.
The theater’s interior was adorned with marble, frescoes, brass mirrors, and an abundance of gold leaf decorations. This exquisite attention to detail, along with its advanced technology, like modern projectors and an innovative ventilation system, made the Princess Theatre the epitome of elegance and modernity.
Over the years, the Princess Theatre transitioned through various phases of ownership and operations, from being a repertory theater to screening mainstream and even adult films. In 1978, it found its way back to its cultural roots, running successfully as a repertory theater.
Frank Grisdale and Susan Morrow, among others, played significant roles in reviving the theater’s fortunes. Under their stewardship, it became a hub for alternative arts and independent films.
The theater’s rich history and architectural splendor, combined with its unwavering commitment to cultural diversity, make it a compelling tourist attraction for history lovers.
Today, as it continues to evolve under new management, the Princess Theatre remains a cherished piece of Edmonton’s cinematic and architectural heritage. Its vibrant past and promising future make it an essential stop on the journey of exploring the city’s cultural treasures.
The Walterdale Playhouse
The Walterdale Playhouse, located in Edmonton’s historic Old Strathcona neighborhood, is a unique cultural treasure that combines the enchantment of amateur live performances with the allure of a captivating historical venue.
Celebrating over 50 years of theatrical magic since its founding in 1959, the Walterdale Playhouse stands as one of Western Canada’s oldest and most cherished amateur theatre groups.
Housed within the walls of the Strathcona Firehall No. 1, a Provincial Registered Historical Resource dating back to 1909, the theater exudes a timeless charm that transports visitors to a bygone era.
The fire hall’s architectural grandeur, designed by local firm Wilson and Herrald, showcases classical features like round arches, a stately cornice, and an imposing bell tower. It’s a living testament to early twentieth-century fire hall design, complete with intriguing elements like fire poles connecting its two stories.
For history enthusiasts, the Walterdale Playhouse offers a delightful blend of historical preservation and artistic expression. This venue, designated as a Municipal Historic Resource, has undergone meticulous restoration, making it accessible to all.
In this intimate setting, theatergoers can savor outstanding performances while basking in the rich ambiance of a building that played a vital role in the development of Strathcona and Edmonton.
Whether you’re captivated by the heritage of the fire hall or the sheer artistry of the performances, the Walterdale Playhouse beckons as a must-visit destination for those seeking a harmonious fusion of history and culture. It stands as an enduring testament to Edmonton’s vibrant arts and heritage scene.
The Connaught Armoury
The Connaught Armoury, nestled at 10310 85 Avenue in Edmonton, is a captivating piece of the nation’s history. Erected between 1911 and 1912 at a cost of $35,000, this two-storey brick edifice proudly holds the title of Alberta’s oldest armoury, providing a window into the early twentieth century.
This architectural gem boasts a rich past, its main floor once echoing with the disciplined footsteps of soldiers in the spacious drill hall. The facility also featured storerooms for arms, saddles, and uniforms, along with offices and a caretaker’s apartment.
Descending to the basement, you’d discover a piece of history in the form of a rifle range and a bowling alley, speaking to the military and leisure activities of the time.
The Connaught Armoury earned its name in honor of Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, the third son of Queen Victoria and Canada’s Governor-General from 1911 to 1916.
This historic site was purpose-built to house the B Squadron of the 19th Alberta Dragoons, a cavalry and later armored regiment. The Dragoons played crucial roles in the First and Second World Wars, and after the latter, they evolved into the 19th Alberta Armoured Car Regiment.
While the building sat vacant for 14 years, it has since witnessed various uses. Restaurants came and went, but now the Connaught Armoury is a symbol of resilience and service. The Edmonton City Council decided to repurpose the building as a drop-in center for the Youth Emergency Shelter Society, ensuring it remains a meaningful part of Edmonton’s cultural tapestry.
The Ritchie Mill
The Ritchie Mill, Alberta’s oldest surviving flour mill, is a remarkable testament to the province’s early agricultural and industrial history.
Built in 1892, it played a pivotal role in Alberta’s development through innovative technology, using steam-powered steel rollers instead of traditional stone wheels for grinding hard prairie wheat.
Situated in the heart of the historic Strathcona community, it benefited from its strategic location at the ‘End of Steel,’ where the railway met the North Saskatchewan River Valley, highlighting its historical significance in urban industrial and agricultural development.
The mill is closely associated with Robert Ritchie, who arrived in Strathcona in 1892 and swiftly established the flour mill. Ritchie’s contributions extended beyond industry as he engaged in local politics, serving as alderman, school trustee, justice of the peace, and even as the mayor of Strathcona in 1906.
In 1948, the mill ceased its operation as a flour mill, but its legacy lived on. In 2012, the building was ingeniously transformed into an iconic office and retail complex, preserving the Ritchie Mill’s heritage and its role as a historic symbol of Alberta’s early industrial and agricultural development.
Recognized as a Provincial Historic Resource in 1979 and a Municipal Historic Resource in 1997, the Ritchie Mill stands as a cherished piece of Alberta’s history.
The Fairmont Hotel Macdonald
The Fairmont Hotel Macdonald, also known as “The Mac,” is a prestigious luxury hotel located in Edmonton. Nestled along 100 Street NW, just south of Jasper Avenue, this grand historic hotel graces the eastern end of downtown Edmonton, offering breathtaking views of the North Saskatchewan River.
With its towering 47.7-meter (156-foot) structure containing eleven floors, the hotel is an architectural masterpiece designed by Ross and MacFarlane, representing an era of timeless elegance. Named in honor of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald opened its doors on July 5, 1915.
As one of Canada’s renowned grand railway hotels, the Châteauesque-styled building stands as a symbol of early 20th-century railway-era architecture. Its innovative use of steam-powered steel rollers, a departure from traditional stone wheels, showcases the hotel’s commitment to quality and progress.
Over the years, the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald has witnessed multiple renovations and transformations, ensuring its historical significance endures. In 1991, it was reborn as a shining example of hospitality after being acquired by Canadian Pacific Hotels and undergoing extensive restoration.
In 2001, as part of the reorganization into Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, it was renamed the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald. This iconic landmark represents the perfect blend of history and luxury, making it a must-visit destination for travelers seeking a taste of Alberta’s rich heritage and modern comforts.
The Government House
Government House, nestled in Edmonton’s charming Glenora neighborhood, is a historical treasure with a multifaceted past. Serving as the former official residence of Alberta’s lieutenant governors, this picturesque building has witnessed significant transformations over the years.
Initially constructed in 1912, Government House opened its doors to great acclaim in 1913. The building, designed in the Jacobean Revival style, features three stories and is constructed from beautiful sandstone.
It functioned as the viceregal residence until 1938 when it closed due to economic concerns, though political tensions likely played a role. Afterward, it served various purposes, from a boarding house for American pilots to a military hospital during World War II, and later, as a convalescent home for veterans.
In 1964, Government House was returned to the provincial Crown, and the Alberta government undertook extensive restoration. It was subsequently reopened as a conference center and grounds for the Alberta Provincial Museum (later renamed the Royal Alberta Museum), which opened in 1967.
Today, Government House hosts essential events and conferences, welcoming distinguished visitors, including Pope John Paul II and members of the Canadian Royal Family. While it is no longer a viceregal residence, the lieutenant governor conducts swearing-in ceremonies for Cabinet ministers here, and the Alberta Room serves as the caucus meeting place for the governing party.
Furthermore, Government House remains open for public tours, offering an opportunity to explore its rich history, with artifacts and original furniture on display. It stands as a testament to Alberta’s heritage, encapsulating both its colonial past and its vibrant present.
The McLeod Building
The McLeod Building, a cherished historic gem in Downtown Edmonton, stands as a testament to the city’s architectural and cultural heritage.
Constructed between 1913 and 1915, it was the brainchild of Kenneth McLeod, a prominent figure in Edmonton’s history. McLeod, a former alderman, contractor, and real estate speculator, envisioned a structure that would not only be a commercial landmark but also elevate the city’s skyline.
The McLeod Building’s architectural significance is deeply rooted in the Chicago School style, a distinctive architectural movement celebrated for its refined neo-classicism. The terra cotta-clad nine-story building is unique in Edmonton, adding to its landmark status.
The exterior boasts a distinctive tripartite facade, evenly spaced double-hung windows, ornate polychrome friezes, and an intricately decorated projecting cornice.
This building served as a hub for Edmonton’s burgeoning downtown area. Its proximity to key institutions such as the post office, courthouse, and city hall made it an attractive location for professionals, including doctors, lawyers, insurance companies, and grain firms.
The McLeod Building represents the ambition and vision of Kenneth McLeod, who sought to create Edmonton’s most prominent commercial structure.
While its prominence waned in the 1960s with the rise of modern office buildings, the McLeod Building continues to be a remarkable example of Edwardian-era architecture and a testament to Edmonton’s enduring legacy.
The Strathcona Library
The Strathcona Library, established in 1913, holds the distinction of being one of Alberta’s oldest libraries, and it’s deeply entwined with the history of Edmonton and the Old Strathcona community.
This beloved institution stands on 104th Street, just off the vibrant Whyte Avenue in the heart of Old Strathcona, a central gathering place for the local community.
The library’s history dates back to 1897 when the Strathcona Library Society was founded, with a vision to bring a public library to the burgeoning city of Strathcona.
Construction efforts took shape in 1910, and after declining a generous offer from American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, the library was eventually built as part of the agreement when Strathcona and Edmonton amalgamated in 1912. The library opened its doors in 1913 to much enthusiasm and boasted an impressive circulation for the time.
Over the years, the Strathcona Library faced challenges due to urban expansion and the opening of the larger Stanley A. Milner central library in 1967. However, a resurgence of support in the 1970s led to its recognition as a Registered Historic Resource of Alberta in 1976. Subsequent restorations and expansions have preserved its historical charm while adding modern facilities.
Today, the Strathcona Library continues to serve as a vibrant and integral part of Old Strathcona, offering a rich collection of physical and digital items, numerous free events, and a unique space where the past meets the present, making it a cherished cornerstone of the community.
The Strathcona Public Building
The Strathcona Public Building, also known as the Old Strathcona Post Office or South Edmonton Post Office, is a meticulously restored heritage structure situated in Strathcona Square within the Old Strathcona district of Edmonton.
This building, along with the adjacent Festival Market, was unveiled to the public in September 1988 and has since become a defining feature of the Strathcona Square.
Constructed between 1911 and 1913 during a significant building boom in the Edmonton area, the Strathcona Public Building was designed by David Ewart, the Chief Architect of the Canadian Department of Public Works.
It originally served as a post office and federal government office building. The unique brick and limestone finishing of this Edwardian Classical Free style building marked a departure from the typical Romanesque architecture of post office buildings at the time.
In 1914-1915, the tower was heightened to make it the second tallest structure on the south side of Edmonton, following the grain terminal.
After a period of disuse and structural decline, the building was recognized as a Grade A Provincial Historic Resource of Alberta in 1985. Subsequently, the City of Edmonton acquired the building for $1.00 in 1986.
Ownership was later transferred to the Clarion Hospitality Group, which spearheaded an extensive restoration and expansion. Today, the Strathcona Public Building is home to a variety of restaurants, bars, and unique businesses.
It is not only a testament to historical preservation but also a vibrant hub in Old Strathcona that continues to captivate both residents and visitors alike. The clock mechanism, reconditioned in England, now adds a unique and accessible element to the building, becoming a popular tourist attraction.
The Strathcona Canadian Pacific Railway Station
The South Edmonton station, formerly known as Strathcona station until 1932, stands as a remarkable piece of Canadian railway history. Constructed in 1907 and expanded in 1910, this building was the northern terminus of the Calgary and Edmonton Railway, serving Strathcona and Edmonton.
It played a pivotal role during a time of rapid development and expansion in western Canada. Despite being later overshadowed by other railway lines and stations in the region, the Strathcona station remains a testament to the economic growth and optimism that railways brought to northern Alberta.
This two-storey railway station, located in the heart of Old Strathcona, Edmonton’s heritage district on the south side of the North Saskatchewan River, reflects the turn-of-the-century railway station design. The station’s polygonal tower is a typical feature of significant CPR stations from that era.
Nestled amidst similar-scale, vintage buildings in Old Strathcona, the station serves as a local landmark and contributes to the historical character of the area. It has a small park to the north, preserving vestiges of the original station garden, and maintains its connection to surviving railway structures, including the tracks and rail yards.
Recognized as a Municipal Historic Resource and designated as a Canadian Heritage Railway Station, the Strathcona station stands as a living relic of the railroad’s crucial role in shaping the region’s history.
The Old Scona Academic High School
Old Scona Academic School, also known as Old Scona or OSA, stands as a unique academic institution nestled in the heart of Edmonton’s Old Strathcona district.
This esteemed high school boasts a small population of approximately 340 to 360 students and is renowned for its unwavering commitment to nurturing academically inclined minds in an environment that thrives on intellectual stimulation. As one of Canada’s premier academic high schools, Old Scona’s motto, “Ever to Excel,” underscores its dedication to excellence.
The school’s storied history traces back to 1908 when it first opened its doors as the Strathcona Collegiate Institute. Originally part of the City of Strathcona school system, the school transitioned into the Edmonton system in 1912.
Over the years, it wore various names, from Strathcona Collegiate Institute to Strathcona High School, until the school closed in 1958. However, its purpose evolved as it accommodated Strathcona Junior High School and later served as a space for continuing education and special education.
In 1976, a new chapter began with the birth of Old Scona Academic High School. Since 1980, it has proudly held the title of an International Baccalaureate World School, adding to its distinguished reputation.
The school building itself, designed by local architect Roland Lines, was a modern marvel at its opening and underwent significant renovations and restoration in 1997 to maintain its historical integrity.
In recognition of its remarkable academic history and architectural significance, Old Scona Academic School earned the prestigious designation of a provincial historic resource in September 2008, ensuring the preservation of its heritage for generations to come.