93-year-old Edmonton blacksmith shop joins national list of heritage buildings in jeopardy

It might not be much to look at but the A. Minchau Blacksmith Shop near Whyte Avenue has been added to the National Trust for Canada’s top 10 list for 2018 of endangered buildings

The 1925 building just south of Whyte Avenue reflects the city's gritty, industrial past

The National Trust of Canada calls the A. Minchau Blacksmith Shop "one of a rapidly dwindling number of boomtown structures in Old Strathcona, a historic district experiencing unprecedented development pressure." (National Trust of Canada website)

It's not the majestic Hotel Macdonald overlooking Edmonton's river valley, or the prominent South Side Post Office in Old Strathcona, but the A. Minchau Blacksmith Shop is significant enough to save, heritage fans say.

The 1925 brick industrial building on 81st Avenue and 101st Street made the National Trust for Canada's top 10 list of endangered places for 2018.

Chris Wiebe, manager of heritage policy with the non-profit organization, described the Minchau as "a gritty character building, the loss of which makes Edmonton a bit less interesting."

"That's a lost opportunity there not to celebrate that ... boom-time, early industrial past of the city," Wiebe told CBC News Friday. 

The building's owner, Cejay Ventures, applied in March for a permit to demolish the structure.

Heritage planners with the City of Edmonton said they had been negotiating with the company to try to save the building, which is in an area zoned for a 12-storey building.

Under the Municipal Government Act, the city has 60 days to decide whether to allow the demolition. 

I can't picture a better spot for a brewery.- Dan Rose, Heritage Forward

That hasn't happened. 

Scott Ashe, a senior heritage planner, said the city has not taken formal action.

Because of that, the owner is asking the subdivision and development appeal board to make a decision. The matter is likely to be heard in mid-June, Ashe said. 
Chris Wiebe is the manager of heritage policy with the National Trust for Canada.

Before that happens, councillors Scott McKeen and Ben Henderson are hoping the province will step in.

McKeen plans to raise a motion next week asking council to support having the mayor write a letter to the Alberta government seeking provincial heritage designation for the building.

"To kind of pave the way jurisdictionally, a letter from the mayor may clear this all up," McKeen said.

The Alberta Historic Resources Act states that if a municipality insists on historic designation, it is then required to compensate the building owner.

It's another reason the Minchau made the top 10 most endangered places list.

Alberta and B.C. are the only provinces or states in all of North America where the onus is on the municipality.

"It's an excellent example of a place in Alberta where there was real strong municipal will to designate the building and to retain it, but it's hobbled by historic places legislation," said Wiebe.

Historic inventory

The Minchau is one of more than 900 buildings on the city's historic building inventory. Buildings on this list are not legally protected.

Ashe said the list changes from year to year, as the city adds some buildings and other structures get demolished.

The back of the blacksmith shop off 101st Street and 81st Avenue. (CBC)

On average, he said, 10 to 12 buildings on the list are demolished every year.

McKeen would like to hear more from the public on this issue.

"I don't think our heritage preservation has captured the imagination of the public here like it would in a city like Montreal."

Potential uses

Dan Rose, a volunteer with the group Heritage Forward, is lobbying to save the Minchau.

"It very much represents the sort of modest, utilitarian design of a boom-town structure," he said. "It really speaks quite strongly, I think, to the history of Edmonton."

Rose said he's heard from local entrepreneurs interested in using the space as a bicycle shop, coffee-roasting facility, performing arts venue or brew pub.

"I can't picture a better spot for a brewery," he said, referring to the German-immigrant heritage of the building.

Wiebe said while Edmonton is good at trying to protecting some of its more iconic buildings, the less flashy ones — what he called the "supporting casts" — deserve attention. 

These buildings "give the place a texture," he said. "I think Edmonton is rapidly losing those and needs to pay more attention to them."