Historic J.B. Little home in Riverdale to open doors as cafe

A little brick house in Riverdale, once at the centre of Edmonton’s burgeoning brickworks industry, will soon be serving up far more than construction materials.

Heritage home built in 1903 will be site of cafe, general store and picnic grounds

Built in 1903 by brickyard owner J.B. Little, the Riverdale home was continuously lived in by Little's descendants for nearly a century. (Provided: Arlene Birmingham)

A little brick house in Riverdale, once at the centre of Edmonton’s burgeoning brickworks industry, will soon be serving up far more than construction materials.

The J.B. Little Brickyard, once the defining industry in the Riverdale area, fired up its first kiln in 1893.

Throughout its years in operation, the brickyard employed hundreds of Edmontonians, many of whom settled in and around the community.

Brickyard owner J.B. Little sits in his living room. When the Little Brick business space opens, this room will be used for private functions. (Provided: Arlene Birmingham)
At the heart of it all was the house built by brickyard owner J.B. Little in 1903, and continuously occupied by his descendants for nearly a century. Today, the home still sits at its original location on 100th Avenue and 90th Street. 

“It was amazing growing up there,” said Sarah Birmingham, Little’s great-great-granddaughter, who lived in the house for 21 years.

Now, work is underway to convert the former family home into a new kind of community space, which will include the Little Brick Cafe and a general store, along with a business and event space offering catering by Elm Cafe.

“And then we’ve got the whole backyard, and that’s something that we’re very excited about, too,” said Nate Box, one of the people behind the ambitious restoration plan.

“Breathing some new life into the landscaping and getting people picnic blankets and you can come out with your kids and sit and have a picnic in our backyard something a bit different and we’ll provide the food and the drinks and a bocce set.”

In the community, for the community

Box first came across the heritage home in summer of 2014 and was immediately struck by the beauty of the home and property, located in the heart of heart of Riverdale where there are few other businesses.

Nate Box (left) and Sarah Birmingham sat down with CBC Edmonton AM host Mark Connolly on Tuesday morning to talk about plans to turn Birmingham's old house - built by her great-great-grandfather J.B. Little in 1903 - into a new cafe and business hub. (CBC)
Birmingham’s parents were the last of Little’s descendants to live in the home before moving out in 2000 when the home was sold as part of a larger estate deal.

“We were very sad to leave, but pretty grateful that we got to live there as long we did,” remembered Birmingham.

After that, the house was first converted into a store for a number of years before it was turned over to a series of rental tenants.

Throughout, Birmingham kept an eye on the home she had grown up in, watching sadly as it slowly fell more and more into disrepair until one day, she spotted a construction crew on site starting restoration work.

“It’s really nice to see that something is happening with it,” she said.

Although included in the City of Edmonton’s inventory list, Box says the house is not currently on the city’s protected historic watch list, which left it in danger of being torn down before his partners purchased it.

An old family photo shows the early days of Riverdale (right) and Cloverdale (left). The Hotel MacDonald can be seen on the horizon. (Provided: Arlene Birmingham)
Now he plans to apply for heritage protection for the house after he and his colleagues work to restore the site to its former glory.

Box is also determined to make the Little Brick Cafe and other associated businesses something that will fit the needs and values of the surrounding Riverdale neighbourhood and be a place where people gather.

“We want to really engage that community we want to bring them in and just be able to share and build kind of a hub for them because there’s very limited commercial space down there.”

Box sat down with the Riverdale Community League Board last week to discuss the idea. He said league members applauded as the project was announced mirroring the “across the board” support he said he has received from others in the community.

As for Birmingham, she couldn’t be more excited to see new life come to her family home.

"It's really heartwarming to know that someone was interested in preserving it and restoring it,” she said. “I can’t wait to see it.”

Box hopes to open Little Brick in March.