Edmonton

History gone: Old Strathcona's Minchau Blacksmith shop demolished

A piece of Old Strathcona’s history is now a pile of bricks and decades of memories for a family that helped pioneer Edmonton through the mid 1900s.

Heritage groups and the city tried to protect the 95-year-old building

The Minchau Blacksmith building on 101st Street and 81st Avenue has been unused since the mid-1980s. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

A piece of Old Strathcona's history is now a pile of bricks, though decades of memories will live on for the founding family and surrounding community.  

The 95-year-old Minchau Blacksmith building at 101st Street and 81st Avenue was demolished Tuesday as members of the Minchau family watched from across the street. 

Cliff Minchau worked in the shop as a teenager with his father Fred, uncle Stan and cousin Don until they sold it in the 1980s. 

Minchau said the business supplied many industries — from farming to fishing — with custom metalwork. 

"The shop helped build this city, and blacksmith shops in general," he told CBC News Tuesday. 

Minchau and his wife, Monique, watched as excavators tore through the brick and faded sign on the old facade. 

"It breaks my heart," Monique Minchau said. "This is a sad day for Edmonton and it's a sad day for Alberta because this is what this province was built on — one of many industries for sure, this was one of them and it should have been saved."

Pitches to protect

The Minchaus were among many advocates who tried to get the building protected after the current owner applied for a demolition permit in 2015. 

The building was never designated as a historic resource despite efforts to do so. 

"We tried really hard to save it. We put a lot of time and energy and outreach into it," she said. 

She said thousands of people responded on a Facebook page, expressing support for saving the building.

City of Edmonton planners had been negotiating with the owner, Cejay Ventures, to repurpose the building into a new development.

David Johnston, a principal planner with the city, said they were in ongoing discussions with the developer over the past five years to reach a solution.

Members of the Minchau family were among those who watched the demolition on Tuesday. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

Once designated a municipal historic resource, an owner is responsible for keeping the building in its original integrity. 

Cost is one reason the city has a municipal historic resource grant program offers owners 50 per cent of the cost to restore a building up to $500,000, Johnston said. 

"We were willing to even just allow the front wall to be retained and the rest of the building torn down and they could integrate that into a new development," he said.

It's disappointing that the building wasn't saved, he said. 

"This one was difficult to lose just because it was one of the very few remnant pieces of those types of buildings in the Old Strathcona area." 

The city could have designated the building a municipal historic resource without the owner's consent, Johnston explained. 

But under the Historical Resources Act, a municipality can't insist on the designation without compensating the owner for lost value in the lot.

The parcel has a lot of value, Johnston added, and is zoned to allow for a 12-storey building.

The Edmonton Heritage Council lobbied the city and provincial governments over the years to protect the building.

Executive director David Ridley said a number of parties inquired about the leasing the building with various ideas, including opening a microbrewery/cider house.

"This is another example of the relative weakness of regulation that balances community value with private property rights," Ridley told CBC News in an email Tuesday. 

The Minchau Blacksmith building also made the National Trust for Canada's top-10 endangered sites list.

Mayor Don Iveson, on behalf of city council, wrote a letter to the provincial government asking for recourse to save the property. 

After reviewing a Historic Resources Impact Assessment, the Alberta government in 2018 concluded that the building didn't impact the province as a whole to merit being designated a provincial historic resource, Johnston said. 

Car hitches and boat lifts

The Minchau family, immigrants from Germany, built the blacksmith shop in 1925, moving the business from its original location on 99th Street and 77th Avenue.

Cliff Minchau recalled working in the shop as a teenager, painting and hauling coal from the basement to the main floor. 

"The ceiling in that building was alive with pulleys and belts to drive the heavy equipment, the trip hammer at the forge, the drill presses and the power presses and all of that," he said. "It was an amazing place."

Don Minchau, Cliff's cousin, also recalled working in the shop and how it changed over the years. 

"When we got into the car hitches and boat lifts and pier stands, my dad was more the welder." 

Cousins Don and Cliff Minchau both worked at the blacksmith shop as teenagers. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

The Minchaus and the city seemed to be left in the dark on whether the faded blacksmith sign and the 1925 Minchau engraved at the top of the building would be salvaged. 

"I can just hope that the people who own it, the property and whatever they do, I hope that they pay some homage to this site," Monique said. 

@natashariebe

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