Edmonton

University of Alberta's historic Ring Houses purchased for proposed arts hub

Four historic houses on the University of Alberta’s North Campus will be dismantled and relocated to a new location somewhere in the Edmonton region. 

Houses will be dismantled, brick by brick, starting next spring

The University of Alberts says its historic Ring Houses—plus two additional East Campus Village houses— will become the centrepieces of an arts and sculpture community development. (Min Dhariwal/CBC News)

Four historic houses on the University of Alberta's North Campus will be dismantled and relocated to a new location somewhere in the Edmonton region. 

The century-old Ring Houses have been purchased by Primavera Development Group, which aims to repurpose them as the "iconic centrepiece" for a new arts and sculpture community development project, the university announced Friday.

Two other houses located on the U of A East Campus Village are part of the same deal. The houses, at 110th Street and 90th Avenue, were built in 1914 and acquired by the U of A in 1987.

While the homes will be saved from demolition, an organization of volunteers advocating for the preservation of the Ring Houses said it is "deeply disappointed" with the relocation plan.

The proposed development would see the ring houses anchor a new facility aimed at fostering artistic talent, Primavera president Ken Cantor said Friday.

The community arts hub would include some mixed use development — such as a café or daycare — along with studio space and housing for artist residency programs. Primavera continues to search for a location for the new development. 

Primavera will establish a non-profit corporation to operate the facility, Cantor said.

"We've got a long history of talent here," Cantor said in an interview. "And we've always wanted a place for that to be nurtured and thrive." 

The search for a new home

Cantor said he would like to see the houses remain in the city — or one of its satellite communities. 

"I know where my first choice, or choices would be," he said. "We've had some early discussions with the city, although they've not come to fruition yet."

In February, the university announced plans to demolish the Ring Houses, which were built in the 1910s in a perimeter around the campus of the time. For decades, faculty members lived in the 10 original houses.

The four houses that remain were used most recently as office space before being decommissioned in 2020.

The university said the houses were costly to maintain and could not serve an academic function. A petition to save the buildings gathered more than 2,600 signatures, and the houses were put for sale instead.

David Ridley, executive director of the Edmonton Heritage Council and co-chair of the Ring House Coalition, said relocating the properties will strip the houses of their historic value. 

He characterizes the move as poor stewardship. 

He is calling on the university to strengthen its heritage policies to ensure historic buildings on campus are preserved. 

"The university has ignored the community's call for a moratorium on removal or demolition to arrive at a better solution," Ridley said in a statement Friday. "This relocation is not a meaningful option for a transparent and accountable 'in place' solution. The University has no immediate plan for the land on which these sit and no compelling reason to remove them."

The houses were put up for purchase throughout February for $1 each, and the university received 38 separate applications.

"We're really pleased that this will mean the preservation of the ring houses," U of A president Bill Flanagan said Friday.

"These are beautiful, handsome houses of significant historical interest.

"Primavera has a very interesting vision, I think, for a reimagined purpose for the Ring Houses, one that will give them a whole new community focus."

Primavera will begin deconstructing the houses, brick by brick, next spring. 

Brick by brick

The company will be responsible for the cost of relocation. The structures will be stored until a location for the proposed development is found. 

Cantor said relocating the buildings will be costly, delicate work. The houses are filled with brittle masonry and will need to be brought up to current building standards.

"We actually looked at cutting them in quarters to make them small enough and light enough," he said. "But even then, they're just way too big, way too heavy to pick up and drop on the back of the trailer and move." 

After they are removed from their current location, the site will be turned into green space while the university considers any future development.

Castor said those keen to see the historic structures saved will support the project.

"There's a full recognition on our part that there's lots of people that would prefer to see them restored in situ where they were originally built. But that's not really Primavera's call, and that's not in the cards. 

"What we think we're doing here is telling the second best story for these houses."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.

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