Dialing back the past

Revival of a piece of Edmonton's history is music to the ears of the building's new owners' and others

Once the most luxurious hotel in Edmonton, the Alberta Hotel was deconstructed in 1984 to make room for Canada Place. But the sandstone, bricks, balconies and cupola were saved and, a few years ago, architect Gene Dub, principal of Dub Architects Ltd., began putting the hotel back together with the intent of restoring the façade and creating a boutique hotel.

Then CKUA Radio Network, a homegrown radio station and a provincial icon desperately in need of a new home, found out about the restoration, and the project took a different turn.

"Sometimes there are just happy accidents in life and I really think this is one of those," says Paul Moulton, executive director of Arts and Heritage St. Albert and chair of the station's board, of CKUA's connection with the Alberta Hotel after almost a decade of researching facility options.

The building was a fit for many reasons.

"We are an 83-year-old radio station and this is a restoration of a 1903 structure," Moulton explains. "There are synergies in history. Additionally, our station is more than simply broadcasting a signal. Its connection to the arts and the community is very important and this building is in the heart of the arts district."

Work was well underway when CKUA decided to buy the building, but the timing was right for a shift in direction. In fact, CKUA's architectural team made just one adjustment, adding a mezzanine in the back. Had the construction of the hotel been just a couple of months further along, the cost and effort of backtracking might have been too high.

While the $17-million project is referred to as a restoration, it is in fact a new building with the original hotel façade facing Jasper Avenue. The north-facing side of the building is a contemporary glass and steel structure that extends one storey above the original four-storey hotel.

Inside, the first floor will include a restoration of the old Alberta Hotel bar.

We've found some pieces of the original bar that we'll be using," says Dub. "We're also putting back the original mirrors and wall tiles."

Dub only has about half the tile required, so the original tiles will be augmented by carefully matched new tile. The ceiling and floors will also be recreated based on samples of the originals, the windows will be replications and the bar will feature one of the original cash registers.

Most of the building, however, will suit the needs of a modern radio station. There will be five broadcast studios, a production studio and four small production studios, giving CKUA greater capacity for producing programs. There are also plans for an exhibit area showcasing the history of both CKUA and radio.

The building will also include a live performance space. Located in the rear of the building in a two-storey atrium, the space will have vaulted ceilings and state-of-the-art broadcast capabilities.

"It's a modest version of what CBC has done with the Glenn Gould studio in Toronto," Moulton says.

One of the problems with the 100-year-old building CKUA now occupies is that it doesn't provide the proper security and environmental protection for the station's world-class library, a collection that contains more than 1.5 million selections and represents almost 80 years of history.

Currently, CKUA has virtually no protection for the collection, which is scattered among five floors. Much of the archival material is stored in the basement across from the boiler room and has already been threatened by fire and flooding.

The new building will include appropriate fire suppression systems and the library, which will house the entire collection, will have temperature and humidity controls to mitigate deterioration.

At 40,000 square feet, the building also has more space than CKUA requires-space that can be used to provide affordable housing for community organizations and CKUA partners.

Although much of the envelope is original, steps have been taken to make the building as operationally efficient and environmentally friendly as other modern buildings. These include an efficient mechanical system, insulation and, on the north-facing section, triple-glazed windows.

There's definitely buzz about the project. Dub says he's received more positive reactions about the revival of the Alberta Hotel than any building his firm has ever done.

"Edmontonians are really excited about seeing some of their history brought back, especially in a new city where we don't have many buildings with a long history," he says. "Retaining our history is an important aspect of our cities."

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