Alberta government considering demolition of historic dance hall in disrepair

·4 min read

Overlooking the blue sparkling waters of Crowsnest Lake, nestled between the mountains and dense conifers, lies the Crowsnest Lake Dance Pavilion.

Long known as a space for revelry and celebration, the pavilion saw many a pair of shoes dance their way across its wooden floors and famous musicians pass through its doors during its 40-some years of peak operation.

The building lies vacant now; the roof buckling from years of snowfall, the porch lopsided and the floor cracked and strewn with earth. Like many things, its time has come and gone.

On Oct. 25, the provincial government advised the Municipal Historic Resources Advisory Committee, a local group that advises council on matters pertaining to historic heritage sites, of its intent to demolish the building.

Over the years, various attempts have been made to restore the dance pavilion. Efforts to stabilize the building were carried out in the early 2000s, with grant funding from the Crowsnest Heritage Initiative. Several private investors surveyed the site as well, but costs were simply too high. A restoration study completed in 2008 placed repair costs at $500,000.

“There’s no one with deep pockets to come and put the money into restoring it,” says Fred Bradley, chairman of MHRAC.

Since total restoration is not possible, MHRAC has suggested that a monument be made to commemorate the site and that certain key features of the dance pavilion be kept intact.

This would include rebuilding the stone fireplaces, and leaving the building’s frame and foundation standing to act as a pergola and community space.

The group would like to see Chris Matthews, director of Crowsnest Museum, visit the site to see if parts of the building can be salvaged and it has proposed that a 3D laser scan of the building be completed prior to demolition, to ensure internal and external features of the site are recorded digitally.

MHRAC has communicated its wishes to provincial government officials, who are considering the matter.

Michael Taje, land management specialist for Alberta Environment and Parks, says they have not officially approved the demolition yet and they are reviewing MHRAC’s request.

The pavilion is “a bit of a safety concern,” he says, “It’s only a matter of time before it collapses.”

The dance pavilion and the site it lies on have a fascinating history and both are considered to be of great historical and archeological significance by locals.

Built in 1931 by businessman Alex Morency, the pavilion was an important social gathering space for Pass residents during the Great Depression and the Second World War. Saturday-night summer dances featured performances from local bands like the Arcadians and Frank Edl Orchestra, and famous bands like Mark Kenney and His Western Gentlemen.

With two stone fireplaces situated at the north and south ends of the building and wood detailing from local trees, the space is one of the last surviving dance halls to be constructed in Western Canada between the two world wars.

The pavilion’s peak years of operation were between the 1930s and 1960s. By the early ’70s, dances had begun to trail off, although some events were still held there.

Bradley recalls the last event being held in 1976, when a party was held for Conservative MP Joe Clark in honour of his election as leader of the Opposition.

By the ’90s the space had been vacated, he adds.

Long before the pavilion was erected, the site was home to various Indigenous groups, including the ancestors of the Ktunaxa and the Piikani. They lived along the shores of Crowsnest Lake in the summer, fishing from its waters and travelling down to the plains to hunt great herds of bison.

Brian Reeves, a former archeology professor at the University of Calgary, helped excavate the site, a decade-long project that started in 1972.

“Back then, we had no idea of how important the Pass was,” he says.

The dig helped Reeves and his team understand how the First Peoples of the area lived.

Thousand-year-old fish bones revealed what the Indigenous Peoples ate and what season they caught them in. Spear points, throwing sticks, remnants of campfire pits and settlements, buried deep within the earth, indicated the site was abandoned in the 18th century due to a smallpox epidemic, prior to the arrival of Europeans.

Reeves said the most surprising discovery, however, was that the Indigenous Peoples had advanced tool-making technology, using chert quarries located on Piitaistakis Ridge near Frank to forge weapons used to hunt animals, create devices used to process plant foods and hides, and produce materials used to sew clothes and tents.

They also had an extensive trade route, from Alberta and British Columbia to Montana and North Dakota, where they exchanged chert and flint with other groups.

Reeves says the site around Crowsnest Lake remains one of the most important archeological finds in the Pass to date.

“It had the third-best fish lake in Alberta, lots of bison and other game, it had good stone for making stone tools and everything was very accessible from the valley floor,” he says.

Gillian Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze

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