A historic building in Lethbridge is saved from demolition. Blocks away, some point to its possible future

·5 min read
The Bentley Block, located on a prominent street in downtown Lethbridge, became the city's first three-storey building in the early 1900s, selling groceries, clothing, footwear and dry goods, according to the Alberta Register of Historic Places. But in recent years, the building has fallen into neglect. (Joel Dryden/CBC - image credit)
The Bentley Block, located on a prominent street in downtown Lethbridge, became the city's first three-storey building in the early 1900s, selling groceries, clothing, footwear and dry goods, according to the Alberta Register of Historic Places. But in recent years, the building has fallen into neglect. (Joel Dryden/CBC - image credit)

Just across the street from Galt Gardens park in Lethbridge, Alta., on a street with a ramen restaurant, specialty gift store and hair salon, the sign for Progress Clothing — "the peoples' clothing store" — declares workwear, sportswear and footwear are on sale for low, low prices.

Inside, Cyril Serkin, the shop's owner, says he's seen a lot of change in Lethbridge's downtown over the decades he's operated Progress Clothing.

"There's not the traffic there used to be. The streets are dying," he said. "Downtown, to me, has died since the 1950s."

Joel Dryden/CBC
Joel Dryden/CBC

Serkin says he remembers walking on the street on a Saturday, when you "couldn't even see the sidewalk" because of all the foot traffic.

When Serkin came to Canada in 1952, the Bentley Block, a historic building next door, was a successful furniture store.

Since then, it's fallen into disrepair, and Serkin said he hoped it would soon be slated for demolition — with grass growing through the sidewalk, the snow never cleaned up and dirt scattered all over the site, "it looks like a warzone," he says.

In the alleyway behind the Bentley Block, the chaotic construction site is populated by a band of pigeons perched atop scattered pieces of wood as water pools in the crevasses below.

Joel Dryden/CBC
Joel Dryden/CBC

The owners of the property had previously requested that the property's municipal historic resource be removed so that it could be demolished. But the Bentley Block will remain, for now.

At a council meeting held last week, proponents to keep the building in place said such distinctive properties are essential to preserving Lethbridge's heritage and promoting entrepreneurship within the downtown.

"These buildings can be saved if the will is there," Coun. Belinda Crowson said. "These buildings should outlast any of us, if we do this properly."

Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman said such decisions are difficult — adding that the determination of the property owners at this time is that the building cannot be restored.

Ultimately, the proposal to remove the designation was rejected by city council in a 6-2 vote.

The Bentley Block has a long road back from its current state.

Submitted by the Galt Museum and Archives
Submitted by the Galt Museum and Archives

Some, like Serkin, might argue the time it's taking to revitalize is hurting prospects for business in Lethbridge's downtown core right now. Plus, he worries about the stability of the building and any potential impacts on his store.

Others, like Crowson, might point to the fact that the rescue of some of these historic properties has happened before.

A long and complicated renovation

Just a few blocks away, the Oliver Block is open for business.

Home over the decades to an opera house, menswear stores and multiple lawyers, the building sat vacant for years until Hunter Heggie bought it in 2016 and started the restoration process.

"It was in incredible disrepair at the time. Vacant, full of pigeon feces and water and falling down rotting walls," Heggie said. "And we've brought it back to being a full building, full of tenants and a very vibrant part of our downtown."

Today, the Oliver Block plays host to a candy store, yoga studio, marketing agency and juice bar, among other businesses.

WATCH | Take a look at the revitalized Oliver Block while Lee Freeman, who does maintenance at the building, discusses the renovation:

It was a gamble purchasing a building in such a state, Heggie said — and there was an ongoing push and pull between modernizing the building and preserving the history.

"You have a 120-year old building which was built before building codes were put in place," he said. "There were some things we had to do that were quite expensive."

All told, the renovation took four years — and ongoing repair continues to this day, with a roof leak having to be fixed just last week — and Heggie said he hopes the city's ongoing downtown revitalization plan leads to more buildings like the Oliver Block brought back to life.

Joel Dryden/CBC
Joel Dryden/CBC

"These days, it's far easier to just build new buildings, new structures, on the fringe of our city," Heggie said.

"But most of the people in the Oliver Building, are people who love the old ambiance of that building. They love that the floor creaks a little bit, they love that the hardwood has some scratches in it. The character that is there, you can't replicate it with a brand new building on the edge of the city."

Changing identities

George Kuhl is chair of Lethbridge's Historic Places Advisory Committee, a committee of five people appointed by city council to review the historic value of buildings throughout the community.

He said the role of historic buildings is important in giving a community's downtown a sense of place, especially as Lethbridge continues to build out into suburbs.

"Communities are defined by their downtowns, to a great extent," Kuhl said. "Having a distinctive identity really helps separate you and makes you different."

In Kuhl's view, the specific character of Lethbridge's heritage buildings is one of optimism — the community has gone through highs and lows several times.

"These kinds of buildings were built at a very prosperous period of time, in an early part of the city's history," he said. "So it helps us glance back at those times and say, 'Ah, what were things really like in those days?'"

Submitted by Galt Museum and Archives
Submitted by Galt Museum and Archives

A number of years ago, Lethbridge's Galt Museum and Archives put on an exhibit of photographs that featured buildings that no longer exist in Lethbridge, like the Knox Presbyterian Church and the Eaton's Building.

While they were in existence, residents lived, worked and shopped at these buildings, said Graham Ruttan, who does marketing at the museum.

"In some cases, they were lost to fire, and in some cases they were demolished," Ruttan said. "When a building disappears by accident like from fire or something like that, or from disuse or from demolition, there is a piece of life as it was that is gone. And that can be very sad."

Joel Dryden/CBC
Joel Dryden/CBC

But as the downtown core in Lethbridge evolves, Ruttan said, it changes the way people are interacting with that space.

"It's not always a bad thing, it just means it's different," he said. "Things change, and change isn't always a bad thing. But it is change. And that can be difficult. It can be happy. And there are a lot of emotions that go along with that."

CBC Calgary has launched a Lethbridge bureau to help tell your stories from southern Alberta with reporter Joel Dryden. Story ideas and tips can be sent to joel.dryden@cbc.ca.

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