10 best historic Edmonton attractions

by Gene Kosowan

Edmonton may not have anywhere near as elaborate a history as London, Paris, New York or, ahem, Toronto, but what it lacks in years it makes up for in ingenuity. The sites listed here not only reflect the hardiness of the Edmonton spirit, but also the practicality of their creations in what many still believe is, with obvious exception of the Arctic, one of Canada’s harshest regions. [Image credit: iStock.com/jewhyte]

10 best historic Edmonton attractions

Alberta Legislature Building

The Leg, as most locals call it, is more than an iconic example of civic architecture. It’s also one of Edmonton’s most visible and genuine connections to its rustic past and a symbol of provincial democracy that takes place within its limestone walls. Open in 1912, after seven years of construction that saw workers take on everything from mosquitos to quicksand, the building is modelled after the Beaux-Arts style of architecture (and largely influenced by Greek, Roman and Egyptian styles), which features the telltale dome positioned above a large rotunda inside. And back then, construction was billed at roughly $2 million.

McKay Avenue School

When Alberta became a province back in 1905, the government didn’t have a facility in which to conduct the people’s business, so politicians assembled in McKay Avenue School until the more gargantuan Legislature was built. Named after a doctor and surgeon who served with the Hudson’s Bay Company back when Edmonton was still a fort, the three-storey school, constructed in 1904, held regular classes until 1983. The ultimate irony was that a spelling error went unnoticed until the school was opened. The doctor’s last name was MacKay.

Fort Edmonton Park

From 1795 until 1915, the Hudson’s Bay trading post otherwise known as Fort Edmonton occupied five different locations. The park that honours the old fort not only isn’t on any of those spots, it also doesn’t contain any of the material infrastructure of its predecessors. But planners made sure they relentlessly stuck to the original blueprints when, in 1967, construction began on the 1846 version of the fort. Today, occupying 64 hectares, the park also includes replicas of Edmonton streets circa 1885, 1905 and 1920. The entire facility is open from April to September, although special events still take place during the downtime.

Government House

Representing Alberta in the eyes of the British monarchy, the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta briefly enjoyed the perk of living in Government House from 1913 until the after-effects of the Great Depression forced the provincial government to lease the three-storey mansion to private interests in 1938. But for 25 years, at least six Lieutenant Governors made their home in the place before it was taken over by an airline, and became a veteran’s hospital and residence. Since the 1970s, however, the provincial government is its primary user for conferences, as well as for public visitors.

McLeod Building

For a brief time, this eight-storey wonder (which still remains one of the outstanding examples of Chicago-style architecture), was the tallest building in Edmonton. That was until 1912, when the Alberta Legislature Building, standing at 57 metres, dwarfed real estate speculator Frank McLeod’s beloved edifice by 22 metres. For decades, the complex was a major commercial centre and a hub for arts groups until it became a historical site in 1995, and it’s now one of the trendiest condo buildings in the city.

Rutherford House

Back in 1911, this palatial brick home that sits on the perimeter of the University of Alberta was the primary residence of A.C. Rutherford, the province’s first premier. Now fully restored and operated by the provincial government as a tourist attraction, this place is where visitors can go back a century for guided tours by the hosts in period costumes, and if you’re lucky, maybe even a spot of tea.

Strathcona Hotel

Today, hipsters on Edmonton’s trendy Whyte Avenue call it the “Strath,” where the first floor is taken up by an old-style tavern and folks from all walks of life grab a pint. But back when it opened in 1891, it was kitty-corner from a railway station and a prime hotel where visitors from Calgary could get a room. Designated as a provincial heritage site in 2007, the Strath still flourishes, especially given its status as one of the longest-surviving wood-frame buildings in the city.

Alberta Hotel

Sir Wilfred Laurier slept here the night before Alberta became a province. Leonard Cohen wrote the lyrics to his signature song “Sisters of Mercy” here back in the ‘60s. And after its 5,000-plus pieces of brick and corners stones were relocated a block east from its original relocation, the Alberta Hotel now is home to its primary resident: Legendary community broadcaster CKUA. Granted, you can no longer rent a room overnight in the venerable facility, but you can catch the occasional live concert put on by the station to be inside a unique piece of history.

Neon Sign Museum

First the bad news: You can’t visit such legendary locales like Mike’s News, Bee Bell Bakery or even the Georgia Baths. The good news, however, is that you can see what’s left of them, as well as a dozen other enterprises, in full illuminating splendour on the side of the old Edmonton Telephones building on 104th Street and 104 Avenue. The neon signs, once all the rage of yesteryear, have been retained, as a testament to Edmonton’s longstanding entrepreneurial spirit, as well as a bright chapter in the history of storefront advertising.

High Level Bridge

Like a steel suture holding together two stubborn pieces of material, the High Level Bridge stands as Edmonton’s oldest and most iconic link to the south side. Opened in 1913, and stretching 777 metres across the North Saskatchewan river, the bridge was initially available to vehicular and Canadian Pacific Railway traffic. The railways and trolley lines no longer use the bridge, which have since accommodated pedestrians, bikes and a vintage streetcar. For a time, the bridge was used as a makeshift waterfall on national holidays, but now facilitates a more eye-catching computerized light display that uses some 60,000 LED bulbs.

Interestingly, many of the sites listed here are still world-class in their own way, whether it be adherence to highly-respected forms of architecture or ornate developments in a city countering what was once a regional wasteland surrounding it. Either way you look at them, these sites are not only eye-catching but stand as important examples of Edmonton’s can-do mindset.

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