Peter Hemingway Fitness and Leisure Centre
Originally published October 13, 2005
Commissioned in 1967 as an Edmonton project to mark Canada’s centennial, the Peter Hemingway Fitness and Leisure Centre has been turning heads since the beginning. The stunning building, with its flowing-wave roof structure suspended with tensile cables and contrasting materials of hefty timber, glass, concrete and steel, was unlike anything ever built in the country.
More than 50 years after its completion, it stands in Coronation Park as one of the most dramatic examples of the modern architecture movement that rippled across Canada’s prairie provinces in the 1960s. Now the facility at 13803 111th Avenue has been recognized with the 2012 Prix du XXe siècle by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) and the Heritage Canada Foundation (HCF). It was selected by a jury of three distinguished members of the architectural profession from Vancouver, Montreal, and Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.
Over the years, the design by architect Peter Hemingway, with help from his partner Charles Laubenthal, has been internationally acclaimed as visionary and daring. Yet it was very nearly derailed by budgetary constraints and some city councillors who felt it was too flamboyant.
Hemingway painstakingly worked on the project for months, and soaked up inspiration from such projects as Kenzo Tange’s National Gymnasium and Pool complex in Tokyo, completed in 1964. Indoor swimming pools of the time were rectangular boxes, but Hemingway opted instead to incorporate influences of “expressive” or “organic” Modernism that was beginning to take hold in some circles.
He took risks because he wanted the building to connect to the land, and he referenced the Canadian Rockies, the foothills and the rolling flatlands of the prairies. In awarding it the Prix du XXe siècle, the jury observed that the building “expresses a delight in the potential of new technologies, with its inventive mix of glass, steel, heavy timber, and concrete. The flowing wave form, reflecting the pool within, gives it a certain uniqueness within the more prevalent rectilinear Modernism of the time.”
Construction at the site began in October 1968, led Laing Construction and Equipment. The structural system was designed with the help of engineers from Read Jones Christoffersen, who recommended using a roof support method developed by Swedish engineer David Jawerth. The Swedish firm sent a member of their team to Edmonton to help guide the project.
A 200-foot-long underground tunnel was proposed in early 1968 to connect the building to Ross Sheppard High School. But city council and the Edmonton Public School eventually decided against spending $30,000 to construct it.
What did make it into the final design was the first 50-metre-long pool in the province, eight lanes wide, with a capacity for more than 500 swimmers. Bleachers had room for nearly 650 spectators. The roof was clad with synthetic copper, and the windows were copper-hued glass imported from Belgium.
Some accounts indicate the building may have been intended to be oriented the other way around, with an entrance off 111th Avenue. Looking at the structure today, it would have made sense, as the tallest wall of glass faces west, right into the prevailing wind, and the sundeck is on the shaded north side. But I’ve been unable to uncover any plans to prove it.
Coronation Pool, as it was first known, came in at a cost of $1.16 million and opened its doors to the public on May 16, 1970. It was officially dedicated by Mayor Ivor Dent on July 3, 1970.
I was a boy then, living in nearby Sherbrooke, and used to ride my bike down to the park to watch giant cranes lifting the roof elements into place. I was enthralled by how the entire structure was anchored by massive steel cables, held to precise tautness by giant turnbuckles, and how the light reflected and played on the hundreds of panes of glass.
That first summer, we eagerly headed over for a swim. Adult admission was 50 cents and children under 14 were charged 15 cents. After years of swimming in windowless concrete bunkers like O’Leary and Victoria, this was a new adventure to be cherished. With a massive 450,000-gallon tank (more than two million litres), it was way deeper and a lot bigger than any other Edmonton pool of its time.
The year it opened, the building received the highest honour in Canada, the Massey Medal for Architecture, and Hemingway was the first Albertan to receive the prestigious award. He went on to design such other Edmonton landmarks as the Muttart Conservatory (opened in 1976) and also drew the plans for the 1964 and 1972 parts of the Central Pentecostal Tabernacle, demolished in 2007.
When Hemingway passed away at the age of 65 on May 15, 1995, many felt that his legacy to architecture and to Edmonton should be remembered by naming Coronation Pool after him. The renaming initiative gained momentum through the efforts of local architect Vivian Manasc, some of her Edmonton colleagues and the support of the RAIC.
The initiative was highlighted when Edmonton hosted the RAIC’s annual conference in 2005. Edmonton City Council’s Executive Committee approved the recommendation on June 29, 2005 and on September 29th the Coronation Fitness and Leisure Centre was rededicated the Peter Hemingway Fitness and Leisure Centre.
In making the announcement of the rededication, a press release from the City paid tribute to Hemingway as “eccentric, outspoken and passionate. He was dedicated to the arts and believed in the power of architecture to transform ordinary places into vibrant, active community spaces that would improve the quality of life for citizens.”
The structure, with its peculiar “poetry in motion” magic, has presented more than its share of operational challenges. The roof has occasionally leaked, glass panes break, and the pool turned out to be inadequate for Olympic competition. Yet for sheer architectural theatre, both from outside and in, there are few buildings in the city that can top it.
The facility has been upgraded and renovated several times in its 42 years of operation, including six months of work in 2010. Workers reconfigured the change rooms, rebuilt the sauna, modified the steam room, improved the 50-metre pool deck, installed a new cashier area, and upgraded mechanical systems.
Today’s leading architects still look to Hemingway’s award-winning design for inspiration. As the Prix du XXe siècle jury put it: “[The building’s] significance has endured not only because of its iconic design, but also because of the high level of maintenance and care over the years. It continues to serve its original use. Both the building and its architect were warmly embraced by the community, and have served an important role in terms of local and regional pride and identity.”
© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.