The Birks Building an Edmonton jewel
Updated: Jul 3, 2019
Originally published May 23, 2002
When the Birks Building was officially opened November 15, 1929, more than 5,000 people
turned out for the party. They were attracted by the chance to have a look inside a structure
renowned for its rich materials and cutting edge technology.
With its streamlined appearance and curved corner, the building gave Edmonton its first at well-executed Moderne or art deco style office building. The Edmonton Journal called the new building "a distinct compliment to the structural and architectural dignity of this city."
Years later, the Birks Building was known for its giant neon bespectacled "Flying Tiger" that
advertised CJCA radio, a long time tenant. The radio station, the famous sign and Birks jewellers are all gone, but the structure endures as one of Edmonton's most beloved survivors of the 1920s.
The story of Edmonton's Birks Building began in 1927 when Montreal-based jewellers Henry
Birks and Sons Birks purchased the stock of D.A. Kirkland, a man known as the "Diamond
Prince"of Edmonton. Kirkland had been an Edmonton jeweller for 22 years and, when he
recommended to Birks that they build a store here, they wisely took his advice.
The company bought a parcel of land which housed the two-storey wood frame Picard Block at the corner of Jasper Avenue and 104 Street and another wood frame structure further north. It commissioned the Montreal architectural firm of Percy Nobbs and George Hyde to design the Edmonton building, as well as similar structures in Calgary and Saskatoon.
The architects employed Cecil Burgess, the University of Alberta's professor of architecture, as resident architect. This arrangement had served the threesome well on a number of Edmonton projects, including the Arts Building and the first Medical Building at the U of A.
Burgess' original plan for the Edmonton Birks Building called for a two-storey structure at 10113 104 Street, with the upper floor devoted to medical and dental facilities, as was the company's practice. But demand here proved so great for those offices that an additional two floors were ordered during the design phase, making the structure four-storeys tall and increasing the number of professional offices to 60.
The style of our Birks Building was similar to others the company erected across Canada during a period of fantastic growth. The Edmonton building was closely patterned after one in Montreal and ironically, a lifetime later, only these two structures survive of all the company built.
A story in the January 31, 1929 edition of the Edmonton Journal reported that work on the new Birks Building would commence in March and it would be constructed of reinforced concrete with green marble and bronze and that the corner would be rounded "for convenience of traffic safety and to add to the architectural finish."
The Journal also reported that the owners had the "intention to have the contracts awarded to Edmonton firms, and, as fast as possible, all of the required material will be bought in
Edmonton." And they were true to their word. The contractor was H.G. MacDonald & Company and subcontractors included Empire Marble and Tile, Standard Iron Works, Edmonton Paint and Glass and Cushing Brothers (millwork).
To meet the specialized needs of its medical tenants, the building featured special plumbing and connections for compressed air, gas, electricity and X-ray. The building opened as the first in the city with equipment specifically designed and custom fitted for use by medical practitioners.
The local papers were suitably impressed. "Throughout the finish of the building is substantial and gives the impression that the architect . . . had permanence in mind as one of the chief considerations," reported the Edmonton Bulletin in its November 14, 1929 edition. "In every respect the building is modern and from an architectural point of view is practically the last word in fire proof construction."
The official opening that so captivated the city was hosted by none other than Henry G. Birks, grandson of the firm's founder. The first manager was D.A. Kirkland, the "Diamond Prince" himself.
The total cost, when the entire structure was finished in late 1930, came in at $350,000. By the middle of the next year, more than three-quarters of the office space was leased to medical and dental professionals. Long-term tenants such as dentists MacIntyre, Wilson and Steen remained in their original offices until their retirement or death.
But the building's most famous tenant over its first 70 years is undoubtedly CJCA. From 1934 to 1973 the fourth storey was home to this Edmonton radio institution and when you talk about downtown in those days, most everyone remembers the Flying Tiger sign, with its moving tale and humongous glasses.
I fondly recall days as a 11 or 12 year old going up there and watching the announcers through a little window. It was literally a window to a world that fascinated me and drew me to eventually become an announcer and journalist.
In 1947, the Birks Building was sold for $550,000 to a group of Edmonton businessmen and
professionals headed by Francis Winspear. Six years later, Edmonton Properties Ltd. acquired the property for $700,000. Birks continued under a long-term lease to operate their jewellery store on the ground floor until 1971 when the company moved to Edmonton Centre.
The facade is what architects call a composite Commercial/Modern Style, with design elements of both freely combined. The architectural expression of the Birks Building marked a turning point in the city from the late Commercial style to the Moderne style, says Edmonton heritage planner David Holdsworth. "The building offered an entirely new style, never before seen on Jasper Avenue."
HIP Architects’ Alan Partridge who, along with David Murray Architect, was commissioned to complete the restoration, calls the Birks Building “a bit of frozen music.” Its classical details include a modest cornice and the plain arcading of the first two floors. Among its decorative highlights are mosaic tile on the curved corner, bronze panels, leaded windows above a flat metal canopy, buff and red Flemish bond brick, double hung sash windows and polished and unpolished marble.
Interesting design quirks included a water-powered hydraulic freight elevator, which ran between the basement and the first floor, a pneumatic cash system to transfer funds to the cash desk, vaults and terrazzo sinks and counter tops. Other than some office renovations for tenants, the building remains largely original. An air conditioning system has been added and electrical and plumbing systems have been upgraded.
That's how an Edmonton jewel was polished and shown with pride – as it should be.
© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.