• Lawrence Herzog

The block Gibbard built

Originally published April 27, 2006

A story in the September 1913 issue of the Edmonton Journal announced the construction of a "New Magrath-Holgate Block, to cost $30,000" on a site adjoining The Highlands. Two months later, Magrath-Holgate Company, owned by developers William Magrath and Bidwell Holgate, took out a building permit for the erection of "stores" on the site (which is now 6423-27 112th Avenue), with a value of $25,000.

Magrath and Holgate had purchased the land in October 1912, for "one dollar and other valuable considerations" from town clerk Manley Cryderman. But as the city's early real estate boom escalated, Magrath and Holgate leveraged their assets to acquire more and more prime real estate and other diversified industrial investments. Consequently, another investor was required and so entered William Thomas Gibbard, president of the Gibbard Furniture Company of Napanee, Ontario.

From the Edmonton Journal September 21, 1912 edition.

There is some dispute whether Gibbard was part of the plan from the very beginning or later on but we do know for certain that, for his one-third investment, his name graced the block. Until 1914, 57th Street between 112th and 118th Avenue was known as "Gibbard Street."

The Block that bears his name was designed by prominent Highlands architect Ernest W. Morehouse. He also drew the plans for the Mansions of Magrath and Holgate, the Ash Residence and the Highlands Methodist Church as well as many commercial blocks. Dorothy Field, a historical consultant with Alberta Historic Sites, says his styles ranged from Georgian Revival to Tudor Revival.

A 1913 newspaper article described the Gibbard Block as "the latest idea in architecture, comfort, modern equipment and convenience". A central gas plant provided clean fuel for cooking, and each suite had a telephone and a bath with hot running water "night and day the year round".

The interiors were reported as "the acme of good taste and refined luxury" and the exterior also showed grace and elegance, with Redcliff brick from southern Alberta and classical detailing. Those distinguishing features included brick pilasters, large wooden brackets, a wood and metal cornice, contrasting window sills, and large keystones above the windows. The final cost of the structure came in at $90,000.

Field says that after a slow start, the Gibbard Block's nine suites and two storefronts were rarely vacant. A wide variety of people lived in the Gibbard Block: insurance salesmen, lawyers, teachers, packing plant workers, ministers, bank clerks and policemen, to name a few. Proprietors of the main floor grocery and drug stores generally stayed for many years and were well-known in the community, since they also lived in The Highlands, sometimes even in the Gibbard Block itself.

Gibbard Block, September 22, 2006. Photo by Lawrence Herzog

Gibbard may never have actually lived in Edmonton, though he made several extended visits and his daughter and her husband lived in the city at 102 Avenue and 116 Street. In the wake of the collapse of the Magrath and Holgate fortunes, Queen's University in Kingston, which held a mortgage on the property, found itself owner of the Gibbard Block after a complicated legal scuffle in 1926.

Queen's University held title until 1945, when the property was purchased by Helen C. Day. She retained title until 1956 when she subdivided Lots 18, 19 and 20 into A, B, C, and D, and sold Lot A to Dave Karvellas, a local restauranteur. The property changed hands several times between 1975 and early 1988, when restauranteur Ernst Eder bought out several partners and gained full ownership.

Changing fashions in housing in the 1940s made the apartments less attractive and, by the late 1970s, most served as low income housing and the structure itself was in what has been described as "genteel poverty."

Eder, an Austrian immigrant who came to Canada as a dancer in 1972 with $40 in his pocket, opened La Boheme as a restaurant on the main floor of the building in 1979. By 1985 he had secured half-ownership of the 11,000-square-foot building and invested substantial dollars in plumbing, heating, interior renovations and other improvements.

Gibbard Block, September 22, 2006. Photo by Lawrence Herzog

Now the exterior of the Gibbard Block is largely restored and the interior adapted for use as La Boheme on the main floor and a bed and breakfast hotel above. The Gibbard Block was designated a Registered Historical Resource in 1992.

Magrath died and his family lost his home; Holgate pulled out of his Ada Boulevard mansion with barely nothing to show and Gibbard passed away in Napanee in 1920 at the age of 75. But all these years later, the building they erected on hope and a prayer endures, a testament to its builders and a precious physical reminder of Edmonton's early residential and commercial development.

© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.

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©2019 Lawrence Herzog.