The Tegler Building
Originally published May 5, 2005
My grandmother was a ten year old girl when Robert Tegler began construction of his new office and retail block in downtown Edmonton. The year was 1911 and Edmonton was a city in fast forward, with thousands of newcomers pouring in, buildings being built by the dozen and citizens looking to the future with hope and pride.
Grandma was still around when Tegler's Block came crashing to the ground in 1982. She died six years later and would always shake her head and cluck her tongue when our weekend drives would pass by the site. "Idiots," she would say.
It was grandma's past and the past of thousands of Edmontonians that came crashing down when the building was demolished in a blast of dynamite on 9:23 the morning of December 12th, 1982. It took 110 kilograms of dynamite to do the deed and the building was rubble in a matter of seconds.
But the blast couldn't take away the fact that, if you lived in Edmonton in the first eight decades of the 20th century, chances are you spent time in the Tegler Building. The Tegler was where Grandma and I would meet for a grilled cheese sandwich and soda when I was a kid. It was the building I later came to dread for the dentist that used to poke and prod and drill in my mouth.
What I didn't know at the time is the story of the building and the man who built it. Robert Tegler was born near Walkerton, Ontario and attended the University of Toronto, studying mathematics. While he was working on his Master's degree, his health broke down and he was told to get some outside work. So in 1901 he decided to travel west with a load of cattle.
The trip brought him to Wetaskiwin and then into Edmonton, where he recognized abundant opportunity and decided to stay. He became the night clerk at the Alberta Hotel and lived in the corner room at the top of the tower. He got into the real estate business and opened an office at 318 Jasper, right across from the Alberta Hotel.
He knew opportunity when he saw it and in 1911 decided to buy half a block and build a new office building at the corner of what was then known as Elizabeth Street and First Street, now 102nd Avenue and 101st Street. His friends told him he was crazy to contemplate such a grandiose scheme yet, if he had second thoughts, history doesn't say.
Tegler pushed ahead with his building after James Ramsey, a retailer from eastern Canada, agreed to lease 18,000 square feet of the main floor. Ramsey's Department Store went on to become one of Edmonton's most successful merchants of all time.
Edmonton architect Herbert Alton Magoon was hired to design a six-storey building, 100 feet long, 70 feet wide and 80 feet high. According to a story in the March 25, 1911 edition of the Edmonton Bulletin, Tegler originally intended the structure to be steel frame with wooden partitions, but the construction tender from George A. Archibald Company of Calgary proved to be so favourable that he decided to use concrete and make the building fireproof throughout.
And so it became the first fireproof office building in Edmonton and one of the earliest reinforced concrete buildings in the province. The budget was $160,000.
Magoon was assisted in the design work by his partner George Heath MacDonald. Together they came up with a classically styled office building, clad in red brick and white stone. The Classical detailing included corner quoins, pilasters and a two-storey balcony with engaged tonic columns and a balustrade which accents the upper floors.
Excavation commenced in late March 1911. The sandstone used in the construction was quarried from Rocky Coulee near Fort Macleod while most other materials, excepting items like marble and oak, was sourced locally.
Robert Tegler's building was so successful and Edmonton booming so ferociously that it wasn't long before an expansion was warranted. A 1913 ad soliciting tenants for the expanded eight-storey building boasted about the modern features including "three fast running elevators," a mail chute "which affords the convenience of mailing letters on every floor" and the Webster Return Vacuum System to give "an abundance of uniform heat."
The main entrance was marble and mosaic tiles. The elevator grills were cast in bronze. And every office was fireproof -- much like individual vaults.
But Mr. Tegler did run into a snag. On the southwest corner of the site the Edmonton Journal resided in an old building, waiting completion of the new headquarters further south on First Street (right where it is today). Tegler wanted them out so he could build, but the Journal refused and so he commenced construction at the third floor level, literally over their heads.
It was, as historian Tony Cashman observes, "a great sight for its day and it dramatized how well built the Tegler Block was. It was all reinforced steel." When the Journal finally moved, Tegler completed his structure, building from the third floor down to the ground on the southwest corner.
To finance the venture, Tegler would sell lots in the new development of Belgravia. As boom went bust in 1913, he scratched to keep his building financially solvent but, unlike countless other entrepreneuers who lost everything, he managed to make ends meet.
Tegler never married and lived a frugal life, often living at the YMCA. From 1913 to 1920 he rented Suite 219 of the Armstrong Block at 10127 104 Street. His generosity was legendary and it's amazing that not only did he manage to pay off the debts related to his building but was a millionaire when he died June 20th, 1921. He was only 44.
The Robert Tegler Trust, created under the terms of his will, was established in 1921 - the first charitable trust in the province. Over the years, scholarships and contributions from the Trust have benefited countless citizens.
Years slipped by and James Ramsey's store was bought by Eaton's in 1928. The main floor of Tegler's Building eventually became Zellers.
City Council declared the building an historic resource in November 1981 but then, on a motion from Ald. Ron Hayter, voted three months later to rescind the designation. Nearly a quarter century later, it's evident that the loss of the Tegler was a big part of the deterioration of downtown. I still believe those councillors made a shortsighted and wrong decision.
Several significant parts of the grand old structure were salvaged, including the ornate balconette, Ernest Huber's 1914 mural of early Alberta life which graced the lobby above the elevators and chunks of marble. Some of that marble ended up in fireplaces built in six new cabins at Jasper's Alpine Village in 1990. The balconette and mural were used in the construction the Tegler Manor at 9943 110th Street.
When the Tegler fell in a great cloud of dust that December morning in 1982, it angered many Edmontonians and overnight gave birth to the heritage movement that continues to grow. The shiny windowed and strangely out of proportion Bank of Montreal Building has always struck me as an insult to the classical proportions of the building that was there before.
"Idiots," I can still hear my grandmother saying, and now I better understand what she meant.
© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.