A trip through time
St. Albert's clock tower has a more recent and deliberate beginning
By: Peter Boer
| Posted: Saturday, Feb 02, 2013 06:00 am
Back in the news
The University of Alberta has started using the clock tower for research again. It has installed new digital and remote sensors that measure how temperature affects expansion or contraction of each wall. The group from the engineering department started taking measurements in October and presented their preliminary findings on Monday. The walls have contracted, or shrunk, about one to two millimetres since the tower was built in 1995. Real-time data is being posted at www.perron-clocktower.rjc.ca.
St. Albert’s most recognizable landmark is not even 18 years old, yet it looks like it should be older.
The Perron Street Clock Tower graces the front of brochures and pamphlets about St. Albert, and is even featured in pictures, drawings and paintings. If you were to pick one building that represents St. Albert, the tower has arguably replaced even St. Albert Place.
Yet while St. Albert Place was built by world-renowned architect Douglas Cardinal in 1984, the clock tower was built by volunteers and engineers in 1995. Where St. Albert Place cost $20 million, the clock tower, worth anywhere from $400,000 to $700,000 at the time, cost the city less than $50,000 and a small chunk of land.
And while St. Albert Place was built as a seat of government and cultural centre, the clock tower was built not so anyone downtown could check the time, but in the name of science.
As former mayor Anita Ratchinsky remembers it, she was having lunch in late 1994 or early 1995 with a man named Mike Hatzinikolas, an adjunct professor of structural engineering at the University of Alberta, when he brought up a potential research project – he wanted to study how masonry – specifically bricks and cement blocks – behaved when used in construction. He wanted to build a clock tower for his research.
“So it wouldn’t look like something that was doing one job,” Ratchinsky said. “It would be attractive wherever they put it. Nobody in the region wanted to have that clock tower. I raised my hand and said, ‘We will.’ ”
Hatzinikolas’ main concern at the time was how the residual stresses in individual bricks affected an entire wall. He explained that when bricks are made, they are fired to 1,171 C. The outside of the brick cools and hardens more quickly than the inside, which causes small cracks or stresses inside the brick. Over time, the stresses grow and bricks subsequently expand. If the bricks are all stacked in place, the brick will buckle outwards. And the theory at the time said that caused potentially catastrophic distress in a wall that could lead to failure, with bricks raining down on unsuspecting people below.
But try as he might, Hatzinikolas couldn’t see what everyone else, and his education, told him was supposed to happen.
“Over the years when I looked at buildings, I wasn’t able to allocate this distress to the bricks,” Hatzinikolas said. “So I said it’s time for us to do a research project.”
A clock tower, Hatzinikolas said, was the easiest, most attractive, four-walled building he could build without having to use braces. All four walls would be different to help the experiment – the insulation inside each wall ranged from there being no insulation to as much as three inches.
But his original idea varied slightly from what St. Albert eventually received — he wanted to build it as a leaning tower.
“It was a big mistake on my part. I should have insisted,” Hatzinikolas said. “The leaning tower of St. Albert! It would have been a legacy!”
Dwayne Kalynchuk, then the city engineer for St. Albert, laughed heartily when reminded of Hatzinikolas’ proposal. “He did (propose that) but we said no, that probably wouldn’t go over well. People probably have said it was crooked.”
But the appeal in Hatzinikolas’ proposal wasn’t just in building the city a clock tower. It was going to be a relatively cheap clock tower. Between Hatzinikolas’ contacts in construction and the city’s locally, approximately 50 businesses and groups signed on to help with the project. The bricks, cement, mortar, pilings and labour were all donated.
“It was a win-win situation,” said Ken Allred, a councillor at the time. “It was great to have a clock tower and there was no cost to the city.”
The bricks even had a historical tie-in with St. Albert and Perron Street itself. The company that donated the bricks was IXL The Brick People. IXL had, decades earlier, purchased the brick-making business of Fleuri Perron, a member of St. Albert’s first council and its second mayor. The site selected was a chunk of surplus city land at the corner of Perron Street and Sir Winston Churchill Avenue.
But the tower had to be built quickly. Since Hatzinikolas’ research focused on the stresses in bricks after they were made, he would scoop up fresh bricks from IXL and quickly run them into town to waiting volunteers. Construction began at June 1995 and finished in September “I felt it would fit, it had a fit historically,” Ratchinsky said.
Ratchinsky’s only concern in the end was that all four sides of the clock told the same time.
“I said, ‘Just make sure that clock is synched or I’ll be very upset,’ ” Ratchinsky said. “I don’t want a different time on all four corners.”
Construction was not without some setbacks. According to a St. Albert Gazette story from that summer, the number six was placed on all four clocks upside down, so it looked like a nine, and had to be replaced. And Kalynchuk remembered a problem with some decorative gargoyles donated by Hole’s Greenhouses.
“When we went to put (the gargoyles) on, they were far too small. So we ended up getting some larger griffins donated,” Kalynchuk said.
On the weekend of Sept. 15, 1995, the clock was officially started. But Ratchinsky said the reaction from the community was decidedly subdued. “I was enthusiastic. It was beautiful and such an addition to the landscape in the area. But I think maybe just for the residents it was ho-hum,” Ratchinsky said.
Once the tower was finished, Hatzinikolas spent the next 18 months inside with his graduate students, noting any changes in the wall’s overall height by looking at marked cables – almost like a tape-measure – hanging from near the top, weighted and dangling in buckets of oil to prevent them from swaying. Every month he and his students plotted their data. What they found ended up changing the national building code.
The bricks did expand, but that happened very quickly, within the first few months of construction, before stopping. So any deformation in a building’s walls over time isn’t related to the expansion of bricks but the building’s structural elements. Basically, the load-bearing columns were deforming on average three to five millimetres each, transferring their load to other elements of the building.
“Over 10 floors, that’s more than an inch,” Hatzinikolas said. His subsequent paper, published in the proceedings of the 8th Canadian Masonry Symposium in 1998, the bound copy of which features the clock tower, had a dramatic effect on the national building code when it came to bricks.
“We were able to relax the standards as far as bricks were concerned,” Hatzinikolas said. “You can have a control joint every 36 feet on a straight wall instead of on every floor.”
Hatzinikolas might have got the credit, but it was St. Albert that benefitted the most, acquiring a landmark of such significance few had been able to predict. “It was a great project for the city,” Kalynchuk said. “It came together extremely well it’s the source of a lot of pride for the people who were involved.”