Compromise will keep historic cell bars in place
Saturday, Aug 23, 2014 06:00 am
History buffs will be pleased to hear the former RCMP holding cells in the Hemingway Centre will retain their famous jail bars during the renovations.
Carol Watamaniuk, president of the Visual Arts Studio Association of St. Albert (VASA), had championed the jail cell’s cause in council. She was happy to hear the bars would be saved.
“The jail cells have such incredible potential due to their history,” said Watamaniuk, pointing to the graffiti covering the cell walls. The holding area has not been painted since the RCMP moved out of the building.
“People really do come to the building just to see the cells and right now we have to turn them away,” she said.
Currently, VASA leases most of the Hemingway Centre but not the cell area. Watamaniuk told the Gazette that VASA would like to take over the jail sometime in the future.
Watamaniuk went to city council Monday to ask for an extension and review of the renovation plans. Her speech was enough to approve a delay and, as of Thursday, a new plan where the bars will be untouched.
Coun. Cam Mackay explained his decision to support the delay.
“I heard VASA’s speech and I just wasn’t ready to tear it down without examining other options,” Mackay said.
“I realize that those cells have never held Jesse James or anyone like that, but they are a part of our history. The average honest citizen never gets to see the inside of a cell and there could be some opportunities to make a tourist attraction there.”
Coun. Mackay toured the facility on Friday to get a better understanding of what VASA was protecting.
The planned renovations to Hemingway Centre involve removing toilets and bunks from the long-abandoned cells. Both VASA and the city agreed this was a necessary move. The city also wanted to remove the cell bars, which VASA was staunchly against.
“I’ve talked to Carol and I’ve talked to my employees and we are willing to compromise and leave the bars alone,” said Chris Jardine, general manager of Community and Protective Services. “VASA is very creative and I’ve no doubt they have big plans for the cells someday.”
The city has had a shortage of storage space for years. The plan is to use the cells in Hemingway Centre for space until a long-term solution can be agreed on.
Watamaniuk told the Gazette that the Hemingway Centre reminded her of a quote by Canadian author Jane Jacobs.
“Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.”