It was a sad day in city history when the bear of St. Albert fell.
Dust belched from the Bruin Inn as an excavator crunched into its stucco skeleton on July 19, 2000, writes Edmonton Journal reporter Peter Brieger. The handful of old-timers who witnessed the 71-year-old building’s demise no doubt had many memories of what was once St. Albert’s most iconic watering hole.
“That hotel was like a landmark,” said Adam Hauptman, whose family owned it for decades.
“I was certainly really disappointed they decided to tear it down.”
The Bruin was for almost a century the central business in downtown St. Albert and an enduring link to the city’s past. But just as it would rise again as the Bruin Centre, so too has downtown begun to roar to life once more.
The roaming heart of commerce
“Downtown” St. Albert wasn’t always located along Perron St., notes Joanne White, curator of the Musée Héritage Museum in St. Albert. The city’s original commercial core was the Mission District over by the grain elevators, and had the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post as its hub.
Hudson’s Bay used Big Lake as a place to stash its horses in the early 1800s to protect them from raiders attacking Fort Edmonton, White said. Many of the employees hired to guard the horses ended up settling in the region.
By 1866, there was enough traffic in this region on account of the St. Albert bridge that Hudson’s Bay decided to build a trading post here, reports historian James Tirrul-Jones. Hudson’s Bay employee John Cunningham, father of Sam Cunningham of the St. Albert Mounted Rifles, ran it for two years before his death on a buffalo hunt. He was succeeded by Louis Chastellain.
Entrepreneurs soon set up shop next to the post to take advantage of the traffic, White said. Narcisse Beaudry opened St. Albert’s first hotel there in 1873, and a second store, a blacksmith, shoemaker’s shop and flour mill followed in the next two decades. The arrival of the railway in 1906 brought the first grain elevator and more business to the region, including a pharmacy and the Empress Hall.
By the 1900s, the increased importance of Edmonton saw traffic and commerce shift away from the Mission District and towards what is now Perron Street, White said. Henry McKenney was one of the first businessmen to enter what we now call downtown when he opened his shop south of the Perron St. Bridge in 1884, Black Robe’s Vision reports. His store would later be the site of Alberta’s first phone call.
By 1913, downtown was a bustling commercial area, with two banks, a hardware store, the Dawson Block (arguably St. Albert’s first shopping complex, located where the Perron Block is today), and several hotels, Black Robe’s Vision reports.
The bear rises
One of those hotels was the Bruin Inn’s ancestor: the St. Albert Hotel, established in 1886 by David Chevigny (a member of St. Albert’s first town council).
Northwest Brewing Company salesman Peter McKay bought the place in August 1928, reports historian Donald Watkins. The province had just banned men and women from drinking together in bars (mixed drinking), but made an exception for rural spots like St. Albert. McKay no doubt saw this as an opportunity.
The hotel burned down a month later, but McKay rebuilt it as the Bruin Inn, taking its name from his employer’s slogan: “Drink Northwest Beer – it’s a Bear.”
Designed by William Blakey, who also did the Jasper Place Lodge and the Garneau Theatre, the Bruin was built to look like a California mission, and stood out due to its cream stucco sides, historian Karen Korchinski writes. It would have been considered beautiful and avant-garde for St. Albert at the time.
The Edmonton Bulletin spared no superlative in its January 1929 story on the Bruin, declaring it “the last word in comfort and luxury.” This “imposing edifice” cost some $30,000 to build and had 16 rooms, a beer parlour, electric lighting and hot and cold water in every room.
“Phoenix-like out of the ashes of the ruin (of the St. Albert Hotel) has arisen a new hotel surpassing the old one in every respect,” it said.
Adam Hauptman said his uncle Stan bought the Bruin in 1947 and would run it with his family’s help for decades afterward.
Adam said the streets in downtown St. Albert were “basically mud” back then, and the Sturgeon would flood all the way up Perron Street to where the post office is today. Down the street, you’d see wooden sidewalks, three grocery stores, a butcher, a garage, a credit union and the Bank of Montreal (now The Art Gallery of St. Albert).
Head into the Bruin, and you’d find round wooden tables with steel legs, wooden chairs, and plenty of noise, beer and people, Adam continued – if you could see through the tobacco smoke.
“Sometimes you’d walk in and you’d like to take a knife to cut (the smoke) so you could see where you were going!” he joked.
If you were hungry, you could order steaks, burgers and other classics from Adam’s mother, Bernice Hauptman, who was the Bruin’s chef from 1951 to 1984. There wasn’t any hard liquor on tap, but you could get beer for 10 cents a glass if you were thirsty, Adam said.
The Bruin’s exemption from the provincial ban on mixed drinking made it exceedingly popular in the 1940s and 1950s, historians note. Some 600 people would cram into the place on some weekends, effectively doubling St. Albert’s population.
“People would be lined up at the door, down the street and across the (Perron Street) bridge to the chapel, just to get a drink,” said former Bruin owner Albert Hauptman, as quoted in St. Albert’s Bruin Inn: 94 years of memories.
White notes that the Bruin would go through 50 kegs of beer in a weekend, and needed 17 waiters to handle the crowds. People would buy cases of beer just to have somewhere to sit.
So great were the crowds that town council brought in a 9 p.m. curfew to keep kids away from drunks stumbling out of the bar, one that would stay in place until the 1950s, Watkins writes.
The bear falls, and rises
The Bruin’s star waned after the province repealed its mixed-drinking ban in 1967, White reports.
The 1960s also saw the emergence of St. Albert’s first strip mall – Grandin Shoppers’ Park (later Mall) – and the beginning of the end of downtown’s commercial dominance.
Before Grandin opened, pretty much the only things you could buy in St. Albert were groceries, said lifelong city resident Anne Marie Venne, 76. You had to take the bus to Edmonton for everything else. That changed with Grandin Mall, which had shoes, men’s wear, a bakery, a drugstore and a Safeway under one roof.
“You didn’t have to go so far for what you wanted,” she said.
1980 saw the opening of St. Albert Centre, with Village Tree Mall following the next year. While downtown stagnated, new malls and businesses continued to crop up along the trail, with the first big-box store (Safeway) emerging in 1991, St. Albert Our Story reports.
The Bruin would struggle to adapt. It became the Amnesia nightclub in 1990, and bared it all in 1993 as Pinky’s 2 – St. Albert’s first strip club. It added the famous fiberglass bear to its roof that year, and also gained a hideous mauve, purple and green paint job.
But the Bruin never regained its fame. By 1998, Gazette reporter Susan Jones wrote that the place looked like “a derelict old drunk,” its plaster walls and parking lot crumbling and its upstairs floor so uneven that it was tough to walk between rooms.
In 1998, building owner Ben Starkman decided that it was time to tear the place down.
“It wasn’t economically viable anymore, and none of us wanted to run a beer parlor hotel,” said his son, Philip Starkman.
While the arts community rallied to save the place, city hall balked at the cost to preserve it, and the province felt it had been too altered over the years to qualify as a historic site, the Gazette archives report. The whole place was reduced to rubble in just three hours.
But the Bruin was preserved in spirit. The Starkmans reproduced the Bruin’s façade for the new Bruin Centre, which opened soon after the Inn’s destruction, while the Musée salvaged many of the Inn’s artifacts. The rise of the Bruin Centre also coincided with an $8 million construction boom downtown that included new condos and The Rock hair salon, the Gazette’s Glenna Hanley notes.
While the commercial core of St. Albert has definitely moved up St. Albert Trail due to the new developments and big-box stores there, St. Albert Chamber of Commerce chair Brian Bachynski said downtown St. Albert was still an important breeding ground for unique local businesses.
“I think downtown is making a big comeback,” Bachynski said, especially with the new condos going up on the old Grandin Mall site and the plans for Millennium Park.
“It’s definitely on the revival, and it’s a place where businesses want to locate.”
The bear that is downtown St. Albert may soon wake from its slumber.
Links to the past
In celebration of Canada’s upcoming 150th, the Gazette will examine one element of St. Albert that’s 150 years old (give or take a few decades) on the last Wednesday of each month from now until next month, with a special surprise coming in June.
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