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St. Albert Place turns 40

Museum celebrates with new online exhibit

It was 40 years ago this month that St. Albert officially opened up its heart.

Some 7,000 people partied in downtown St. Albert from June 1 to 3, 1984, to celebrate the grand opening of St. Albert Place.

“Many said it was the biggest crowd St. Albert had ever accomplished in any place, at any time, for any event of any kind,” the Gazette reported at the time.

There were concerts. Exhibits. Fireworks. A giant inflatable balloon-spitting fish.

There was even a theme song, said City of St. Albert employee Andrea Gammon, who was one of the roughly 350 students recruited to sing it during the June 2, 1984, opening ceremony.

“You can read or sing a song / If you’ll only come along / Come explore St. Albert Place,” she sang, recalling some of the lyrics.

The Musée Héritage Museum marked the 40th anniversary of St. Albert Place on May 31 with the launch of a new online exhibit on the history of the nearly $20 million building.

“It was so expensive people started calling it the Taj Mahal of St. Albert,” said Vino Vipulanantharajah, the Musée’s archivist and designer of the online exhibit.

Vipulanantharajah said this exhibit gives people a chance to reflect on the history of St. Albert Place as it embarks on significant renovations for the future.

Artists and annexation

The idea for St. Albert Place started in the 1970s, where rapid population growth sparked a need for new civic facilities, Vipulanantharajah explained.

The first attempt to do this came out of a 1974 plan which called for the construction of a multipurpose recreational and cultural centre, former City of St. Albert engineer Don Corrigan writes in St. Albert Place: a Concept. Residents rejected this proposal in a 1976 plebiscite.

The next happened a few years later against a background of disgruntled artists and an annexation attempt by Edmonton.

Carol Watamaniuk, St. Albert’s first cultural director, said artists were up in arms about the poor state of the city’s cultural facilities in the late 1970s — the arts and crafts guilds were housed in a mice-infested Quonset hut, for example.

“I said, well, if you’re so upset about it, organize a protest march,” Watamaniuk said, recalling a chat she had with one arts advocate.

That led area artists and seniors to stage a protest in front of city hall just prior to a council meeting in around 1978, Watamaniuk said — one she helped by using the city’s printers to print the protest’s pamphlets.

“It really threw the mayor off,” she said.

Council embarked on a two-year consultation process to determine the city’s cultural needs, Corrigan writes. By 1979, council had determined that residents would support the construction of a city hall, library, theatre, arts and crafts centre, and museum, and generally agreed that it would be best to combine these facilities into one building.

All this happened at a time when Edmonton was trying to annex St. Albert, said Douglas Cardinal, the renowned architect who designed St. Albert Place. Edmonton was arguing that St. Albert was just the city’s dormitory, and that it didn’t even have a proper city hall.

“The people said we’re going to build a centre, and it’s going to be designed around our needs and our vision,” Cardinal said.

City council put the questions of Edmonton’s annexation and the construction of a new civic and cultural centre to a plebiscite in 1980, the Gazette archives show. Voters rejected the annexation by a crushing 4,172 votes and narrowly approved the civic centre by 318.

Building a heart

St. Albert council hired Cardinal to design the St. Albert Civic and Cultural Centre on March 3, 1980. (Cardinal said he applied for the job at the suggestion of the province’s chief architect, who lived in St. Albert.)

“The City of St. Albert is to have a heart,” the Gazette said of the decision at the time.

Cardinal said he worked with many community groups to figure out what should go in the building, designing it from the inside out. He did this using a $250,000 Hewlett-Packard computer equipped with custom software, making it one of the first structures ever made through computer-aided design.

“I wanted the building to very organically follow the flow of the river,” Cardinal said, so people could walk alongside it and the nearby Sturgeon River.

Crews broke ground on the civic centre in December 1981, the exhibit reports.

Cardinal and Corrigan (who was an engineer with the City of St. Albert in the 1970s and 1980s) said one of the greatest construction challenges for the building was the ground beneath it, which Corrigan described in an interview as “probably the worst soils to build on in St. Albert.”

An underground river of groundwater made the soil so silty that crews had to pound “a pincushion of piles” to support the building, Cardinal said. Corrigan said the city got a lot of noise complaints from the resulting racket.

The building was completed and dubbed St. Albert Place in late October 1983, A Bridge Over Time reports.

The building’s grand opening was June 2, 1984, in the midst of a three-day celebration that included a street dance, picnic, fireworks, and a museum exhibit featuring an Egyptian mummy, the Musée’s archives show. The opening ceremony included fur traders in canoes, the St. Albert Place song, a ribbon cutting, and a 40-foot-long inflatable rainbow-coloured sturgeon that, shortly after the ribbon was cut, released helium balloons from its mouth.

“It was huge,” Watamaniuk said of the fish.

“You could walk through it.”

The future

St. Albert Place went on to become the cultural and political heart of St. Albert, host to plays, concerts, debates, protests, and many other historic events.

It also indirectly led to the creation of another famous city landmark.

Watamaniuk, 79, said she was looking out from the third floor of St. Albert Place prior to its opening and saw the rather dumpy-looking St. Albert arena across the road. She called in artist Grant Leier, and he and some youths painted a mural of ducks on it in amidst the pouring rain in 1984. Henceforth, many would know the arena as The Ducky Dome.

City council designated St. Albert Place a municipal historic resource in 2007.

The building itself has been relatively unchanged in the last 40 years as a result, said City of St. Albert project manager Karsen Zwiers. Crews have added more brick to the balconies to meet safety codes, for example, and added metal cladding to protect crumbling brick.

Zwiers said the city was now about six months into a $13.9 million eco-retrofit of St. Albert Place. By 2025, the building will have all-new electrical and air-handling systems, LED lights, triple-pane windows, and hundreds of solar panels on its roof.

Cardinal, 90, said building St. Albert Place helped him get hired to design the Canadian Museum of History. It also gave St. Albert an identity.

“It was a city with its own centre, its own heart … its own vision for itself.”

Corrigan, 81, said he still enjoys visiting St. Albert Place, which has become both a tourist attraction and the centrepiece for St. Albert’s cultural events.

“It gave St. Albert something to be proud of.”

The St. Albert Place exhibit can be viewed at

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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