CKUA Building Restores History

CKUA’s home, the new Alberta Hotel, was reassembled, brick by brick.

The stonemasons putting together all of the pieces of the Alberta Hotel faced the jigsaw puzzle of a lifetime.

They found that the 5,000-plus blocks of stone going into the faade were unlabelled. This wasn’t supposed to happen. They were all numbered in 1984 when the hotel was dismantled to make way for Canada Place and the pieces were brought to a city store yard. But over the years, moisture seeped into the sandstone, and the painted numbers disappeared. Some pieces were even missing.

“We had to rent a warehouse and take all the stones and puzzle it back together,” says Gene Dub, the architect and developer who brought the building back to life. “But the stonemasons really got into it.”

Now, 28 years after it disappeared, and 107 years after Sir Wilfrid Laurier slept there on the eve of Alberta becoming a province, the Alberta Hotel has been resurrected and will once again stand over Jasper Avenue, a block west of the original location. But it won’t be a hotel. Instead, it will serve as the new headquarters for CKUA, another piece of the province’s history.

Dub, renowned as the architect behind City Hall, has never been averse to gambling on history. He has restored about 30 buildings, but it hasn’t always worked out financially. He put life back into the 97-year-old McLeod Building on 100th Street, for instance, by converting it into condos, but hasn’t managed to fill either the residential or commercial parts of the building.

“I was so keen on doing the building that I took a bit of a chance,” Dub says.

But while the faade, which includes the distinctive cupola, looks like the historic hotel, it is a new building. The original was a load-bearing brick, stone and wood structure. Now the original materials constitute a “rain screen,” with a wall and insulation behind it. The rear north end of the building is a triple-glazed glass wall.

The idea of housing CKUA in the Alberta Hotel came somewhat by chance. CEO Ken Regan called Dub looking for advice about a new location for the station. Since 1955, the Alberta Block, seven blocks west of the hotel, had been home to the listener-supported radio station, but its problems were legion, starting with its 106-year-old boiler, possibly the oldest in Alberta.

Regan asked Dub to show him some sites in the Quarters, the east downtown area the City hopes to rejuvenate. When they went past the Alberta Hotel construction site, Regan said it would be a perfect fit with CKUA, being the gateway to the Arts District.

Dub scratched the hotel plans, and CKUA agreed to pay $12 million for the building, which was unfinished on the inside.

Regan wants many Albertans – and visitors to the Shaw Conference Centre across the street – to come in. With the glass wall and large windows that replicate the originals, the building is flooded with light, and that goes with the spirit of welcome that Regan wants to portray.

The reception desk on the ground floor is purposely far back from the main door, so people can wander around the front area, looking at interactive historical displays about the station. They will also be able to watch live interviews and studio concerts at the station on a big screen. Wired for sound, the main floor will also host live concerts with seating for over 100.

And Dub, who owns Yellowhead Brewery, will have a presence in the building. He’s leasing ground floor space to open a 120-seat lounge, which will include many of the original fixtures of the old Alberta Hotel tavern, including the long wooden bar.

In the basement, CKUA’s library, which includes 275,000 vinyl records going back to the 1920s and Edison’s discs dating back to 1912, will for the first time be in a climate-controlled space, and will be used as an educational facility and not just a place to store records.

Upstairs, the production facilities, including a recording studio-quality room for live musical broadcasts, are state-of-the-art, wired so there are no bandwidth issues when recorded directly online, fitting with the station’s ambitions for a larger presence on the web.

And the station is keeping a corner of the fifth floor, mainly to have access to a terrace overlooking Jasper Avenue. That could be the site of future rooftop concerts, reminiscent of the Beatles famous “Let It Be” show.

“Some people say: ‘Why do you need that fancy building?'” says Regan. “We weren’t looking for a beautiful building, but a building that works. This building works – it just happens to be beautiful, and that’s a bonus.”

Raise it Up

While CKUA relies primarily on its listeners to finance its operations, it will have to raise an extra $9 million to pay for its new digs.

The station paid $12 million for the building, and is putting up more than $5 million to finish the interior. Dub bought the Alberta Block from CKUA for $2.6 million, and CKUA received a $5 million grant from the city.

But station manager Ken Regan is confident that the money will be raised. A capital drive has already raised over $2 million while still in its “quiet phase” of talking to potential donors. The station will rent out most of the top two floors at market rate, although a portion is reserved for the non-profit sector as part of an agreement with the City.

CKUA has also applied for a federal capital grant under a “cultural spaces” program and is seeking a one-time grant from the province, although it was a Tory government under Ralph Klein that pulled the plug on the station in 1997. Regan points out that CKUA has not sought ongoing government handouts, and that it has raised $35 million through voluntary donations since the late ’90s.

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