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4 historic houses on University of Alberta campus set for demolition up for grabs

Click to play video '4 historic houses on University of Alberta campus set for demolition up for grabs' 4 historic houses on University of Alberta campus set for demolition up for grabs
Four houses built around 1911 on the University of Alberta campus are slated for demolition unless someone relocates them. Sarah Ryan reports. – Feb 9, 2021

If you’ve ever wanted to pick up an old house and plop it down on a piece of the land, the University of Alberta might just have a deal for you.

The school is planning to demolish the four remaining Ring Houses, named for the semi circle neighbourhood they created on the northwest section of the main campus.

The historic Ring Houses on the University of Alberta campus on Tuesday, February 9, 2021. Global News

They were built between 1911 and 1914, and were home to the university’s first president, senior faculty members, their families and servants.

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“It served that purpose for the first five university presidents, from 1912 until 1959,” explained history professor Ryan Dunch.

“They have a very strong connection to a different period of the campus.”

But the houses are old, and the university plans to demolish them and create a green space in their wake.

“The ring houses have sadly not withstood the test of time. The ongoing costs needed to make and keep them safe are just unsustainable,” explained U of A vice-president Andrew Sharman.

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“Wherever practical, we strive to extend the life of our existing infrastructure.

“Given that the U of A has the largest inventory of facilities assets among Canadian Universities, and limited resources, this is unfortunately not always possible.”

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Most recently, UAlberta North, the University Press and the school’s museum collections had offices in the Ring Houses.

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“Given their size and purpose built design as individual family dwellings, they do not provide adequate space for teachings, research or work activities,” Sharman said.

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Plus, the university is facing massive funding shortfalls, thanks in part to provincial cuts. Sharman said it would take a lot of money to bring the old buildings up to code.

“There is around $4 million in deferred maintenance that we know about in the properties,” he explained.

“We have to be fiscally responsible. We have so much infrastructure, as I said, that we can’t afford to maintain everything. My priority is to support that which is directly impacting our students, our faculty, our researchers and our staff.”

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Sharman also called the buildings “utility pigs,” saying they’re not well insulated.

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“We’ll look to demolish them later this spring, while campus is still quiet.”

The fate of the houses only just became public and prompted Dunch to write an open letter.

“It calls for the university to undertake a 12-month moratorium on demolishing the houses in order to allow for some public consultation,” he explained.

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He’s hopeful through a heightened public awareness, solutions might be found to save the Ring Houses.

But Dunch is mindful of the university’s financial situation.

“The open letter is not saying these buildings must be preserved at any cost.”

In less than four days, nearly 1,200 people added their names to the letter, which caught Dunch by surprise.

At a townhall Tuesday, he asked whether a delay would be possible, and says he was told the buildings would continue to deteriorate if not demolished soon.

Media were not allowed to listen in on the townhall.

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“It was almost like they were going to collapse in place within a year if they’re not demolished and I find that a little hard to understand,” he said, pointing to their recent use in 2020.

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But one way Sharman said the buildings could be saved is if someone is willing to remove them from campus.

“Anyone willing and able to relocate any or one of the houses will be invited to do so,” he said.

That’s an option Dunch is interested in, but he’s concerned there’s just not enough time for an interested party to come to the table.

Late Tuesday, the university put up a website offering the homes for sale for $1 each, but the sale is only slated to last until Friday, Feb. 12. That gives prospective buyers less than a week to make a big decision.

“I will continue to be hopeful that what I think is a moderate and reasonable request can be entertained.”

One of the historic Ring Houses on the University of Alberta campus on Tuesday, February 9, 2021. Global News