For 127 years — apart from a decade-long dry period in the Prohibition era when it was a Presbyterian ladies college — Edmontonians have been rolling into the Strathcona Hotel for a glass of beer.
The hotel opened in 1891 as a stopping house for new arrivals straight off the train via the Calgary and Edmonton Railway, the first rail line to connect this place with the wider world.
Over the years, the hotel and tavern have played host to generations of visitors, from railway workers to German immigrants to university students to Fringe actors to retired veterans to riggers to suburban hipsters.
If you’re over 50, you may know it as the Strath. Millennials, for reasons that mystify me, call it the Strat. Whatever you call it, a jug of beer costs $15, a private room without a bath costs $54.50 a night, and razors are for sale at the front desk for $1.50 each. Don’t bring your plastic. This is a cash-only business.
The place is an Edmonton landmark where people from many different walks of life have, for decades, gathered together in defiance of the social and demographic barriers that typically divide us.
But last call is looming.
The hotel, the oldest wood-framed commercial building on Whyte Avenue, is being sold to Ivan Beljan of Beljan Development. He takes possession in October.
“We want to remake it into a showpiece of a building,” Beljan told me Friday. “This is a key piece of real estate in the city. This is just the opportunity to really change a whole block.”
The hotel is at no risk of demolition. It has protected heritage status from the city and the province.
Beljan has actually been trying to buy it for years, to add it to his portfolio of Old Strathcona properties. (For tax purposes, the city values the property at just over $2 million. Beljan says he paid a little less than twice that amount.)
He currently owns 10 sites in the Whyte Avenue area, including the old Dominion Hotel building, the Crawford Block, just north across the back lane.
Beljan’s plans for the site aren’t finalized. Because the building has historic designation from two levels of government, he has to get two levels of approval for any renovations that might change its heritage character.
His proposal is to renovate the 48 hotel rooms into 34 separate apartments. Or perhaps 34 boutique hotel rooms — he’s not yet decided. On the main floor, he’s planning several small retail and restaurant bays. And, with the blessing of the city and the province, he wants to bring light into the murky interior by adding a rear solarium where the parking spots and beer cooler are now. It’s part of his continuing mission to transform the back lanes of Old Strathcona into pleasant pedestrian arcades.
Renovating such a well-worn wood-frame building will be a challenge. But Beljan says the woodwork is solid, without rot or warping.
“Being able to work on a building with a story to tell, with some complexity, for us it’s what we wake up loving to do.”
Still, in order to make the project pay, Beljan says he’ll need flexibility and understanding from the city and province when it comes to things like adding an elevator or main floor doors. The project can only succeed, he says, if it can attract commercial tenants.
“These things are costly. They’re not easy. The return has to be there, at the end of the day.”
If he gets the necessary approvals, Beljan plans to close the hotel this fall and start construction work in January, with the hopes of opening the new space in late 2019.
Beljan is a developer with a strong record when it comes to creative adaptive reuse of heritage buildings. It’s reassuring to see such a beloved heritage building in the hands of someone with the vision and capital to restore and maintain it. It would be exciting to have a showpiece anchor building at such an important gateway corner.
Still, I feel a pang for the old hotel and tavern, which have provided shelter and respite for so many who were down on their luck or just short of cash over the decades. If the day comes when hipsters are sipping artisan craft beer here, will they spare much thought for the working folks their gentrification has displaced?
“Lots of people have told us they have many stories and lots of fond memories,” Beljan told me.
“But it’s 2018 now and we have a next chapter that people will fall in love with for the next generation.”