Historic Edmonton Iron Works building to be returned to former downtown glory

A facility that was instrumental in building Edmonton is getting ready for its second life. 

The Edmonton Iron Works building, located at 103A Avenue and 96 Street in the Boyle Street neighbourhood, was constructed in 1909, and was home to the company of the same name until 1927. 

“It was a working, gritty, grimy place, and, so, it’s quite amazing that it’s still here after all this time,” said David Johnston, the City of Edmonton’s Principal Heritage Planner. “A lot of times these buildings are viewed as disposable as soon as an operation shuts down.”

Building history…literally

Edmonton businessman James K. Cornwall, also known as “Peace River Jim,” founded the company with his brother Thomas in 1903.

In its day, the Edmonton Iron Works building stood next to the Canadian Northern Railway yard and near the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway tracks. The prime location allowed it to easily receive shipments of pig iron from Scotland via British Columbia.  

It’s believed cast iron and steel produced in the facility were used to construct many buildings across the growing city. Much of the steel used in the Alberta Legislature, for instance, is thought to have been manufactured in the Edmonton Iron Works building. The Cornwall brothers are generally credited with helping open Edmonton and northern Alberta to development. 

“You’d have to think this would have been a beehive of activity,” Johnston said. “There were new buildings popping up everywhere, this was the downtown area, it just would have been such a centre for activity.”

The pieces for the horse-driven Van Slyke plow, popular with farm families across the Prairies, were also created at the site.

The Edmonton Iron Works building on what is now 96 Street in the Boyle Street neighbourhood.

Preserving the past

Johnston said vintage industrial buildings tended to be functional and not necessarily beautiful, and not overly appreciated. The Edmonton Iron Works was designed to be both—functional and beautiful. 

The building has a brick facade with large window openings, concrete stills and historic signage. The facade is more ornate than the rest of the structure, reflecting the company’s optimism in the rapidly growing community.

Front of original 1909 Edmonton Iron Works building, November, 2022.

Preserved bricks

The main focus of the rehabilitation work is on the original 1909 Iron Works building itself. Some basic work will be done to the north annex to get it to a point where it is ready for tenant improvements. The south annex is not part of the project, but its roof is being replaced along with basic work to seal the exterior walls to protect it from the elements. 

Right now the project is in Phase 1. Hazardous material abatement is mostly complete. Major demolition is in full swing. South and east foundry brick walls are being disassembled in order to faithfully reassemble them. The lower side roof is being removed and the upper roof is temporarily supported. Bricks are being preserved for use in reconstruction. 

A pre-demolition photo from 2020 of the interior of the Edmonton Iron Works building.

Looking to the future

A rendering of the building interior shows steel beams running through the space and exposed brick on the wall—two key features of the original Edmonton Iron Works. New metal and glass structures will create spaces for meeting rooms and offices. 

For the project team, the project is historic.

“Buildings of this vintage are rare in Alberta. This is the first opportunity that I’ve had to revitalize a building from the early 1900s,” said Jason Pare of GEC Architecture.

“This is an exciting project and our team is incredibly happy to be working with the City to help them realize their vision for the space,” he said. “To see a building like this returned to its former glory is a unique opportunity.”

This building is especially unique as industrial Edwardian buildings are incredibly rare in Alberta.

“The front of the building is typical of the period, but what really gets us excited is the back portion,” City of Edmonton Senior Planner David Holdsworth said.

“An industrial building of this age is few and far between.”

Artist’s rendering of interior of Edmonton Iron Works. Courtesy of: GEC Architecture

Quarters Community Revitalization Levy 

The project has a $21-million price tag. Funding for the work comes from the Quarters Community Revitalization Levy, which includes work on the north annex. Construction is expected to be completed by the end of 2023, with renovations tailored for specific tenants to be completed in early 2024.

“The key here is to make sure we do it right and do it well when we put it back together,” said Michael Schneider, Program Manager with the City of Edmonton.

“We have one of the best masonry companies working on this,” he said. “The brick work is going to be awesome.”

It’s expected the Edmonton Arts Council will move into the foundry space in 2024. There will also be space for up to two other tenants in the building’s annex. 

The Edmonton Iron Works building in scaffolding on the Clark Builders site, November 3, 2022.

Next year, Johnston will seek a municipal historic resource designation for the building, which will provide legal protection from demolition in the future. 

“This facility is going to be a centrepiece for the community,” Schneider said. “The fact that we’re rehabilitating it to its original state is, I think, fantastic.”

A clipping from the City of Edmonton Archives shows an article about Edmonton Iron Works Ltd. in the Edmonton Bulletin, March 1926.

Editor’s note: the pic at the top of the post shows construction cladding at the front of the Edmonton Iron Works building on November 3, 2022.