Hey Edmonton, look what’s residing beneath our sidewalks!

Written by Darrel G. Babuk, MRAIC

Many of Edmonton’s buildings had vaults on the sidewalk.

Not sure why. Usually vaulted sidewalks have been found in cities where hilly streets have been flattened or raised – such as New York City, Vancouver, or Victoria. When the pavement was flattened and raised, the sidewalks were seldom raised.

To get a sidewalk in front of their building, the builders extended the basements of their buildings to the carriageway, and the roof of the basement that extended beyond the building became a public sidewalk.

Here in Edmonton, the Gibson Block and the McLeod Block still have vaults on the sidewalk; the roof over the part of their basement that protrudes above the building is the public walkway. Other buildings in Edmonton, such as the Jasper Block and Kelly Ramsey Block, also had vaults on the sidewalk.

Back when the idea of ​​working in an office was still a novelty, the rent for retail space was significantly higher than for office space. Often times, retail space was on the second or even third floor.

Store space in the basement just one flight of stairs from the sidewalk made sense. The Gibson Block still has stairs that lead from the sidewalk to the basement where the Georgia Baths used to be.

But aren’t cellars dark? In order to bring light into the cellar vault, glass walkway prisms were embedded in the walkways.

Photo by Darrel G. Babuk

Victoria still has sidewalk prisms, the purple glass blocks on Government Street sidewalks. Seattle still has sidewalk prisms, they even offer tours of the arched sidewalk beneath the sidewalk prisms.

Not only did Edmonton’s Jasper Block have sidewalk prisms, the interior hallways had glass prism floors so natural sunlight seeped through the third and second floors down to the first floor!

Not sure why. Vaulted sidewalks were commonly found in cities where hilly streets were flat degraded – such as New York City, Vancouver, or Victoria. When flattening and raising the road surface; while the actual road was raised, the sidewalks weren’t. If you know, send me a message!

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Boreas Architecture & Civic Design uses our years of unique and specialized experience to identify, understand and create a plan of action to redesign historic buildings: to preserve the dignity of their original design with a sustainable new purpose in the community . Click for more information.

This article was originally published on 3/31/2019.

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