A moment in history: Feb. 23, 1962

A moment in history: Feb. 23, 1962

· The Pulse

On this day in 1962, the Empire Block was falling to the wrecking ball.

The Empire Block was the creation of two well-known figures in Edmonton history — John A. McDougall and Richard Secord. In the late 1800s, McDougall ran Edmonton's general store, where he made a fortune competing with the Hudson's Bay Company in the fur trade. Secord arrived in Edmonton as a teacher before working as a clerk for McDougall and eventually starting his own fur trading business.

By the turn of the century, both men were very wealthy and decided to partner together to build an office block on the northeast corner of Jasper Avenue and 101 Street, one of the prime pieces of real estate in the growing city. Construction finished in 1905, and the red brick building soon became a landmark in the city's core.

The timing could not have been better. Edmonton was entering a period of rapid growth and prosperity that would continue until the First World War. And 1905 was the year Alberta became a province. A new government needed office space, and the Empire Block was a prime location. Other tenants included the Bank of Nova Scotia, as well as opticians, barbers, and other services demanded by the growing city. In 1920, the Owl Drug Store opened on the main floor and would remain a tenant for more than 40 years.

The building suffered a major fire in 1942, which gutted the top two floors. The blaze brought downtown to a halt. The Edmonton Journal reported at the time that the fire caused an explosion on the fourth floor, which "showered (people) with broken glass" as they rushed to remove equipment from the offices. The damage was extensive, and material shortages caused by the war slowed down repairs. As a result, the Empire wouldn't reopen until the following year.

More than half a century after it was built, the Empire met its end due to the same factors that led to its construction. Edmonton was going through another boom, and in 1962, the office block was torn down to make way for a 12-storey high-rise — the Empire Building — to help meet the high demand for office space.

Office space isn't as hard to come by in downtown Edmonton at the moment. The city's core currently has one of Canada's highest office vacancy rates, behind London, Waterloo, and Calgary. Much of that can be attributed to the uncertainty around COVID and the shift towards working from home. And while there might be some bright spots when it comes to filling office towers, many are worried it will be a slow and stuttering recovery.

This is based on a clipping found on Vintage Edmonton, a daily look at Edmonton's history from armchair archivist @revRecluse — follow @VintageEdmonton for daily ephemera via Twitter.