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St. Albert Albert Art Gallery building has rich history

Step into the old brick art gallery on Perron Street and listen to the hammering as the building goes through yet another incarnation. You can’t help but feel a sense of time and history.
Front of Bank of Montreal , 1987
HHM 2012 : This colour photo shows the Bank of Montreal as it was between 1956 and 1987. (Musee Heritage Museum photo)

Step into the old brick art gallery on Perron Street and listen to the hammering as the building goes through yet another incarnation. You can’t help but feel a sense of time and history. The building, a municipal historic site, will be transformed with a $1.5 million renovation to make the Art Gallery of St. Albert wheelchair accessible. “City council has approved the renovation for $1,555,116. Of that, $1,088,581 is funded by the city. The Arts and Heritage Foundation will fund-raise the remaining 30 per cent,” said Arts and Heritage Executive Director Ann Ramsden. As demolition began in December, the working crew piled a small haystack-like structure of splintered flooring in front of the former bank vault. Surprisingly, the floor of this 96-year-old structure boasted just one layer of plywood and a second layer of laminate over a concrete base. It seems that every owner, from the original Banque d’Hochelaga, which built it in 1921 on down to the Art Gallery of St. Albert, scrimped on flooring. As the renovators clawed and ripped the plywood, boards screeched and whined and clung eerily to the concrete. “There’s the old vault,” said Vlad Didusenko, an employee of Chalex Construction. “There’s another safe downstairs, which cannot be opened.” As he supervised the demolition, Didusenko explained that the main-floor vault, along with nearby areas of flooring that seem flatter, started him guessing about the former bank’s presence. “In some places it’s easier to remove the flooring because it’s been really well stomped on,” Didusenko said. “I figured that must be where people lined up for the bank tellers.” So far Didusenko hasn’t seen any old twenties floating in the air or tucked into the floor boards but then neither has he seen any signs of the buildings’ multiple other personalities. This old brick-clad lady has been owned by two banks and by many independent owners, including those who turned it into a restaurant. For a time in the 1990s it was owned by Clayworks, and Above the Bank Interiors. The Bridal Shop was located there and so was Midnight Magic lingerie shop. Alphonse Sylvestre was Banque d’Hochelaga’s bank manager from 1917 to 1923 and the building was constructed during his tenure. It was originally located across the street, but Fleuri Perron struck a land deal with the bank and they built a brand new building on the corner.

Robbery attempt

“The Banque d’Hochelaga was known for St. Albert’s first big crime, not in this building, but at its first location (on the west side of the street),” said Musée Heritage Museum archivist Vino Vipulanantharajah. “Three American robbers tried to bust into the vault. They tried to use nitro but failed. We know they were caught but we don’t know anything more about them,” Vipulanantharajah said. Perhaps the robbery attempt explains why Banque d’Hochelaga installed the two fortress-strong vaults, still present in the current building. “They are not going anywhere,” said Ramsden, alluding to the fact that it would likely be almost impossible to remove them. Banque d’Hochelaga, which by then was called the Banque Nationale, moved to Edmonton during the Depression and the building remained empty for many years. By the Second World War, the building had become a restaurant. In 1949 the Schiewe family took over and renamed the place Bill’s. Mrs. Schiewe was famous for the 22 pies she baked every Saturday in her wood-burning stove. She pumped clean water from a reservoir in the basement. Old dishwater was pumped to the outdoor latrines. Through most of those years families lived upstairs. During an interview this week, Mimi Belhumeur, 90, recalled as a teen she babysat there. “I remember babysitting upstairs for Dr. Poirier,” Belhumeur recalled, adding that it was a simple matter to get there as her family lived across the back alley. Another senior, Anne Marie Venne vaguely remembered the building’s coffee shop era but doesn’t recall it as a school hangout. “In those days we were too busy to go to a hangout. I don’t think as a teenager I was allowed there,” Venne said. In a strange way, the café might have been one of the first “sports bars” in town, Historical Society president Ray Pinco recalled, as he explained that before everyone had television, they would go to the café to watch games like the 1954 Grey Cup. “Few people had television then so we watched it there,” said Pinco.

B of M

February 11, 1956, with St. Albert Mayor Bill Veness and Father Tardif of St. Albert Catholic Church in attendance, the B of M’s branch manager Hector Arseneau cut the ribbon to open St. Albert’s first bank since the Banque Nationale left in 1934. The Bank of Montreal remained St. Albert’s only bank until 1962 when the Bank of Nova Scotia opened in Grandin Mall. The Bank of Montreal remained at 19 Perron until 1987, making it the building’s longest tenants. In 2000 the City of St. Albert purchased the building and it became the home of Profiles Public Art Gallery, later renamed Art Gallery of St. Albert. The current renovations were essential to make the gallery barrier free. The Arts and Heritage Foundation has approved an outdoor ramp as well as an elevator to lift gallery visitors to the second floor. The second floor will be expanded to the rear of the building and there will be newer bathrooms installed. “The renovation will be done by August. This part, the demolition, should be done in two weeks. The rest, to rebuild, will take many months,” Didusenko said.