Beauty is in the Eye of the Brickholder

The Little Brick Building began its existence in the ovens of the fledgling Cranbrook Brick Company which went into production in 1909

Bricks

Bricks

Jim Cameron

The Little Brick Building began its existence in the ovens of the fledgling Cranbrook Brick Company which went into production in June, 1909, one of a number of brick factories in the immediate district over the years.

By July, the company had 100,000 bricks in the kiln and another 150,000 drying in the yard; bricks that in the short existence of the company would fabricate the Cranbrook Electric Company powerhouse, Cranbrook City Hall (125,000 bricks), the Hanson Block/Norbury Hotel which stood on the corner of Norbury Avenue and Baker Street (3 million bricks), the old Cranbrook Post Office and, more to the point, one other building in particular, a residence on Block 27, Lot 25 of Armstrong Avenue (213–9th Avenue). A building that was completely demolished once and, remarkably, nearly demolished a second time.

Bricks cannot talk, yet they still manage to tell a century old story unique to our town.

Enter Archie Waller, an Irishman born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1870, and, appropriately enough name-wise, a brick and stone mason by trade. An ad in the Cranbrook Herald of May 5, 1910, for Messrs. Nesbitt and Waller, builders and carpenters is the first mention of his presence in town. It was Nesbitt and Waller who built the Electric Company powerhouse, in fact.

Further, Mr. Waller purchased block 27, Lot 25 on Armstrong Avenue in 1910, taking out a mortgage for nearly two thousand dollars in October of that year with the Great Western Permanent Loan Company of Winnipeg. He likely purchased the property from E.H. Taylor, who owned it in 1908 and who apparently purchased it from Arthur Manahan who owned it in 1906.

Although there is no known record of the date that the residence, constructed of brick stamped CBC (Cranbrook Brick Company), was erected on the property, what evidence there is suggests that it was Archie Waller who built the house sometime in 1910-11.

As an aside, if it seems odd that the construction of what was later termed one of the city’s most pretentious homes garnered no mention at the time, keep in mind that there is also no known record of the construction of the Tower House (the Parkin Manor) on Norbury Avenue, built about the same time and certainly one of Cranbrook’s most notable heritage buildings.

Archie Waller and Vince Liddicoat formed a working partnership in 1912 and built the South Ward School on Wattsville Road and the Cranbrook Jobber’s Warehouse (later the Ranch Steak House which burned down in 2003), and Archie continued his trade locally until he and his wife Jessie Childs settled in Marysville.

Although all indications point to Archie as a reasonably successful businessman, in July, 1915 he was served with a public foreclosure notice of the mortgage of Block 27, Lot 25 by the Great Western Loan Company, who declared they would enter into possession of the said premises and rent or “sell the said land and premises as they saw fit.”

It would appear the Archie made no effort to save the property and both the land and the building came into possession of at least four other owners over the next 21 years.

It was in the hands of John Armour for a time, a local raconteur, owner of a pool hall, a job placement agency and an early car dealership among other things.

It passed on to Charles Spence, a Boer War Veteran and grocery store owner and, in the years before his death, the local government liquor agent.

During the building’s final days it was known as the Riordan residence, for David Riordan of Penticton, who made a name for himself in that city but spent little, if any time in Cranbrook.

By November, 1935, the residence, long neglected and in a state of complete disrepair, was the property of the City of Cranbrook who duly condemned and demolished the building and sold the land.

As befitted a city suffering the effects of the Great Depression, the bricks of the building were salvaged and in May 1936 were used to construct a garage at the rear of city hall — the present day Little Brick Building — for use as a city waterworks and electrical shop.

Care was taken to use the original bricks, joined with tinted mortar, to form the exterior walls while newer bricks made up an additional inner course.

The garage served its original purpose until the 1970s and was then used as storage and ambulance parking for a time.

In 2013 the city deemed the building unsafe and was about to have it demolished when, at the eleventh hour, local citizen Ken Haberman approached council with a plan to restore it with the help of volunteers at no cost to the city. A successful motion from Councillor Gerry Warner to delay demolition for one year gave the Cranbrook Heritage Association the opportunity to raise funds for an engineering study which, in turn, led to the eventual stabilizing and restoration of the structure.

The reconstruction utilized as many Cranbrook Brick Company bricks from the original garage as possible while others were located in the attic of city hall — perhaps left there following the demolition of the city hall tower — augmented with bricks of the same style from the remains of the St. Eugene Hospital.

It stands proudly once again, the “Little Brick Building,” the “Little Building That Could,” thanks to the donations of many and the volunteer efforts of many more. It is not what you might call a graceful structure but it may be said that that is precisely what gives it its charm: it is solid, practical and unique – with its locally manufactured bricks and its distinct cement quoins (cornerstones), creating an impression of permanence and strength — traits that have made the city of Cranbrook what it is today.

There has been no formal recognition as yet on behalf of the city for the efforts of those who undertook the reconstruction of the Little Brick Building. Undoubtedly, there should be. It is an excellent opportunity to place Cranbrook in a very positive light with regard to both local heritage and those who actively support it. A very positive result for a city often tarred with a negative heritage brush.

There is still work to be done, some finishing touches, a plaque, exterior lighting and landscaping, period-friendly doors and windows and then, well, the suggestions are many: a distinctive commercial space – perhaps a tie-in with Rotary Park — or a display area for the City itself, featuring the old fire trucks or the numerous artifacts received at city hall over the years — the possibilities are many.

As stated, in part, in a Cranbrook Herald editorial of March 28, 1924, entitled “Your Town … Wood, brick and stone — I am more than that; even more than flesh and blood – I am the composite soul of all who call me Home. As clearly as the pool throws back the reflection of the rising sun, I shall reflect you — make of me what you will. I am Cranbrook!”

If the Little Brick Building isn’t a distinct part of what is Cranbrook, it would be hard to say what exactly is.

And with that, Janus arrives at the end of its eighth season and extends a sincere thank you to Barry Coulter, Zena Williams and Karen Johnston along with all the staff and management of the Cranbrook Townsman, to Harriet Pollock, David Humphrey, the Cranbrook History Centre and all those who have shared their time, and stories and with a special thank you to those who graciously purchased a copy of “Janus — Cranbrook Then and Now — Volume One;”  which will soon enter its second printing with Volume Two on the way.

Catch you in the fall as there is always mortar talk about.

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