It’s the little building that tried harder and almost didn’t make it.
But thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers and a big hand from the community, the former Cranbrook Water and Electrical Building, simply known as “the Little Brick Building,” now stands solidly behind Cranbrook City Hall in full reflection of its former glory.
Built in 1936 out of recycled bricks from a former Heritage Hill mansion, the small brick structure was used for many years as the service hub for water and electrical services in the city and was directly connected to City Hall. But when Cranbrook sold its profitable electrical utility to BC Hydro in 1970 and made changes to the operation of its water system active use of the building ceased and the building languished except for occasional use by the Cranbrook Fire Department.
With little upkeep provided by the City, Mother Nature did the rest. The old, wooden roof began to leak, water got inside the unheated structure and when it froze between the bricks in winter the walls began to crumble. Many winters of unshoveled snow caused the roof to sag even though the City tried to reinforce it. By 2010, the building was empty, locked up and essentially condemned.
In 2013, a City staff recommendation came before council to demolish the building. Council complied, voting unanimously to tear down the building with one councillor absent, who opposed demolition. However, another councillor seemed to capture Council’s mood at the time calling the historic structure “a sick building.” City staff commissioned an engineering report that said it would cost more than $134,000 just to keep the building standing without further restoration work. The City Building Inspector called for the building to be “officially condemned” and removed within 30 days.
The future of the old Brick Building looked bleak. And so it seemed another Cranbrook heritage structure would be reduced to rubble as has happened so many times in the past.
Pictured: The brick work has been completed on the former Cranbrook Water and Electrical Building behind Cranbrook City Hall (Gerry Warner photo).
Then a funny thing happened.
A letter to the Daily Townsman took issue with council’s precipitous action. In the letter, local businessman Ken Haberman, a car restoration specialist, said the Brick Building shared architectural features of other buildings torn down in the past such as the original Bank of Commerce building and the ornate, old Post Office building.
“We should be concerned about not repeating the same mistakes,” he wrote. “Choosing to destroy them is just wrong.”
Haberman’s letter seemed to prick the conscience of the town. Soon other letters poured into the Townsman pleading for the building to be saved. It also stirred the moribund Cranbrook Baker Hill Neighbourhood Association into action which reorganized itself as the Cranbrook Heritage Association and made saving the Brick Building its top heritage priority and launched a public fund-raising drive. The group set up a table at the Farmers’ Market in Rotary Park to accept donations and also interested Heritage BC, the Columbia Basin Trust and several local businesses in the cause. They also contacted Nelson Engineering, which performed a peripheral structural review on the old building and concluded it was a suitable candidate for restoration if work began quickly.
Not long after this, Council changed its position on the issue, deferring demolition for a year to give the Heritage Association time to raise money and organize volunteers to stabilize and restore the historic structure. This the association did with a vengeance, hiring local bricklayer and masonry contractor Karl Schmideder to do the brickwork while Haberman organized association volunteers to find bricks and hold work bees to chip mortar off the old clay building blocks and wash them so they could be used again for restoration.
“It was neat because we were actually recycling them again because they originally came from an old mansion (the Riardon residence) on Heritage Hill,” says Haberman. In fact it was doubly “neat” because all of the exterior bricks used in the restoration were originally made by the Cranbrook Brick Company, a turn-of-the-century factory that in the early 1900s churned out thousands of bricks that were used in many of Cranbrook’s most cherished heritage buildings, including Cranbrook City Hall, and can always be recognized by the “CBC” insignia in bold relief on the centre recess of every brick.
Meanwhile Schmideder, who finished his apprenticeship as a bricklayer under his father in 1978 and laid bricks all over Cranbrook and across the country, said he took the 44-day project on for one good reason. “I’ve always had a passion for old buildings because they add so much value to a community’s history and the individual people who live there. And I like a challenge.”
The first challenge Schmideder had to deal with was finding enough bricks to replace about one-fifth of all the bricks in the 80-year-old building.
But Haberman and more than a dozen volunteers from the Heritage Association and the community at large came running to his aid leaving no bush unturned in finding vintage Cranbrook bricks for the project. Some came from people’s backyards because bricks have a habit of being recycled over and over again.
A big stash came from the third-floor attic of Cranbrook City Hall where they’d mouldered away for many years. But the biggest stash of all was gathered from the grounds of the old St. Eugene Hospital which burned to the ground in 2004. They were donated by Dick Dirkson, the owner of the property.
“We got several hundred out of there, but it took a lot of digging,” says Haberman.
Retired government worker Don Miller worked as Schmideder’s assistant on the project for seven weeks, sorting and washing bricks, mixing mortar and pouring concrete.
“If he (Schmideder) didn’t have an assistant it would have taken him much longer, probably three times as long.”
Asked why he volunteered for so long himself, Miller replied, “I do like old buildings. I think it’s a shame we have so few left and they keep tearing them down.”
Simply replacing the bricks was only part of the job. The southwest corner of the building had been knocked out of alignment because of frost heaves and had to be repaired in order to restore the structural strength of the walls and level the cement floor again. The unique, concrete quoins that interlock at each corner of the building and give it its unique “look” had to be strengthened and many of the narrow concrete slabs on the building’s “stepped” roof had to be replaced.
Volunteers are now building a two-by-six wooden “wall-within-a-wall” in the inside perimeter of the building to support the new wood beam roof that should be installed within a week.
When that happens, the building will be essentially restored to its original state, but will only be a brick shell without most services except for electricity which will be installed by the City. Still to be decided is what the building will be used for and that’s a big question because the building is owned by the City even though the Cranbrook Heritage Association raised all the money and did all the work to restore it. In doing this, the association raised almost $30,000 through volunteer donations, garage sales, signature brick sales and funding from Heritage BC ($10,000) and the Columbia Basin Trust and the R.D.E.K. ($11,479) and generous donations in kind by local businesses including Salvador Ready Mix Concrete Ltd. that contributed two yards of sand and gravel for the mortar and cement footings, Sandor Rental Equipment Ltd. that donated a cement mixer to mix concrete and Casey’s Flashing and Roofing that built the new roof and installed the flashing that went with it.
The association is also considering launching a “GoFundMe” drive on the Internet to cover the remaining costs of the building including the roof, doors and new windows. If you’d like to donate, go to the Go Fund Me link at: www.gofundme.com/LittleBrickBuildin.
Whatever happens to the building in the future, Cranbrook Heritage Association members already feel they’ve accomplished a lot by bringing the crumbling old structure back to the vintage condition it’s in now. “The only thing that was wrong with it was neglect,” says Haberman. “If the building had received some maintenance over the years, it would look as good as it does now.”
Association President Anna Majkowski says the project succeeded because everyone pitched in. “I’d like to thank all our members and others who volunteered their time as well as members of the business community who contributed in kind.”
Schmideder says he feels proud of his involvement in the project, adding the building is good for another 100 years. It also gives him a sense of accomplishment. “Most of us trades people want to leave something behind for future generations. It makes you feel you’re doing something for society and it gives me the feeling that I’ve left my (bricklayer’s) hand behind in it.”
As for the future of the restored, heritage building, it will be up to Cranbrook City Council. And one thing is for sure. No councillor will be calling it a “sick building” anymore.
Gerry Warner is with the Cranbrook Heritage Association