Museum Musings: Central Avenue and 18th Street

Aerial view of viaduct Court House,old Victoria Hospital - 1952

by Fred Payton

Winter, like the pandemic, just doesn’t seem to want to let go of us.  So, I have been trying to take advantage of fine days when they come along.  On one particularly sunny, warm day with little wind, I went out to check on the location of some homes which I want to include in a new walking tour of the Central Hill area.

It is not always easy to be exact as to who lived where.  Until 1909, buildings in Prince Albert did not have a street address.  So, prior to that year, the house now known as 159-21st Street West would have appeared in the Henderson Directory as “south side” 21st Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue West.  Further complicating research is the decision by the city in the mid-1950s to re-number buildings to allow for the in-fill which was occurring on many city streets.  As a result, that same street address was, prior to 1955, 145-21st Street West. 

That several large lots, particularly residential lots, were sub-divided through the years, complicates matters further.  For example, the Russell house at 235-18th Street East became the Russell house at 236- 19th Street East when the property was divided.  The front door became their back door, and their back door became their front door.  What had been an odd number house address became an even number street address.

As I approached the corner of Central Avenue and 18th Street, I recognised a familiar face, camera in hand, obviously photographing the Queen’s Bench building.  As we exchanged greetings, he told me about a request he had received from a cousin who was putting together a photographic exhibit of court houses across Canada.  The cousin had planned to come to Saskatchewan to take his own photographs but, due to the pandemic, he had asked for assistance from his relative.

My acquaintance knows that I have a love of local history and asked me if I could provide any background information about our Queen’s Bench court building.  Never one to waste an opportunity to pass on local history, I was delighted to enlighten him.

In the infancy of our province, from 1905 to the early 1930s, Saskatchewan actually had an office of the provincial architect.  This position was held by an architect and engineer by the name of Maurice Sharon between the years 1916 and 1930.  Our Queen’s Bench court house, built in 1927, was one of ten such court buildings designed by Sharon, with other communities including Melfort, Weyburn and Estevan having similar structures.

These court houses were built in the Colonial Revival style.  The Prince Albert court house differed only slightly from those built in Yorkton and Kerrobert, being distinguished by its unique central cupola incorporating a clock.  I pointed this out to the photographer, as well as noting the dormer windows and the columned main entrance.  He ensured that all of these featured in his photographs.

We then talked about the Cenotaph which stands in the parking lot to the north of the court house.  It was also erected in 1927, originally as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the Great War although a plaque was added to commemorate our contribution to World War II.  Designed by Marguerite Judd Taylor, it is believed to be the first sculpture to personify Canada as a nation.  As a result, more pictures were taken, this time of the Coat of Arms and the maple leaf coronet. 

As we looked out across the downtown vista, mention was made of the viaduct, which my friend called a Dirty-thirties make work project.  Like many Prince Albertans, I had long thought that the viaduct had been such a project. I had been surprised when I discovered that it had actually been a Canadian National Railways project begun in 1929, and suspended when the depression hit.  It wasn’t until 1938 that construction was resumed, with the viaduct opening in 1939.

Talk of the viaduct led quite naturally to the house standing on property on the western edge of it.  Built in 1911, this was originally the home of Louis Valade, a local tailor and purveyor of fine men’s clothing.  Valade’s daughter, Topsy, was long considered one of Prince Albert’s most beautiful women.  She was runner-up in the Winter Festival Queen competition, and winner of the Miss Prince Albert competition in the mid-1920s.

I then started to talk about some of the buildings which had once stood near that intersection.  Perhaps the most significant was the territorial gaol, built in the mid-1880s.  It housed the Superior Court of the Northwest Territories when it opened in 1886 and had cell blocks to house the men sentenced to custody.  It was not until 1895 that inmates were actually housed in the gaol, so the position of warden, variously held by Hugh Montgomery (Lucy Maud’s father) and the parents of his second wife (the John McTaggarts), must have been very easy to manage.

When Saskatchewan became a province in 1905, the territorial gaol became a provincial facility.  The first hanging to occur there was in 1911.  As there was no facility in the gaol in which hangings could occur, they were held out of doors on the west side of the building.  The timing of the hangings often coincided with recess at Central School, and eventually the principal of the school requested of the warden of the gaol that a change be made with respect to the timings so that the children were not subject to viewing the sight.

The provincial gaol was eventually demolished after the “new” gaol was opened on 28th Street between Central Avenue and 1st Avenue West.  It is noteworthy that an indoor room for executions was built into the new facility.

Two other buildings of note were discussed, the first of which was the two storey, red brick building which was named the Nisbet Academy.  Incorporated by an Act of Parliament in May, 1888, the cornerstone was laid in June of that year.  In December of that year, the school was opened.  Miss Lucy Baker taught subjects such as French, and Miss Hall taught music, art, and dramatics.  Unfortunately, a fire in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 1890, destroyed the building.  Included in the loss was a piano valued at $7,500 and a quantity of artefacts belonging to the fledgling Prince Albert Historical Society.

Later, the Victoria Hospital was built on the site of the Academy.  Opened in rented property on 12th Street Westin 1899, and incorporated in 1900, the hospital eventually occupied a brick structure west of the territorial gaol in 1904.  Included on the property was an isolation ward, which was expanded in 1918 to accommodate cases suffering from the Spanish Influenza.  A further expansion, built in 1959, is currently an apartment block known as the Courtview Apartments.

Our conversation had lasted longer than I had anticipated, but we had covered a lot of ground.  My friend went on his way much more knowledgeable about this part of the city, and the role it has played in our history.  And I went off trying to determine who lived where and when in the Central Hill area.