LACOMBE — This city’s charming historic downtown quite literally rose from the ashes.
After a devastating fire in 1906 reduced much of the community’s heart to smoking ruins the council of the day took action.
It was decreed that all remaining wooden structures must be faced with brick and new buildings had to be built entirely of brick.
More than a century on, the legacy of that decision is a mother lode of Edwardian architecture and the community’s bragging rights to being one of Alberta’s prettiest.
Lacombe’s unusually well preserved downtown is a source of local pride, and has not gone unnoticed by outsiders.
In November, the Canadian Institute of Planners included Lacombe among its list of five Great Places, chosen from nearly 70 nominees from across the country.
Judge Gary Noble noted that in Lacombe “the heritage Edwardian buildings are seen as a valuable community resource not only to be appreciated but to be used.”
He pointed out the downtown’s vitality has been supported by city programs that have made it the centre of community activities year round.
City of Lacombe planner Jennifer Kirchner was the one who got the ball rolling on the successful nomination after getting a reminder of the contest from the planning association.
“I thought, ‘You know what, this year I’ll nominate something.’ Main Street just popped out as the perfect nomination.”
Kirchner couldn’t be more pleased that her city did so well.
Marie Péron, executive director of the Lacombe and District Historical Society, is also thrilled, particularly since the other hat she wears is heading up Lacombe Regional Tourism.
Being chosen as one of Canada’s Great Places can only help boost the city’s profile.
“It’s a true boon to Lacombe,” says Péron, who works out of Lacombe’s distinctive 1904 Flat Iron Building, one of only two in the province and the oldest by nine years to the other in Edmonton.
“It’s wonderful news for Lacombe Regional Tourism. Hopefully, it will shine a light on our community.”
The honour will be front and centre of an updated tourism marketing strategy that will be rolled out next year with new logos, brochures and website.
Historic buildings offer entry points into the past and attract what the tourism industry calls “cultural explorers,” who are the kinds of visitors who seek authentic experiences and love to get to know a new place.
“Heritage is a key component of the kind of tourism we can offer,” says Péron.
A historical walking tour guide available at the museum lists two dozen historic buildings, packed into less than two square blocks.
It is estimated that at least 3,000 to 4,000 tourists visit local historical sites yearly based on counts at the Flatiron Museum and Interpretive Centre, Michener House and Museum and Blacksmith Shop Museum. Likely many other visitors come and go uncounted.
Kirchner says the city has long recognized its unique heritage collection. In December, the city capped off a four-year quest to designate its first historically significant building. St. Andrew’s United Church, built in 1908, made the grade and others are to follow.
Eight other buildings in town have been designated as historically significant by the province.
So how is it that Lacombe has managed to hold on to its history?
The simple answer was the brick edict of 1906, the wisdom of which was reinforced by a second bad fire in 1913.
“That really set the course for what our community looks like today,” says Péron.
But other factors worked in the community’s favour as well.
Lacombe also benefitted from its early prosperity.
When the town was booming in the early 1900s, Red Deer was seen as the poorer cousin. With the money flowing in Lacombe, those who were building, built big and built well.
A testament to that wealth can be seen in the rows of historic homes that lines the main road into town.
In later years, Lacombe’s steady but unspectacular growth insulated it from the kind of tear-it-down mentality that followed economic booms in so many Alberta communities.
Both Péron and Kirchner also believe there has long been a recognition among Lacombe residents of the city’s unique historical heritage. Many of the old homes, which in a lot of communities would have been left to decay to the point where they are unsalvageable, have been meticulously maintained.
Historical building owners downtown also saw little value in knocking down historical gems for the sake of new.
A case in point is the local Home Hardware store. Owned for the last 27 years by the Nowochin family, the main store features 10-metre ceilings covered in decorative pressed tin and original lighting. A mezzanine wraps around three sides of the space that is little changed from a century ago.
Tyler Nowochin is the third generation of his family to operate the hardware store.
“It’s got it’s ‘Wow’ factor, I’ll put it that way,” he says.
However, owning a building that is more than a century old has its challenges, he says. “It’s expensive to repair,” he says.
It took months to find parts for the heating system, and that is a newer system not original to the building.
The quality of construction can’t be denied though. The building was inspected recently and passed with flying colours thanks to the kinds of large, solid timbers that have disappeared from modern construction.
“The guy who came in could not believe how good a shape it was in.”
Nowochin can’t resist showing off the old boiler for the steam-heated building. The six-metre long iron monstrosity lurks in the basement. Silent for decades, it is an impressive piece of Victorian ingenuity.
Other fascinating glimpses of century-old industry can be found on the second floor of the former M & J Hardware store at 4910 50th Ave.
The Gallery on Main, a 2,300-square-foot art gallery featuring original works from a large number of Alberta artists, is located on the second floor.
In the print room, a 750-square-foot space at the back of the building a hand-operated freight elevator can be found, a fascinating reminder of the building’s mercantile past.
A steep set of stairs leads browsers to the gallery prompting the slogan: “Our stairs are good for your heart, our art is good for your soul.”
For more information on Lacombe go to www.lacombe tourism.com