The War Years: 1914-1945

During the inter-war years, Edmonton experienced periods of decline that were followed by periods of new growth. The completion of new buildings, and new architectural styles, followed these cycles with many more buildings being constructed during the late 1920s and 1930s. By the end of the Second World War, another boom would greatly change the skyline and alter the map of Edmonton. If the war years represented slow, conservative growth, the post-war Modern era would usher in rapid expansion and change.

Effects on Architecture

Even with the effects of the global credit crunch, residential construction continued fairly steadily into the 1930s, though perhaps not as much as before the First World War. Although the population had shrunk, many people were still without homes, so that house building in Edmonton continued apace. Due to wartime shortages existing houses were converted into apartments during the 1940s. For new residential construction, the Foursquare style lessened in popularity as people began to favour the smaller, more efficient Arts and Crafts style bungalow. This style often used Clinker bricks, which rarely were seen outside of Edmonton.

There was still some public construction occurring during this period. The federal government planned and paid for immigration halls to provide free short-term accommodation for agricultural settlers. Built near main railway stations to accommodate the influx of new immigrants, Edmonton’s Immigration Hall was built solidly of brick and reinforced concrete, and began operation in 1931.  Although Edmonton was slow to adapt to influences from abroad, architectural styles such as Art Deco, Byzantine and International did begin to creep in near the end of this period.

Historical Context

The start of 1914 brought a sudden credit freeze and serious unemployment that halted almost all commercial construction. In August, the major European powers including Britain, found themselves at war. As it was still legally a British colony, Canada was also at war. Many Canadians responded enthusiastically to the call to arms, and Edmontonians were no exception. Almost 18,000 people, an amazing 24per cent of the population, left the city between 1914 and 1916 as thousands joined the fight or searched for greener pastures elsewhere. Edmonton’s population continued to fluctuate during the next few decades, and by the 1940s much of the city, including many residential areas, had changed considerably.

On June 28, 1915, another major event occurred, which would forever change Edmonton. The North Saskatchewan River rose twelve meters above its normal level, turning streets into rivers and submerging neighborhoods under nearly a meter of water. Almost 800 families lost their homes and many businesses were destroyed. The water was so high and moving so fast that a Canadian National Railways coal train was parked on the Low Level Bridge to keep it from being carried away. When the waters receded there was little incentive and hardly any available credit to rebuild. Almost a generation later, all the land in the river valley reverted to the city for non-payment of taxes. The flooded lands eventually become an important part of modern Edmonton, namely, the river valley park system. 

Edmonton moved quietly into the 1920s, with many soldiers and their families returning home, and a decade of slow, restrained growth followed. Few noteworthy buildings were constructed in this period. Throughout the 1930s, the population of Edmonton grew slowly reaching 90,000 by 1939. The city did not fare as badly as many places during the Great Depression but the global economic upheaval meant that many families lived on meager budgets.  

An upturn in the economy came in the early 1940s with the effects of the Second World War. Wartime activities, including flight training and the construction of the Alaska Highway and the Canol pipeline, brought thousands of Allied servicemen and civilian contractors into Edmonton. The best estimate is that for much of the war, Americans made up about ten per cent of the population of Edmonton. Housing was in desperately short supply, even after the crown corporation, Wartime Housing Incorporated, began to build several hundred infill houses.