The new owner of Irricana Hotel is well on his way to restoring the crumbling building to its early 20th-century glory, with the help of a new site manager who has some creative ideas to bring the hotel back to life.
The hotel was purchased by Calgary resident and soon-to-be-retired Canadian Pacific (CP) Railway employee Kerry Tucker earlier this year, with the hope of revitalizing the historical rest stop and tavern along Highway 9. The now-dilapidated structure was formerly a bustling venue for drinks, dancing, and discourse.
Until recently, Tucker had been waiting for an engineering report to determine the fate of the structure, whether the site can be restored to its former glory with a historical designation, or whether it would need to be demolished.
The self-proclaimed history buff said levelling the old hotel would be a loss to the community, as it is a hidden gem in the province together with allegedly housing a few ghostly apparitions from days gone by.
“Anybody can have a new building. I can build a new building, but it won’t have the mystique of an old building,” Tucker said in a previous interview. “To me, it’s an old building that would be part of the Badlands’ story and if I can keep that going, I’d like to keep it because there’s not a lot of them left.”
Tucker said renovating the building – built approximately 112 years ago on Irricana’s main downtown strip – will be a rewarding retirement project, adding he would like to restore a serviceable bar in the front and a courtyard on the side in a multi-phase approach. The Calgarian owns his own construction company and said he is no stranger to getting his hands dirty or traversing building sites.
He said the first step in the restoration of the old hotel will be to stabilize the building, which he recently completed with the help of a new site manager. The process includes replacing beams and walls, bolstering floors, and implementing a temporary roof before beginning the process of gutting the premises.
Alex Clark, 63 years old, is the new site manager for the Irricana Hotel renovation project. He said he grew up in a small Alberta farming community, and though he is now retired, owned and operated his own restoration and construction company for many years.
“I made the front-page news in Calgary for finding a hundred-year-old artifact in a garage [during one of my renos]. I wanted to recycle it and not bulldoze it over,” he recollected. “My specialty is renovations, doing the least amount of damage possible.
“When I finish the renovations, you can never tell where the project will start or finish, that’s how good I am at this [kind of] project.”
According to the site manager, he happened upon a news article about the Irricana Hotel renovation project and in the middle of September, introduced himself to Tucker and offered his services to him.
At the time, Tucker was still waiting on the engineering report to determine the fate of the building, but when Clark walked through the site, he predicted much of what the report would later suggest.
“I showed them all the problems that are facing them, and so that connected with Tucker, [who realized] that I know what I’m talking about,” Clark said. “I told him that it’s not about money. It’s for saving the history, and I’m very excited about saving history.”
The two have been working together on the project since Sept. 15, and are currently gutting the old hotel (which is currently condemned), with a goal of recycling the material taken out of the premises, including piles of brick, concrete, aluminum, tin, and steel.
According to Clark, the engineer has requested the two go to great lengths to bring the building back to code, including putting 12 tons of gravel in the basement to remove moisture from the ground caused by an ongoing leak in the building’s roof.
“Because the building sat vacant for 20 years, the water ran through the building to the first three floors and as it goes to the basement, all the water turned into sand,” he said. “The sand washed away all the footings.”
Clark said he and Tucker had to dig out all the building’s footings by hand and put in three-and-a-half meters of concrete under each body to ensure the building had a proper base.
“The engineer is the most important person on our team right now. The next step is the architect, who’s the next most important person,” Clark said.
He added in order to bring the architect on board, they must guarantee the engineer is 100 per cent happy with the team’s progress.
“We started crying when we saw how much damage there was and how much work had to be done,” Clark said. “But together we said to ourselves, we have the experience, and we know we can save it.”
He said over the last few months, there has been an overwhelmingly positive response from the community of Irricana residents coming by to congratulate them on their efforts to save the old hotel.
He added with the boost in morale, the duo were able to persevere in removing all the damage from the first floor.
As they have been completing their restoration project, they are finding artifacts, including a wall originally painted by western artist Guy M. Welch. The restoration team has applied for a government grant to preserve the historical paintings.
“What I’m trying to do there is I want to be able to showcase that wall to the public on an annual basis as they walk through,” Clark said. “So we’re going to go to every available length to get a professional to save that wall for us.”
Clark added he and Tucker are on the same page regarding their design ambitions and each hope to restore the hotel to its original 1905 aesthetic, including the construction and restoration of the hotel’s third floor.
During the restoration project, they also uncovered antique horseshoe brands.
“That’s pretty neat that all these horseshoe brands are here, so what I did is I dismantled them, and I saved them,” he said. “I have a complete wall of the antique stuff that we have saved.”
Clark is hoping to get the community involved with his latest find and has since phoned Beiseker Community School to determine if a social studies class would be interested in having groups of students delve into the history of each of the brands.
“When it’s done, we’re going to put it on a wall, and it’s going to have the kid’s story of what they found about the farmer and some of those farmers are still alive,” he stated, adding government grants are available to this end.
“I’m hoping that when we get the wall presented with this story, a couple of the old-timers will have their picture taken with the kids reviewing the wall of history.”
The duo’s goal is to open the hotel in stages, with the first floor open to the public by July 1 of next year in time for a Canada Day celebration featuring prime rib buns courtesy of Clark and a newly purchased smoker.
“I thought to myself, as a special events coordinator, I will serve the whole town roast beef on a bun, so I bought a smoker from a local business here and we have a patio that’s already ready to go,” he said of the upcoming celebration.
“We’ll serve smoked prime rib beef on homemade buns made right from the bakery here across the street, so it’s all local businesses.”
Furthermore, the duo recently met with the Town of Irricana to provide an update on the restoration project and to ensure the municipality's support.
“What we’re doing here is we’re bringing back the oldest building in their town for a community,” he said. “So, this is a big project for the community to accept.”
According to Clark, Town of Irricana will be meeting with the renovation team in January to discuss the project and various opportunities for community involvement in the completed Irricana Hotel, at the Irricana Community Centre.
Clark noted the team is hoping to have a “wall of honour” in the main entrance to showcase all of the companies and businesses who have lent their support to the renovation project. There will also be room for 12 small boutiques on the second floor of the old hotel once the renovation project is complete.
“It’s so easy for people to bulldoze and fill our land sites up, that doesn’t save anything,” Clark said. “Saving a hotel like this, the oldest building in their community is huge for the community.”