The abandoned Travellers Building was a disaster in waiting

Travellers Building burning

Photo by Stephen Whitworth

City | by Paul Dechene

The call came in at 10 p.m. on March 7 saying there was a fire at the Travellers Building on Broad Street. It only took fire crews four minutes to respond but by the time they arrived, fire and smoke were already visible from the roof of the building.

“We set up around that building and attacked it from the exterior with a focus of containing that fire and protecting the other exposed occupancies and buildings around,” says Lane Jackson, Regina’s acting fire chief. “We did have some heavy fire conditions and some extreme weather conditions, so the firefighters were taxed to the maximum. And they performed very well for us and they did a great job.

“Given that, it was a stubborn, long fire and we were there until the morning to finally get it out.”

It couldn’t have happened on a worse night this March, as the chilly -17°C conditions were made worse by high, gusting winds.

“[The weather] greatly increases the hazards and the risks, and the difficulty to the job,” says Jackson. “So [firefighters] are up on ladders, they’re spraying water. Throw in heavy wind and high windchill and frigid temperatures, it becomes very hazardous.”

Fire crews were able to save neighbouring buildings from damage, but the Travellers Building was completely gutted. With no supporting structure left, the surviving free-standing brick walls had to be knocked down for the public’s safety.

It was a pathetic, bulldozer denouement to a building many hoped would have a productive future.

For years, urban dreamers imagined a revitalized Broad Street with a restored Travellers Building as the centre of activity. Ideas for a trendy commercial space were floated during the crafting of the Downtown Neighbourhood Plan.

More recently, the Open Design Collaborative proposed turning the site into a permanent, four-season home for Regina’s Farmers’ Market.

Disappointing though the Travellers’ demise may be, it’s remarkable that it hadn’t come crashing down a long time ago. The building had been derelict for nearly two decades. Witnesses note upper floor windows had been left open and media reports suggest the interior had become a popular nesting site among Regina’s pigeon residents. This led to a catastrophic guano problem that would’ve made restoring the building prohibitively expensive.

And usually, restoration is the goal for a heritage property — which the Travellers Building certainly was.

Dance Floors & Salesmen

The Travellers Building was constructed in 1929 by the Broder Development Company which was owned by George Broder, a local businessman who was also behind the development of Broder’s Annex. The architectural firm who designed it was Storey & Van Egmond, the most prolific Saskatchewan architects in the first half of the 20th century. They put together a plan for a mixed commercial building — the ground floor was originally a car dealership and repair shop, while the second floor contained many small offices that were perfect for travelling salesmen, who could use them to display their wares and phone clients.

The second floor was also home to the Arcadia Ballroom, which boasted a horsehair, “floating” dance floor like they have at Manitou Beach’s famous Danceland.

Due to this history of the building and its many unique features, council designated it a heritage property in 2001 — though the designation only applied to the Travellers’ exterior. This was likely done so that whoever owned the building would have access to the various funding programs available for heritage properties, and as only the exterior was protected, that would allow for the greatest flexibility as the building could be gutted and completely re-imagined.

Currently, the city’s recently beefed up Heritage Building Rehabilitation Program could have either covered 50 per cent of the restoration work cost or exempted the building from 10 years worth of property taxes payable (whichever is the lesser).

Unfortunately, the current owner, 240 Argyle Street Properties who purchased the building in 2006, never took advantage of those incentives. Nor did any of the building’s previous owners — including the City of Regina, which briefly owned the building from the summer of 2004 and into 2005.

It makes you wonder why the city sold a designated heritage property in the downtown neighbourhood to a company who evidently had no plans to take care of it.

And, once divested of the building, the City also never opted to flex any of the muscles granted to them through the provincial Heritage Property Act. Under it, municipalities can demand that the owner of a derelict or deteriorating heritage property undertake whatever repairs are necessary to maintain it. And if the owner fails to comply, the city can do the repairs itself then declare it holds an interest in the property up to the value of those repairs.

However, according to Fred Searle, Regina’s manager of current planning, the city prefers to approach heritage maintenance using a carrot rather than a stick.

“The approach we’ve taken is to try to understand what the intentions of the property owner are, to make them aware of that [heritage incentives] package and to try to work in terms of what are some of the development options that might be considered for the property,” says Searle.

Searle doesn’t recall the city ever resorting to more drastic measures to protect a heritage property.

Searle notes that the city has had ongoing contact with 240 Argyle Street Properties. And, while he couldn’t say what their intentions were for the Travellers building, he did confirm that the city had had contact with the owners “within the last month.”

Searle also noted that the city had inspected the building and it was the city’s position that “physically the building did not pose any physical danger to the public and was not in an imminent danger of collapse.”

And yet, it burned to the ground.

It Could Have Been Much Worse

According to acting fire chief Jackson, we’ll have to wait until his department completes an investigation into the fire before we find out how it started.

In the end, I guess it’s a good thing that we can look back on the Travellers Building and all we’re lamenting is the passing of another piece of our architectural heritage. Things could have been much more tragic that night. A homeless person, needing shelter from the wind, could have found a way in and been trapped. Or, a firefighter could have been injured or killed while combating the blaze.

If either had been the case, we’d be talking far more angrily right now about how this fire could have been avoided.

We got off easy this time. But the Travellers isn’t the city’s only derelict building. Downtown in the Victoria Park Heritage Conservation District, the Harvard-owned Gordon Block and Burns Hanley buildings are boarded up and decaying. And throughout North Central and the Heritage neighbourhood there are many long-empty houses.

Next time a quaint old building goes up in flames, we may not get so lucky. ❧

Travellers’ Stories

It was 1984, and former councillor Fred Clipsham and his friend Gene Himbault needed somewhere cheap to open their Employment Coop. They found a suitable home on the second floor of the Travellers Building.

This was the ’80s and tastes in decor were different.

“We went in and there was shag carpeting up the walls,” recalls Clipsham. “And there were two phones. One had the name taped on it ‘Brandi’ — with an ‘i.’ And the other had ‘Randi’ on it — with an ‘i.’ Obviously it was the headquarters for some kind of call girl operation.”

Clipsham also remembers stories about a ghost that inhabited the Travellers Building.

Whose ghost was it?

“I don’t know. Someone got pushed down the stairs at one of the dances,” he says.

Great. Not only are the Travellers’ pigeons homeless. There’s also an angry ghost out looking for somewhere to haunt. /Paul Dechene