Bill Waiser

History and stories are lost when buildings are torn down

It didn’t take long for the Farnam Block to come down.

Granted, the building had been padlocked since 2013.

But once a last-minute attempt to buy the building from its current owners failed, not even an online petition could save it from the wrecking ball.

Much has been written over the past few weeks about the history of the Farnam Block and its place in Saskatoon history.

Music fans have also talked nostalgically about the bands that played at Lydia’s Pub over the years.

But what has been rarely mentioned is that the Turning the Tide bookstore, behind the block on 11th Avenue, was once the Merry Mansion, home of Humphrey and the Dumptrucks.

Michael “Bear” Millar, one of the band members, fondly recalls his days in the mansion in the early 1970s.

He remembers how they practised almost every day – including sometimes at night with a bonfire on the front lawn – and how Lydia’s stage served as their living room.

There was also a steady stream of artists through the mansion, including Canadian composer (and Eston’s own) Jack Lenz and American blues musician Roosevelt Sykes (The Honeydripper).

Bear has “lots of memories in that place” and how it was an integral part of the Canadian music scene.

That’s what the Farnam Block should remind us – that heritage is not something that happens someplace else.

Saskatchewan heritage not only provides us with a sense of history, a sense of place, but a sense of identity … a feeling of connectedness … who we are as a people.

It also provides some much-needed perspective or insight into the past.

Saskatchewan heritage is a story with broad implications, not only for the province, but for the country as a whole, perhaps even the world.

And we need to study, explain and celebrate that heritage.

Saskatchewan has some structural gems that are largely unknown outside the province – from the Addison sod house near Kindersley to the church at Stanley mission to the cathedral at Gravelbourg to the Convent Bed and Breakfast in Val Marie to the largest collection of collegiate gothic architecture on any university campus in Canada.

And let’s not forget about industrial sites such as the LaColle Falls dam and hydroelectric site or the Claybank brick factory.

Or agricultural sites such as the Melfort Dominion Experimental Farm. Heritage structures are not just old buildings.

They can be architecturally significant (style and/or materials); important for who lived there, what happened there or how they were used; or special because they reflect society’s values at the time. Most people identify with structures in their neighbourhoods or downtown core for any number of reasons.

Bear Miller’s memories of the Merry Mansion are just one example.

There is a certain irony about the loss of the Farnam block. It was built during Saskatoon’s first boom before the Great War, and now it’s one of the casualties of another building boom a century later.

It is also sad that Saskatoon can plan today for the expansion of the city, but seems one step behind when it comes to the protection of heritage buildings, and in turn, our stories.

Something needs to be done so that a similar situation does not arise again. And it needs to be done soon before any more buildings are lost.

As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill observed in 1943 in calling for the reconstruction of Westminster buildings partially destroyed by the blitz, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

Originally published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix
Photograph by: Richard Marjan, the StarPhoenix

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