When Peggy Sarjeant and her husband moved to Saskatoon in 1972, they were intrigued by a city brimming with heritage. They immediately wanted to figure out “what made it tick.”
What they didn’t know is that their interest in the city’s history would lead to the formation of a group that is now celebrating 38 years of existence.
“At first it was the CP rail station, which has since been restored by Ken Achs,” said Sarjeant. “At the time there were rumours about what would happen to that station because the passenger railway had moved out of town. It’s one of the nicest buildings in Saskatoon. That’s really what started us looking at the history and heritage of this city. I love that station, but what we were noticing was that more and more buildings were starting to come down.”
The final straw was when the Standard Trust Building (at the corner of 22nd Street and Third Avenue) was torn down. It was demolished to make room for the present-day Sturdy Stone building.
“This was the catalyst for the formation of the Saskatoon Heritage Society,” said Sarjeant. “People often think of the Capitol Theatre as the catalyst, but we were founded before that. Nowadays one might have been able to incorporate that beautiful old architecture into that site, but at the time it was an either or thing.”
Thus the Saskatoon Heritage Society was born. Sarjeant and her husband, Bill, were founding members along with a handful of others concerned about the city’s direction and mentality. Marches, protests and public forums were all part of the society’s approach to educating the public as to the importance of heritage sites.
“What my husband and I saw was that people were not recognizing the value of the identity of their city,” said Sarjeant. “They did not recognize that Saskatoon was special. Saskatoon was unique, and remains unique. What makes it different from other places is its architectural heritage and the stories it has to tell.”
Member Linda Epstein lives and breathes heritage. Her character home emanates history and is reminiscent of the original houses just off Broadway Avenue in the Nutana district. She joined the heritage group four years ago. The society is a perfect fit for her passion to preserving the stories of Saskatoon.
“Some of the projects we get involved in are to celebrate the heritage we have, and some of them are to try to make sure that things that are important in Saskatoon are not pulled down —like the Standard Trust Building,” said Epstein. “The biggest example I can think of since I joined is the Traffic Bridge. The city has made decisions we don’t agree with about that bridge. Living in the area I feel strongly about it. And as part of Saskatoon I think it’s vital.”
Both Sarjeant and Epstein note that with a society such as theirs disappointment is unavoidable. Examples such as the Standard Trust Building, the Traffic Bridge, the Gathercole Building and the original Capitol Theatre were all architectural cornerstones of Saskatoon. But they are both optimistic about the future.
“We’re much more involved in planning issues now and the broader picture. Since we first came attitudes have definitely changed. The city is revamping and bringing in a new infill policy, and a new city-centre plan recognizes four streets downtown of specific heritage interest,” said Sarjeant. “So there’s that interest in preserving the identity of the city.”
The policy protects properties and ensures historic characteristics of pre-war and post-war neighbourhoods are maintained. Both Sarjeant and Epstein consider this a win for the society.
“We have big hopes from the city with the new policy. We see a changing culture at City Hall,” said Epstein. “I think there’s a changing attitude that heritage preservation is an important part of city planning. And certainly I’m hoping with the city-centre plan that the interests in certain areas in the downtown core translate into specific guidelines for those areas.”
One of the challenges the society faces is never truly knowing the impact it has. Membership is purely volunteer. It can involve attending city hall meetings, society meetings, marching to save buildings, walking tours (in the past) and planning for the future in conjunction with other groups interested in preservation in Saskatoon.
“What we’re doing is educating the public, attempting to change attitudes. You never know what impact you have because you’re trying to change a culture,” said Sarjeant. “You’re trying to have an impact on a culture. And culture changes over time. What’s important about our society is it brings a public voice to the importance of heritage preservation.”
Education is now a key focus of the society.
“What’s happening in areas like Riversdale and with business owners on Broadway Avenue is exciting,” said Epstein. “If we can raise our voices, put out the information, make ourselves heard and preserve our history, then we feel good about that. If we can educate those to the important of heritage and to what Saskatoon, we are doing our job.
“It’s no one group or person that really saves a building or saves a landscape or streetscape. It’s all of those people who care about what this city is all about.”
The society is always looking for members. Visit www.saskatoonheritage.ca or email email@example.com for more information.