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End of an era for historic Wheeler House in Banff

The 90-year-old Wheeler House will be demolished this month.

The 90-year-old Wheeler House will be demolished this month.

Parks Canada has signed off on the environmental assessment for the demolition of Wheeler House – also known as Claremount – and, because it lies within an important wildlife corridor, the federal agency has ruled it must go.

Arthur O. Wheeler, a surveyor, mountaineer and one of the principal founders of the Alpine Club of Canada, built the now dilapidated house in 1920.

Kevin Van Tighem, Banff National Park superintendent, said Wednesday (Jan. 5) the contractor hired to undertake demolition of the house was available and is currently prepping the site and the short access road from Sulphur Mountain Road.

Van Tighem said he expects demolition to take two to three weeks.

“All of the surface disturbances will be reclaimed at the end of the project, so the idea is that it is returned to a natural site,” he said, adding seeding would occur in spring.

Banff resident Jon Whelan, who has passionately fought to save Wheeler House, said he is not surprised by Parks Canada’s decision, but extremely disappointed nonetheless.

“Parks Canada should be extremely ashamed of themselves for initiating a process that results in the destruction of a significantly important historic building,” said Whelan.

“You cannot convince me that one building has any affect whatsoever on movement of wildlife, yet they were willing to allow some 100 buildings in the Middle Springs area.”

Wheeler House was designated a Recognized Federal Heritage Building in 1994. Wheeler ran a horse-packing and guiding business from the house and, as president of the Alpine Club of Canada, welcomed many important visitors to his home.

Demolishing or removing the 90-year-old house from its location in the Middle Springs wildlife corridor was one of the 1995 conditions of approval for the Middle Springs II housing development.

An independent assessment commissioned by Parks Canada determined demolishing Wheeler House would create no measurable negative environmental effects in the important Middle Springs Wildlife Corridor.

The Claremount-Wheeler House environmental screening report, prepared by Strom Environmental Consulting Ltd., stated demolition would, on the other hand, “constitute a permanent loss of a heritage resource from the park”.

Van Tighem said the only reason Parks did not move sooner with demolition is to give initiatives to save the house an opportunity to find a solution.

“I guess we really wanted to see whether that was a possibility before we took this final step of dealing with it by demolition. At the end of the day, nobody came up with anything viable,” he said.

Restoring the house on-site was not an option given its location in the ecologically sensitive and important wildlife corridor, which also protects habitat for the endangered Banff Springs snail.

“The truth is, a lot of the key people wanted to restore it on site and that has never been an option and so I think that didn’t help people’s fundraising efforts either. What are we raising funds for?

“Therein lies the conundrum. It gained its historic significance to a small degree (for its architecture), but mostly from its association with A.O. Wheeler... The option of restoring it on-site doesn’t exist; relocating removes a lot of its historic value.

“This is one of those frustrating and circular heritage protection discussions. At the end of the day, in a situation like this, you do need to make a decision. It has to be a principled decision and I believe that is what has been made,” he said.

Whelan said Parks Canada has indicated they could not find an appropriate place to relocate it, which he describes as “pure and utter bullshit”.

“The sad reality is once the building is in the landfill, it’s forever gone,” he said.

“Parks has deliberately chosen to allow the building to deteriorate to such an extent where (Parks) feels validated in ordering its demolition.

“It’s a real loss for Canadian history, not just for the Town of Banff and Banff National Park, but it’s a loss for future students of Canadian history.”

Also fighting the pending demolition is University of Alberta professor PearlAnn Reichwein, who wants the federal environment minister to step in and save the historic Wheeler House.

(On Jan. 4, Prime Minister Stephen named former broadcaster and Ontario MP Peter Kent as the country’s new environment minister, replacing Calgary MP Jim Prentice who retired from politics last fall.)

Arthur Oliver Wheeler, who was born in Ireland in 1860, moved to Canada with his family in 1876 at the age of 16. He died in 1945.

He became a land surveyor and surveyed large areas of Western Canada, including photo-topographical surveys of the Selkirk Mountains and the British Columbia-Alberta boundary along the continental divide through the Canadian Rockies.

In 1906, he and journalist Elizabeth Parker were the principal founders of the Alpine Club of Canada. He was its first president, from 1906-1910, and editor of the Canadian Alpine Journal from 1907 to 1930.

Even though the outcome is not a happy one, Van Tighem said the debate focused on the house has been encouraging and it said much about the passion for heritage buildings.

Rocky Mountain Outlook

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