Home is where the vault is!
This is it…home sweet home... an old bank building in Empress, Alberta.
Empress was a bustling community in 1919 when the Bank of Commerce constructed this imposing brick structure amidst the prairie style clapboard storefronts that ran up and down the centre of town. The sturdy structure spoke well of the financial future that was predicted for a community that was expected to be the CPR railroad "hub" between Regina and Calgary.
But two wars and breakthroughs in transportation technology changed the world. The bank only prospered as an institution up to 1954 when the CPR closed the Empress roundhouse. Within a few weeks workers and their families began moving to more presoperous parts of the province.
At that moment, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, as it was by then called, got cold feet and closed it's doors.
But one door closes and another opens ...
The CIBC sold the empty building to a local family, the Nickles, who used it as a boarding house.
They removed the original bank counter, cut the ground floor into five rooms for their own use and rented the five upstairs rooms to the section crews still working for the railroad. There were upwards of ten boarders that were fed and housed by Mrs Nickle at a time when the village still didn't have running water!
Although there was no indoor toilet, there was a bath room...that is, a room with a bath in it...but water had to be pumped by hand from the basement cistern, heated and poured into the clawfoot tub.
The dirty water must have drained into Saskatchewan because there was no sewers in Empress until 1962.
When Mrs. Nickle could no longer continue the hardwork and keep on top of the maintenance of the building she handed it over to her daughter Marie.
Marie was young and definately didn't want to run a boarding house for a living, but she had enough gumption to head up to Oyen and suggest to the Toronto Dominion Bank that they might want to open a branch in Empress. The TD knew how many farmers and ranchers had been driving to Oyen to make deposits and decided to give it a try. They bought the building, put on a new roof, updated the wiring, put in plumbing and generally returned the building to bank status.
The resurrection was a great success. Up until 1997 the Empress branch had the highest earnings to deposit ratio of any Toronto Dominion bank in the country, incuding Toronto. Now that's Empressive!
But that was the year that an artist knocked on the door and asked the manager if he could buy the building. She said no, but banking technology had changed profoundly over the years and when the request went up the chain of command the upper management decided to make the sale while they had a hot customer.
The bank closed ...again.
The next time the door opened on to a jeweller's studio...
The artist who knocked on the bank manager's door was a jeweller. He worked in precious stones and metals so found that owning a building with a built-in vault was convenient and cut down on his insurance rates.
Under his direction the jeweller, Peter Zieman, converted the ground floor to a studio and gallery. He moved his tools and equipment behind the old bank counter and displayed the work of other prairie craftsmen in what was once the bank manager's office
The second floor accommodation was renovated at the same time. Peter did a particularly awesome job of refinishing the woodwork and floors in the upstairs apartment. Unfortunately the softwood floors were so warped that refinishing by sanding wasn't feasible. Instead Peter painted the woodwork and floor a deep mahogany brown then with one of those teeny little woodgraining tools added the graining himself.
His knees gave out after the third coat of urethane.
And now there's an gallery of native art and Canadian craft...
The latest reincarnation, That's Empressive! started out as a retirement project for owner/artist Pat Donaldson and her husband Ross.
The idea was that Pat would sell orginal Canadian art....hers, and a bunch of stuff she buys from her artsy fartsy friends. She thought that in a good month in the summers she might bring in a couple of hundred dollars to supplement her pension.
In that first year of business it was a scramblejust to renovate and be ready for the annual Artisan Open House which is held the first Saturday and Sunday in June every year. Pat naively thought that a couple of dozen people might show up over the weekend because who on earth would know how to find their way to Empress. (See map.)
But by noon two chartered buses from Medicine Hat had shown up and two hours later car number 200 pulled into the parking lot! Since that day business has got even more hectic. The product line has expanded to include very unique giftware, a restaurant that offers scrumptious home cooked meals (although the kicker is that you have to eat whatever Mom cooked that day!), a Sunday brunch worth driving to, and a gas station!
Pat says, "This is NOT retirement!"
A gas station...and a now a "corner" store...
In 2006 our grocery store/gas station closed and the village was without gas or diesel fuel for several months although you cou. Finally Pat broke down and installed above ground fuel tanks.
Her problem is that now she's open 7 days a week from 6 am until 9 pm!
Unfortunately a few months later the new convenience store also closed its doors. You couldn't buy a litre of milk or a load of bread in Empress so the corner shelving units that once offered second hand books for sale in That's Empressive were swept clean and filled with groceries.
Nowadays besides milk, bread and other basics, the "corner store" offers everything from soup to nuts and baking supplies to shaving cream. Pat probably has at least one of whatever you've run out of.
You're welcome to visit...
So, although ‘the bank’ is no longer a chartered money laundering institution you can see we're nevertheless set up to accept your hard earned cash ….whether it be part of a legitimate transaction (art in exchange for dollars, for example) or you just feel sorry for us and want to make a contribution to our financial well being. :)
Come for visit. The gallery is great, the food is awesome and we'll be really happy to make your aquaintance. We'll point you towards the other galleries and tell you what else there is to see when you're in the neighbourhood.
What's on our shelves this month