Industrial Heritage Training with Lorne Simpson in the Medicine Hat Clay Industries District

Written by Marilyn Williams

Last June, York Conservation Studies alumnus Lorne Simpson taught a week long Industrial Heritage course offered through the University of Victoria and based in a remarkable setting, Medalta Potteries, an industrial site that is also part of the 150-acre Medicine Hat Clay Industries National Historic District. The district comprises numerous clay industry enterprises, from the remnants of the 1910 Alberta Clay Products pressed brick & tile factory to the fully operational clay supplier, 1962 Plainsman Clays Ltd. The district also includes the adaptively re-used 1912 Medalta and 1937 Medicine Hat (Hycroft) potteries and the recently closed 1885 MHB&TCo (Medicine Hat Brick & Tile) factory, now I-XL. For Lorne, the industrial site also represents a “lifetime of work” – he has applied his conservation skills with the museum, interpretive centre and model community centre for over 30 years – and one of his proudest achievements. Over the ensuing week it would also serve as a collection of real life, ideal case studies with which we would observe and interact first hand.

Alberta_Clay_Products_Plant_Medicine_Hat
Valentine Edy Co. Ltd. Alberta Clay Products Plant, Medicine Hat, Alberta. Postcards of the Past, Calgary Public Library, Calgary, Alberta. pc_532.

Our course material was drawn from Lorne’s extensive experience with western Canadian industrial sites. He began his career in Calgary as a conventional architect with Graham McCourt (now GEC Architecture) and was the project architect on Calgary’s landmark Saddledome completed in 1983. In the mid-80s, he completed the York’s MA in Conservation Studies, returning in the fall of 1986 to establish Simpson Roberts Wappel Architecture Interior Design Inc. with partners Chris Roberts and Sheila Wappel. The firm is responsible for conservation work on over 300 historic structures in southern Alberta, including Alberta Mainstreet programmes in many municipalities and, in Calgary, the restoration of Lougheed House and the rehabilitation of dozens of historic buildings fronting onto Stephen Avenue.

Most students, myself included, arrived a day early in Medicine Hat to join Malcolm Sissons, the city’s Chair of Heritage Resources, on a walking tour of historic downtown Medicine Hat. Malcolm is also the fourth generation of the family-run I-XL company mentioned above which was founded by his great grandfather, and both he and his daughter Gil were registered in the course. Not surprisingly, his tour featured numerous striking buildings of local red brick from the clay district – many that Lorne had been involved with conserving.

Our first day began at a classroom located in the Medalta museum complex. We examined the basic elements which exist in every industrial site, explored how these sites grow and develop dynamically over time and learned how to establish significance and create a historic chronology. The day ended with an evening visit to artist-in-residence Jim Marshall at his home and studio, a clever repurposing of I-XL’s former research laboratory. In additional to being an extraordinary ceramic artist, Jim is also one of the visionaries who was instrumental in obtaining national designation for the clay district, as well as establishing a 12,000 square foot international ceramics arts studio within the Medalta complex.

The following day was devoted to industrial site recording. We learned that while documenting a site is often the beginning of the conservation process, it can also be an important final step for places which do not have the potential or opportunity for preservation. The latter situation is not uncommon for industrial sites for reasons ranging from their often isolated locations, as with natural resource extraction, to site contamination, to restrictive caveats preventing the use for which they were purpose-designed. In these cases, documentation is completed for archival purposes, to record site attributes and significance and to develop reclamation strategies. The clay district offered excellent case studies: the 1912 Red Cliff Brick Plant, which closed after its operations consolidated with I-XL’s main factory; and MHB&TCo’s 1956 sewer pipe plant, which closed in 1990. Other recording and rehabilitation case studies from the Alberta agriculture and coal mining industries were used to illustrate recording techniques such as historic narratives, process flow drawings, and interviews with operations employees.

Medalta Laura selected from drop box
Wider cultural landscape of the Medicine Hat Clay District.

Wednesday was a field day! To gain experience with condition assessment and rehabilitation strategies we toured the structures in the MHB&T brick factory complex, following the manufacturing process from delivery or local extraction of the raw materials through to the product warehouse and shipping docks. Our guides, former long-term staff, offered their insight into the plant operations. Afterwards, students were assigned a structure – yes, there were assignments – to observe, inspect, record and assess the condition of the building envelope, as well as note its character defining elements. We also performed a cognitive mapping exercise, noting the factory’s contextual setting and the surrounding elements that influenced it – not just the sights, but the sounds, textures and even smells.

Thursday (another field day!) was focused on cultural landscape analysis. Again, we only needed to step outside the classroom to examine the wider context and setting of the clay district. Following the former railway spur siding which runs through the district and the impressive sherd piles accumulated alongside, we passed by active and inactive industrial buildings in the foreground, working class houses in the near distance and the distinctive clay escarpment in the background. This was an excellent way to both imagine the district’s historic past as well as re-imagine its future. Near our destination we paused to observe a century old gas well, an important remnant of the Alberta Clay Products plant destroyed by fire. We then toured and explored our final goal, the Medicine Hat (Hycroft) potteries plant, remarkable for its integrity including original equipment and product. It was to be the case study for our final group assignment.

Medalta Potteries, Medicine Hat
Medalta Potteries, intact behave kilns and excavated kiln foundations.

Earlier in the week we had been given a tour of the Medalta former industrial complex, now a museum, international artist studios and exhibit space, an academic research site for industrial archaeology, classrooms offering school age to post secondary educational programs, community and event space – even a night market. It was motivating to see first hand the significant potential that can be realized in these sites. Of course, it all begins with a conservation master plan, the subject of our Friday studies. In addition to regeneration, case studies covered shorter term considerations such as flood damage and mitigation as well as structural remediation and stabilization – all while preserving the heritage value and the essence of the place, and remembering to keep it gritty in interpretive areas. The day ended with resident industrial archaeologist Talva Jacobson (pictured above) literally walking us through her research.

Saturday morning we presented our group assignments, an industrial cultural landscape context analysis for the clay district as well as our proposed schemes for the re-use of the Hycroft plant. It was the culmination of the course, and reinforced the pivotal economic and cultural role that industrial sites have played and – if successfully adapted – will continue to play in communities. The Medicine Hat Clay District was no exception, as reflected in its contributions to the city’s historic and contemporary brick structures, working class neighbourhoods, events and arts scene, and tourism. For us, it had also been an excellent classroom and ‘teacher’ (along with Lorne of course!) and recalled my favourite aspect of the York Conservation Studies programme: its well balanced approach between theory and real life application.

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