History of the old Merchants Bank building

Michael Dawe

Michael Dawe

Over the years, Red Deer has lost a number of beautiful old landmarks, particularly in the downtown core. Some buildings had to be removed because of fires or irreversible deterioration. Others made way for “progress” and have been replaced by new commercial and office complexes.

One of those lost landmarks is the old Merchants Bank/Bank of Montreal Building that stood for nearly seven decades at 4903 Gaetz Ave., on the east side of Red Deer’s main north-south thoroughfare.

The Merchants Bank of Canada was one of the oldest chartered banks in Canada, being initially established in 1864. It was also the first chartered bank in Red Deer, arriving in the community in the spring of 1902.

Originally, the Merchants Bank was located in the old Stevenson-Hall Block, which had also served as the first Village of Red Deer office in the 1890s. This small frame structure is the oldest building still standing in Red Deer and is located in Heritage Square, east of the Recreation Centre.

Shortly thereafter, the Merchants Bank moved into the beautiful new sandstone Greene Block, which is now the Artistry In Gold building on the southwest corner of Ross St. and Gaetz Ave. The original bank vault is still in the basement of the building.

Before long, the Merchants Bank moved yet again to the large brick business block that had been built on the southeast corner of Gaetz Ave. and Mann (49) St. by Edward Michener, the father of Governor General Roland Michener.

Disaster struck on Sept. 17 1904 when the Michener Block was destroyed in a massive fire. Ironically, just before the fire, Red Deer’s ratepayers had turned down the purchase of a steamer fire engine by a vote of 35 to 34. Within five days, however, the Town quickly organized a formal fire brigade and began to invest in proper firefighting equipment.

Once the Michener Block was rebuilt, the Merchants Bank moved back to its rented location on the corner of the building. For some time, the manager and his family lived in a small apartment above the bank.

By 1912, Red Deer entered one of the strongest booms in its history. The Merchants Bank decided that time had come to build its own building, one that would reflect the strength and importance of the bank.

Hence, two lots were purchased on the east side of Gaetz Ave. just north of the Gaetz Cornett Drugstore. In the spring of 1912, work began on a beautiful two-storey tan sandstone structure, with many ornate architectural features.

The new branch officially opened in August of 1913, just a few weeks after Red Deer was incorporated as a City.

In 1922, the Merchants Bank was taken over by the Bank of Montreal. The Bank of Montreal had opened a branch in Red Deer in December of 1912 in the brick Smith and Gaetz/Central Block on the southwest corner of Ross St. and Gaetz Ave. The Merchant Bank premises were much more attractive, so the Bank of Montreal decided to move there permanently.

The Bank of Montreal continued to grow over the succeeding decades. In 1960, it opened the first bank branch in North Red Deer in the Alberta Motor Association building on 59 St. and Gaetz Ave. Other branches opened later in Eastview and at Bower Mall.

By the late 1970s, with Red Deer once again experiencing an outstanding boom, the Bank of Montreal decided to replace the old downtown branch with a large new one that covered both the original site and the adjacent Gaetz Cornett property.

The new main branch officially opened in June 1980. As a remembrance of the old building that it replaced, two original sandstone corbels were installed on either side of the main door. A commemorative plaque, using another piece of sandstone, was erected in front of the new building.

The Red Deer Heritage Preservation Committee is accepting nominations for the 2011 Heritage Awards. Deadline is April 19. If anyone wishes to nominate a deserving group or individual, or if they wish to obtain further information on the awards program, please contact Janet at 403-309-6270 or email janet.pennington@reddeer.ca