Edmonton’s past is written in its architecture and in the lives of the people who built its earliest neighbourhoods.
The different building styles in Highlands—and the people who first chose to make it their home—are the city’s history.
Highlands overlooks the North Saskatchewan River’s northern bank. The community is bounded by 118 Avenue to the north, 50 Street to the east, and 67 Street to the west. It’s also close to the Edmonton Expo Centre and Concordia University’s Edmonton campus.
Although it’s one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, new construction mingles freely with the old, lending Highlands a timeless yet modern feel.
Founders and Foundations
Highlands has been a settled area since the early 1870s, when two Hudson’s Bay Company employees, brothers James and George Gullion, chose the location for homesteading.
In 1894, when Edmonton had become a thriving community in the Northwest Territories, a local businessman named John A. McDougall purchased the land. He held it until 1910, when he sold the property to the Magrath-Holgate company.
A Name That Would Matter
Magrath-Holgate intended to develop the area into a residential neighbourhood. However, the company hadn’t given the land any designation other than its old lot numbers (30, 32, and 34). They wanted to give the community a name before lots were sold to prospective buyers.
To drive publicity, Magrath-Holgate announced a naming contest in local Edmonton newspapers. When the contest closed on September 17, 1910, so many entries had been submitted that Magrath-Holgate needed to publish a follow-up advertisement on September 20.
The ad indicated that, due to “the extraordinary number of Coupons sent in for our name contest, it is impossible to announce the winner until tomorrow afternoon.”
The name “Highlands” was suggested by two separate contestants, Mary McKenzie and S. Loughlin. The contest runners determined that Ms. Loughlin had earned the $50 gold prize because her entry was submitted first.
This is where development of Highlands began and when it truly became a part of the city. In 1911, the City of Edmonton formally annexed Highlands, and Magrath-Holgate built the area’s first 24 homes on speculation , banking on the neighbourhood’s future success.
This is also the beginning of the residential development that would shape Highlands for decades to come.
Though construction slowed in 1913 and most of the neighbourhood’s 516 lots would remain unsold for more than 30 years, the end of World War II saw a construction boom, which continued into the 1960s and 1970s.
It’s possible to see the stages of the community’s growth based on the building styles of the homes in the area. Pre-war wood and brickwork can be seen on homes closer to the riverbank, while later construction farther from the river displays progressively more modern building techniques.
An anchor point in the neighbourhood’s history and a contrast for all the construction that followed, Magrath Mansion was commissioned by William Magrath, one of the principal partners of Magrath-Holgate.
This residence, designed by architect Ernest Morehouse, has fourteen rooms in three storeys. When first constructed, the building had oak paneling, ornate ceilings, and a winding staircase, which have variously been preserved or restored over the years.
Outside, the mansion’s most distinguished features are its red clay tile roof and two-storey verandah.
Magrath lived in the mansion with his wife Ada until his death in November 1920. Ada McGrath maintained ownership until 1931. Magrath Mansion didn’t have a permanent owner again until 1949, when it was sold to a Ukrainian Catholic archbishop.
It’s remained a private residence since then.
Out and About
The focal point of the Highlands area’s business and retail is the Gibbard Block on 112 Avenue, which underwent a complete $2.5 million renovation in 2018.
This historic building, also designed by Ernest Morehouse, was once a suite of apartments. Up until very recently, it was also home to La Boheme Restaurant Bed & Breakfast.
Currently, the Gibbard Block is home to June’s Delicatessen, a deli specializing in bagels and pastrami. Another restaurant, Fox Burger, sits on the roof, and offers craft beer along with its hamburgers.
Highlands also has many parks. For those looking to practice their golf stroke, the Highlands Golf Club has a course located next to the North Saskatchewan River.
Edmonton is the birthplace of philosopher and communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, who coined both the term “global village” and the idea that “the media is the message.”
His childhood home in Highlands, located at 11342 64 Street, is an official Edmonton historic site and bears the name McLuhan House. It now serves as a small museum dedicated to McLuhan’s life and work.
In more recent times, Highlands was also the childhood home for billionaire David Cheriton, a Stanford computer scientist and one of Google’s earliest investors.
The Final Word
The development of Highlands tells a decades-long story of construction and reconstruction. While community has grown and evolved over time, it’s still maintained a historic charm that’s become a legacy—and a story to contribute to—for those who live there.