Architect: James Henderson
Builder: Peter Rule
When word spread, in 1879, that the Canadian Pacific Railway would soon swing northwest from Brandon, Manitoba and pass near Fort Edmonton on its way through the Yellowhead Pass, a community began to evolve on the high ground above the Fort. Since land west of what is now 101st Street was part of the Hudson's Bay Company Reserve, the core of the incipient community lay to the east, along what was known as High Street. Although commercial development west of 101st Street began in 1891, the business core of the newly incorporated Town of Edmonton would remain at the east end of Jasper Avenue well into the 20th century.
Among the businesses to operate along what would eventually become known as the Jasper East Block was the photographic studio of Charles W. Mathers, a branch studio of the Calgary firm of Bourne & May. From a small studio two lots east of the Jasper House Hotel, Mathers developed some of the most significant documentary photographic images of what is now Alberta, and Edmonton in particular, around the turn of the 20th century. In 1903, Mathers hired a newly arrived immigrant from Newcastle, England named Ernest Brown to be his assistant. With a growing passion for photography, and an apparent belief that prospects for business in Edmonton would continue to expand, Brown was able to purchase the studio from Mathers, along with the impressive collection of glass plate negatives, and the property itself.
Though not as highly regarded as Mathers as a photographer, Brown was able to do even more business that his predecessor in the rapidly growing City and district. Portrait photography became a specialty, as many of the nouveau riche wanted photos of themselves and their families undertaken professionally. Brown also continued to add to the vast collection of documentary images begun by Mathers. By 1911, business was so good that Brown decided to construct a new building on the same lot as the old studio. Given its location on prime commercial land, it only made sense that Brown would construct a large building which could accommodate other businesses in addition to a photographic studio, office and storage area. Thus, with James Henderson as architect and the Peter Rule Construction Company as contractors, a three-storey, orange brick office building was erected during 1911-12 in two stages, first the eastern portion, then the western. It was intended to accommodate various offices and even apartments during these years of frantic commercial expansion.
Among the first tenants of the Brown Block were a clothier, a printer and a stationery store on the first floor and the office of Peter Rule on the second. The main tenant, of course, was the Ernest Brown Studio, and on the upper façade of the building were the words "Everything Photographic." The studio proper and supply store were on the ground floor, while Brown's enlargement department and picture framing shop were in the basement.
For the first few years, Brown did a roaring business as Edmonton's leading photographer. In March 1914, his assets were listed as $265,000. During this time, the images of many significant events and people were captured through his shutters, along with countless scenes of a routine nature, but invaluable to posterity. Communities, people and events happening in the district around Edmonton were also the subject of his attention. However, with the recession that accompanied World War I, business declined. Feeling the financial pinch personally, Brown decided to incorporate Ernest Brown Ltd. and transfer his photographic assets to the Company in 1923 for $55,000. The following year, Dominion Life Assurance acquired the building and land for $27,500. By that time, the photographic equipment, supplies, and, most importantly, the documentary negatives had been acquired by Brown's associate, Gladys Reeves.
Brown himself moved to Vegreville, opened a smaller photographic studio, and began to collect historical artifacts. Two years later, he was back in Edmonton, working for Gladys Reeves in her photographic studio and operating a Pioneers Days Museum on 97th Street. The value of his (and Mathers') turn of the century documentary images had now grown, and Brown was able to add to his income by selling the rights to use certain of the images to magazines and large businesses for display purposes. In 1947, the provincial government purchased the 50,000-glass plate collection, as well as Brown's photographic equipment and artifacts for $50,000. In later years, they would come to constitute the most valued photographic collection in the Provincial Archives.
Following Brown's departure from Edmonton in 1924, the Brown Block itself was taken over by
Credit Foncier, and under this stewardship, it became known as the Brighton Block. The building then went through several owners before being acquired by the Toma family in 1950. Various businesses operated from within it over the years, including the American Dairy Lunch and the Georgia Steam Baths. In later years, much of the building has sat vacant.
The historical significance of the Brighton Block lies in its provision of structural evidence of the commercial core of the east end of downtown Edmonton during the early part of the twentieth century. Though not dominated by large office blocks, the district remained a lively commercial center. One of the most familiar businesses there at the time was the photographic studio of Ernest Brown, who was then Edmonton's leading photographer. To a large extent, the building is significant in its direct connection to Brown, and as the first repository for the Ernest Brown photographic collection, many of the images of which had been taken earlier by Charles Mathers.