Shuttered landmark pub has been frozen in time for three decades
It might have been due to liquor laws that discouraged visible drinking, or perhaps it was because street-level property on Jasper was once too valuable, but there was a time when downtown Edmonton’s fanciest bars and restaurants were located in basements.
Like today’s downtown restaurants, the customers were well-heeled and worked in the then newly built office towers of the 1960s and 1970s. Unlike today, though, it was acceptable to return to work half-pickled, which could explain why most of the underground bars died when a little decade called the 1980s came along and everyone who wasn’t giving 110 per cent got laid off.
The crippling recession of that decade didn’t help business, either.
But one establishment, Churchills, hung on for a few extra years. And when it finally closed its doors in the basement of the Cambridge Building on the corner of Jasper Ave. and Rice Howard Way late in the 1980s, it’s like people forgot the space was even there.
Tucked away behind locked doors, just off a tunnel on the Churchill Station LRT pedway, is how it stayed, even when the vacant office building above it was converted into residential condominiums.
“It’s a blast from the past,” says Casey McLelland of Colliers International, the real estate firm that’s handling the property.
“You walk through it and it looks like they were frying burgers there just the day before.”
Churchills’ competitors, which included places like the North Coach Lounge in the basement of what is now Telus Plaza, have long since been redeveloped into food courts or other office space. But Churchills — its red leather booths, its dark oak panelling, its wrought iron and wood chandeliers with miniature lampshades depicting English fox hunting scenes — is all still there.
Edmonton lawyer Robert Duke remembers Churchills well. At one point four major law firms were headquartered in the Cambridge Building, along with offices for Air Canada, and Churchills was like a second home for the people who worked there.
“I guess my fondest memory was the crowd that gathered to watch Paul Henderson’s goal,” recalls Duke. “That’s where half our office was. The bar was open remarkably early in those days.”
Churchills was one of the top spots in Edmonton to meet business clients, Duke says. One transaction he handled there was covered in drink rings.
For Klondike Days, a ribald piano player from Britain who went by the name London Bobby was brought in to perform in the lounge. There was sports trivia on Saturday mornings, too.
There was a red telephone, meant for taking reservations but which also handled phone calls the lawyers and businesspeople had forwarded to them from their offices in the pre-cellphone days.
Many regulars simply referred to Churchills as “The Office,” as in, “I’m working late at The Office.”
Churchills even had a sister restaurant and pub in Honolulu of all places, which owners Frank and Pam Clark arranged to have built in England and shipped to Hawaii.
Pam Clark, now 81, says Churchill’s lasted longer than much of its competition because her late husband was a skilled restaurateur. He liked planning and decorating new restaurants, she says, so eventually the couple sold Churchills to a new operator while Clark and her husband ran a number of truck stop restaurants.
Within a year, Clark says, Churchills was closed.
“We had a recession that was every bit as bad as the one we’ve just come through, says Clark, noting times had changed, too.
“It was quite acceptable then to have a drink before work.”
McLelland says there have been a few bites since the Churchills space went on the market about six months ago. A few want to open a new place that keeps the same style as Churchills, while others want to gut it and start new.
A few upgrades will also be necessary to bring it up to code, he says.
Standing in the middle of the lounge now, amid the smell of dust, you can almost hear the sorts of conversations that were happening in those red leather booths decades ago. “Nice work on the Imperial Oil account, Jenkins!” or “Have one for the road!” or “Look at the legs in that mini-skirt, boys!”
And you can imagine how many drinks were knocked over when Henderson finally put it in the net.