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L.A. Beat

Curious about the Cleary house? It's among Lethbridge landmarks to be recognized

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Nestled in between the Royal Bank parking lot and a big brick building including an accountant’s office and a naturalist’s  shop, stands the Cleary House, an anomaly in the bustling downtown Lethbridge business community.Lorraine Moodie enjoys the porch of the Cleary House. Photo by RIchard Amery

 The lone remaining coal miner’s  shack, located at 422-7th Street South, originally built in 1906 is the sole remaining relic of a bygone era in Lethbridge — a bright white, cheerful looking house with beautiful arches and a front porch braced by a black wrought iron fence, surrounded by a sea of red brick and yellowing mortar.

“A lot of people are curious about the house,” said current owner Lorraine Moodie. Moodie and her husband bought it at the estate sale in 2006 of longtime owner Alberta Chamberlain, who lived there alone for close to 50 years. She was best known as the lady with the Chow dog, because she used to have a little Chow dog she walked every day.
“I didn’t really know her, only to see her and say hello to her and her dog,” Moodie said.

The Downtown core used to  feature numerous such houses but slowly but surely were replaced by businesses as Lethbridge grew and the owners sold.
The Cleary House is one of five sites chosen this year to be marked by historical  markers/ plaques on May 12 at a ceremony to be held in front of the house. The other sites are Hotel Dallas/Coalbanks Inn, 312-5th Street S. (built 1903); Lethbridge House Hotel/Lethbridge Hotel, 202-5 St. S. (built 1885) ; Burns Building/Shanghai Chop Suey, 608-610 3 Ave. S. (built 1911); Berte Grocery/George’s Groceries & Meats/Williams Grocery/Tumbleweed Café, 707-9th Avenue N. (built 1910).

“We thought it would be a great way to keep the house for future generations,” she said of getting the plaque made for it.

“ I can’t wait to see it. I’ve only seen the wording on it,” she continued.
 The Lethbridge Historical society approached them about  the plaque. The Moodies are in the process of applying to get  the house  designated a historical site.

 It is the only site to look pretty much the same as it did when it was built as most the other sites have been renovated beyond recognition.
“ We wanted to preserve a little piece of Lethbridge history,” she continued. Their daughter lived in it for  three years, then moved out. It has been a rental property ever since.  

“The lady who lives in it  now is handicapped and loves it because of the easy access to downtown. We want to keep it in the family for a long time,” she said. But first they had to do extensive renovations.
 Renovating it was like poring through the pages of a dusty history book as they peeled away several different layers of linoleum and wallpaper reflecting the popular styles of several eras.
“It was in very, very poor condition,” Moodie recalled adding they gutted the house to the frame and updated the kitchen and bathroom to modern standards.

“We really did put a lot of work into it,” she continued.
“We retained the character though. We left the arches and we kept the hardwood floors, which we refinished,” she said adding the exterior, other than adding new shingles, is all original.

“ The Galt Museum has pictures of the house and it looks exactly like it does now,” she continued.
 They didn’t find any treasures, like you might expect find in an older house.
“The strangest thing was we found a tin cans in the attic that they used to stop leaks,” she continued adding the former owners didn’t have a lot of money to spend on upkeep. She said the Chamberlains bought the house from the original owners around 1928 and raised their family there before passing it on to Alberta, who passed away in 2006.

“Alberta Chamberlain’s father sold bulk oil, so in the back yard there was a concrete bunker he used to store his oil because the city required it in case of fire. But it has since been demolished because there was no use for it,” she continued.
“This house is one of a kind,” she said adding there is only one other original house downtown.
“It’s important to know that this is still a residence,” she said.

 Choosing the buildings to be recognized is a labourious process. Every year, Jean Johnstone and Carly Stewart head up a committee to choose which historic buildings  will be recognized. Often the current owners will contribute to the cost of the plaques and painstakingly proof the wording on them.

“We work with the city of Lethbridge and the Lethbridge Historical Society,” said Carly Stewart adding they get a lot of help from the BRZ on which buildings to recognize.
 He found the Berte Grocery building on the north side to be very interesting as since it was built in  1910, it has been home to a variety of businesses including a grocery store, Cafe, butcher’s shop and lot more. So has the Burns building downtown, which he noted has been home to  “Leader Realty, Dan’s Repairs, Filter  Queen, a craft store, a laundry and even a  ballet school.
 He also found the Cleary House to be fascinating.

Lorraine Moodie enjoys the porch of the Cleary House. Photo by Richard Amery
“It’s the last example of a working class house from that era. Esther and Harry Chamberlain bought it in the 1920s and passed it on to their daughter and lived in it for about 80 years,” Stewart said adding he also remembered the Chow dog.
The two hotels on the list have undergone numerous facelifts, which is why the plaques for them will have photos of the original buildings on them, which Stewart said is not only time consuming but expensive.
Jean Johnstone is pretty excited about this year’s choices.

“The plaques cost quite a bit but we wanted to be able to show people that part of our history,” she said, adding they work very closely with Ted Stilson of the BRZ to choose the buildings, coupled with the building’s owners. They never commission a plaque without the current owner’s permission and often the owners will help finance the plaques.
“Some of them don‘t want plaques,” she said.

 All of the buildings must have some historical significance.
The Dallas Hotel, most recently  the Coal Banks Inn, before being transformed into housing a few years ago is on the list.
“ The first town council meeting was held there,” Johnstone said.

  She enthused the Berte Grocery building, which was home to several different grocery stores as well as the Tumbleweed Café, also has the distinction of being one of two north side buildings to have a telephone back in 1934.

“People from all over town came to use the phone. I don’t know where they went before that,” she said adding compared to past years, getting five plaques arranged is simple.
“One year we had 20 plaques. Most of them for one of the parks. That was a lot of work because everybody has to approve the wording on them,” she said. The plaques will be dedicated this year on May 12 during a 10 a.m. ceremony outside the Cleary House.

— By Richard Amery, L.A. Beat Editor

A version of this story appears in the May 2, 2012 edition of the Lethbridge Sun Times

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