Heritage enthusiasts concerned over U of A’s plan to demolish home of late philanthropist

A south Edmonton mansion donated to the University of Alberta will soon be demolished because the institution can’t afford to maintain the lavish property.

Those who knew the Soaring estate’s former owner, the late Sandy Mactaggart, are disappointed given the philanthropist’s impact and contributions to the university.

Ellen Schoeck, a former university employee and campus historian who was a colleague of Mactaggart, said she’s also worried about the effect of losing the mansion on the family he left behind.

“Their three children are still with us, [his wife] Cécile is still with us and this must be quite a wrenching thing for them to be going through.” 

Soaring was built in the 1950s for Mactaggart and his wife, Cécile. The estate is located in the Riverbend neighbourhood where it sits on a cliff overlooking the North Saskatchewan River. Mactaggart gave the mansion and the surrounding grounds to the university in 2010.

Soaring is perched in the heart of the Edmonton river valley. (Submitted by Matt Dance)

In a statement, university spokesperson Shelby Soke said the decision to close and decommission Soaring was made in 2018, and that any decision to sell off university property is “never easy.”

“Unfortunately, due to its limited functionality and the cost to operate, it is no longer feasible for the university to maintain the Soaring property,” she said.

From the year it was donated to 2018, the university used Soaring as a conference and events centre, hosting a few events there per year. 

Soke added that the university considered three options: transferring the Soaring property to the university’s land trust, developing the site, and selling the property.

Mactaggart died in 2017 at the age of 89. Prior to his death, he served as the university’s chancellor from 1990 to 1994. He co-founded the Maclab Properties Group and the Citadel Theatre. 

In addition to the house, Mactaggart also donated $65 million to the university, as well as his family’s collection of Chinese art, valued at $37 million, which consisted of over 1,000 pieces of textiles, paintings, and scrolls.

Writing on the wall

Andy Grabia, a former university employee and former board member of the Edmonton Heritage Council, said another factor for demolishing the building is that the mansion could not support the university’s mission of education and research. 

He said the U of A should never have accepted the building in the first place.

“People who sort of were in the know about this were always worried that this was going to happen to this building,” Grabia said.

“There’s always this fear they were just going to knock this building down and subdivide it, and I think that’s exactly what they’re doing.”

In February of this year, the university also announced plans to demolish the four historic Ring Houses during the spring.

Like Soaring, the university said the houses, which were built in the 1910s, were costly to maintain and could not serve an academic function. A petition to save the buildings garnered over 2,600 signatures, and the houses were put for sale instead.

Similarly, the Magrath Mansion in the Highlands neighbourhood was recently acquired by Concordia University of Edmonton. However, that property was designated as a provincial historic resource in 1975, meaning it cannot be altered without written approval from the Alberta government.

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