His Vision Reborn
Frank Peebles - Prince George Citizen
March 14, 2017

When people say they know something like the back of their hand, it was never more true than Trelle Morrow knowing the Prince George Citizen building.

Morrow was staring at the back of his own hand for every stroke of the pencil on the graph paper. He sketched for hours, he measured and calculated, he dreamed every inch of the structure.

He dreamed them wide awake and those dreams were in Prussian blue.

Morrow was the architect that W.B. (Binney) Milner called upon when the tycoon decided it was time the old Citizen operation needed a bigger home. Milner was the owner of the town's daily paper at the time. He was also the owner of Eagle Lake Sawmill, a Salmon Valley dairy farm, Northern Dairies milk shipping company and several other ventures.

Photo Credit: Brent Braaten
Architect Trelle Morrow takes some pictures of the renovation being done to The CitizenÂ’s old building on Monday. Morrow designed the building in 1962, and later designed an addition. - Brent Braaten, Photographer

Morrow wasn't sure just what all Milner owned, since the wealthy industrialist lived almost exclusively in the Lower Mainland.

"I only ever met him a couple of times," said Morrow. Almost all of the architect's dealings at that time were through Milner's local intermediary, Gordon Brownridge.

That time was 1962, when the architectural work took place.

The building was built the following summer and opened in November 1963.

This week, 55 years after he first put pencil to paper, he stopped by his architectural creation at 150 Brunswick St., to walk through the gutted shell of his creation and relive that construction project.

It is sometimes said that a building "has good bones" and for The Citizen and now for new owners Kopar Adminstration, those bones are exceptional. Morrow smiled a delighted but knowing grin when Kopar's Rob Glavina told him the findings of their engineering research pertaining to snow-load capabilities.

In those days, the roof of a building had to be rated to hold up about 47 pounds per square foot whereas the building code today insists on 60.

"(Contract engineer) Fergus Foley did the calculations for your building. It's 80," Glavina said.

It's no surprise to even the most casual of viewers, but only now can it be fully appreciated. The Citizen had, somewhere along the way, installed a lot of T-bar false ceiling, hiding most of the treasure - a soaring 17 foot ceiling of hulking wood beams holding up a wooden roof. Glulam (glued laminated timber) beams are not uncommon, even in architecture of that vintage, but these ones were unusual.

"These beams are spruce so they were made about 30 per cent deeper (than typical spliced wood beams)," Morrow said.

It had to be specially calculated by engineers because Milner had his sawmill and access to enormous amounts of spruce. The industry standard was to use fir, because it is stronger for holding up roofing spans. Using spruce meant more wood to hold the same weight.

"Everybody who comes through marvels at these open beams. They are practically unaffordable now," Glavina said.

"It was a prestige thing for Milner. He wanted to show the country - and he did - that we were the spruce capital, so let's use spruce," Morrow said.

"They hand-picked the lumber, got it all compiled and sent it down to Vancouver (for the glue lamination process). I'm not sure who they used but it was probably American Fabricators, they were doing a lot of good glulam work in those days. They would dress it down, get it ready, glue it all together, dress the beams, plane them and all that kind of stuff. Then they'd ship it all back again.

"If we'd have used fir, it would all have come from the coast. There's really no fir in this area, until you get down to Williams Lake."

Although getting the wood and milling it into lumber was cheap for Milner, it probably cost more than had he just ordered fir, due to all the shipping involved down and back, but Morrow said Milner didn't think anything of it. He was making a personal statement with this wooden structure.

"We just decided in those days that expense wasn't that critical and what the hell, let's have six or eight feet above the ceiling so the ductwork guys aren't complaining at us," Morrow said.

"Architects continually get complaints from tradespeople: this is too tight, I can't get in here to work, so they end up with duct work that looks like a contortionist designed it. But it allowed for that mezzanine at the back, too, y'see," referring to the rooms added later as a quasi second floor in some parts of the building.

Likewise, for the same reason, aiding in laying pipes and wires, the crawlspace underneath the main floor was more of a walkspace.

"In the 1960s, the thought of an economic building was not as prevalent as it is today. Money was still tight, but when you get somebody who's got lots of it, what the heck?, let'er go," Morrow said.

"He didn't care."

Hence the four-inch decking used for the roof to get that huge snow-load rating and the thick double-tongue-in-groove decking used for the flooring.

"A common complaint with buildings is the floors squeak, and it's because they don't secure the decking," said Morrow, confident those well-linked hunks of wood would never rub a sour note.

The final result was a clear, carefully stated message to the future about a particular era in Prince George's history, even if you don't consider all the documentation that went on - all the culture and politics, crime and business stuffed between the the newspaper pages - inside those softwood walls.

"I am on the heritage commission and I tell the people around the table all the time to never mind when a building was built. Maybe it's old but maybe it's junk. What's important is the context of a building. How was it made? Why was it built that way? What was it for? Those are the important questions when you look for historical value in a building. This one happens to be loaded in all that," Morrow said.

The only part of the historical significance lost to the transitional renovation was the original demountable partitions put in as interior walls between some of the rooms. "They were the first ever used in Prince George," he said.

Morrow's story doesn't end at 150 Brunswick St. When the newspaper industry changed to offset printing from the previous method of hot metal (lead) typesetting, the printing operation had to be moved. The building across the street at 145 Brunswick St. was obtained for the new press. By coincidence, it, too, was designed by Morrow.

"The Citizen bought the Hudson's Bay Wholesale building across the street. It was owned by Rupert's Land Trading Company which was just a holding company (a division of the Hudson's Bay Company, chartered in 1670 and still in business today). I was working for them at the time because I supervised the Hudson's Bay store construction on Third Avenue. The architect in Winnipeg who did the design was Jerry Sweet and they needed somebody locally to supervise it. I designed that building for them, the wholesale division, built a year or two after (the Citizen). Then about 10 years later The Citizen bought it for the offset presses. They (the press machines) came in from Chicago. That was a fancy building, too, it was all cavity-wall construction. There are very few in Prince George. There is an outer layer of brick, there's a two-inch gap, then there is an inner layer of masonry. So that air space acts as insulation."

After business hours on March 24, The Citizen's offices will move to the IWA building at 201-1777 Third Ave. The Citizen will reopen for business on Monday at that location. The Citizen's press will remain at 145 Brunswick St., where it will continue to print The Citizen five days a week, as well as its sister newspapers, the Alaska Highway News and the Dawson Creek Mirror.

In the meantime, The Citizen remains open for business at 150 Brunswick St. as Citizen staff work around the construction and contractors for Kopar work around Citizen staff.

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