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This Renovation of a Historic 1920s Property is Nothing Short of Inspiring

A husband and wife team saw potential in the dated remains of Lethbridge, Alberta's Pacific Grocery Store.

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Pacific Grocery Store in Lethbridge, AlbertaCourtesy Galt Museum and Archives
The original Pacific Grocery Store in Lethbridge, Alberta.

It was the spring of 2004 when I received a call from my very excited husband, “Sue, you’ve got to come see this!” Al had found a building for sale that interested him. We had discussed the idea of purchasing a “fix ‘n’ flip” property for years. Immediately I went to take a look‚ the vibe was good—I saw the possibilities and we privately purchased the building. The Pacific Grocery Store was built in 1923 and located on the north side of Lethbridge, Alberta.

Most people politely held their tongues, but some couldn’t help themselves. Al’s mother said, “Oh Al, what have you done?” and my sister asked, “What did you buy this for?” Admittedly, it was a dump. The building was boarded up and the yard overgrown with waist-high weeds. The building had only 40-amp electrical service, no hot water, no kitchen, no bathrooms and only two water taps—but the old store had great bones. This place was solid and we had ideas.

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Historic grocery store reno - Miner's shackPhoto: Susan Lillemo
The original miner’s shack is now a garden shed.

In the ’20s it was common to build a small home at the back of the lot and live there until you could afford to build a bigger home at the front. These small homes were called miner’s shacks. Lethbridge was formerly a large coal producer, so mining was an important industry then. We preserved the miner’s shack on the property and now use it as a garden shed; it is one of the last standing miner’s shacks in Lethbridge. It has only two rooms and other than a new roof and paint, it is entirely original.

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Historic grocery store reno - front doorPhoto: Susan Lillemo
A view of the renovated housefront.

We are not renovators nor contractors, but we are hard working and creative. In turning the old store into a home, we did most of the work ourselves, but we also knew when to hire qualified trades people. The basic floor plan was kept intact, with only two walls erected to create needed spaces. The original store area was turned into a great room housing the kitchen, dining room, front entry and living room. This space had shelves on three of the four walls, many of which were removed, but some were preserved to create kitchen cupboards and a bookshelf. Wood was saved from a small doorway that was opened up to create a large archway and the wood was then used to create cupboard doors for the kitchen.

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Historic grocery store reno - sunroom in backyardPhoto: Susan Lillemo
The sunroom in the backyard.

A workbench from the basement was fashioned into a kitchen island. At every opportunity we reused materials, whether they were from the store itself or found at garage sales and second-hand stores.

There was much curiosity as to what we were doing with this old store. We had many visitors and heard a lot of confessions about candy theft as children when the store was in operation. An item of notoriety, this store was the scene of the first recorded armed robbery in Lethbridge!

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Historic grocery store reno - stained glass panel in gardenPhoto: Susan Lillemo
Al’s handcrafted stained-glass panel graces the backyard.

Al is an artist at heart and has created pieces using many mediums. He installed a metal gate at the entrance to the courtyard; this gate is now all stained glass. He created another large stained-glass project at the waterfall end of the pond—a picture of Alberta—this door moves over the opening to the backyard to create privacy for a large fire pit.

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Historic grocery store reno - Al and Sue inside their homeCourtesy Susan Lillemo
Al and Sue in the “great room” with Al’s art.

Inside, our home is graced with his clay and bronze sculptures, encaustic paintings as well as a soapstone and bronze wood burning stove. My contributions are handmade quilts, window coverings, upholstery and wall hangings.

Al does the landscaping in the yard. I’m in charge of the plantings.

So, we broke every rule of a “fix ‘n’ flip” and we’ve been here 16 years now. It’s a team effort and has been from the start.

Next, read the fascinating story of Saskatchewan’s Royal Lake country store.

Originally Published in Our Canada