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Memories of the Union Bank Inn

Memories of a historic Edmonton building, the Union Bank Inn on Jasper Avenue.

It was not easy for Diane Kyle Buchanan to sell the Union Bank Inn. The boutique hotel has been part of her life for more than 25 years, but for a number of reasons, she knew it was time to pass it on to a new generation.

The historic bank-turned-hotel was sold to long-time Edmontonian and entrepreneur Henok Kassaye for $5.9 million in January.

Buchanan remembers the first time she stepped inside. It was 1996 and the 85-year-old building had been shuttered for years. She peeled back the boarding, turned on a trouble light and wandered around with a Telus property manager, the building’s owner at the time. There was three feet of pigeon guano on the main floor and the stairway to the upper floors was gone. Still, Buchanan recognized original architectural features, like the steel girders and high ceilings and imagined what could be.

“At the time, my husband was questioning my sanity, but he said if this was something I would like to do, he would support me," said Buchanan, who bought the building for $410,000 and started a renovation project that envisioned a stylish main floor restaurant and 14 elegant rooms upstairs.

After 16 years as a bank, 50 years as a regional office for a grain trading firm, and few more years as a trust company, it had been hard to imagine anything else for the structure at 10053 Jasper Avenue. But Buchanan, who had worked at a few small hotels in Europe, and had liked Eleni Skalbania’s Wedgewood Hotel in Vancouver, believed Edmonton was ready for a boutique hotel where “elegance, service and intimacy come together.”

Also a successful realtor and developer, Buchanan promoted the hotel by hosting a fundraiser for the Kids Help Phone through her rotary club. She hired interior designers to redesign the guest rooms, and sold $10 tickets for the public to enjoy an afternoon tea and a tour. She eventually raised $50,000.

Occupancy was strong at the beginning, remembers Buchanan, but she soon realized she needed a modern addition to the building's south side. A $2 million, five-storey expansion in 1999 tripled the hotel's size and brought on banquet facilities and business/fitness centres. 

“Things went really well for the first three or four years but then my husband got ill with Parkinson’s," said Buchanan, who then took on partners Shelley and Wes Klein. For the next 20 years, the trio managed and maintained the four-star hotel, as Buchanan also founded a charitable foundation and established the Buchanan Centre for Parkinson’s patients.

Fond memories include the time Prince Harry stayed at the hotel while attending the Invictus Games of 2017. And Buchanan couldn’t resist telling the story of when actor Kevin Costner was a guest. It was when the star-turned-country-singer was set to play the Big Valley Jamboree in 2009. Shelley's office was on the fifth floor, the same floor Costner was using. Shelley recalls Costner walking down the hallway singing at the top of his lungs. 

Over the course of the pandemic, Buchanan says she had to close three times, laying off staff and losing thousands of dollars in fresh food purchased for the restaurant.

"We had contracts with different businesses that we had to honour,” said Buchanan. “The first thing that went was the restaurant. People still wanted to stay in the hotel, so we had to get creative and provide little boxes of breakfasts in the morning. I knew the business would come back but at that point it was kind of the final straw."

New owner Henok Kassaye says he is thinking of using the rear parking lot for events, modernizing the restaurant, and adding a wine bar and pub.

Buchanan offers a piece of advice. “It’s all about relationships. If someone is travelling 200 days a year and it’s 6 o’clock and they want to have a grilled cheese sandwich, you darn well make sure your chef can do that. They will never forget that. Treat them like you would like to be treated and I think you will do very well."

UNION BANK INN  - By the Numbers

1909  Union Bank of Canada buys a 50-foot lot fronting Jasper Ave. 

1910  A $60,000 construction project begins, designed by architect Roland Lines. 

1928  James Richardson and Sons Ltd buys the property for $121,554. For almost 50 years it was the Edmonton office of the Winnipeg-based grain trading and stockbroking business.

1979  Northwest Trust Company purchases the site for $1.9 million.

1982  Peter Pocklington’s Patrician Land Corp buys the site for $3.1 million for a proposed 36-storey office tower that was never built.

1996  Diane Kyle Buchanan buys property from Telus for $410,000.

2022  Sold to Henok Kassaye for $5.9 million.