Calgary: Field of Crosses

Great cities have great visionaries.  Drive along Calgary’s Memorial Drive or by Memorial Park on 12th Avenue SW and you realize Calgary has benefitted in many ways from its early 20th century visionaries. A hundred years later today's visionaries are building on their vision. 

Calgary loves to celebrate its history?

Too often Calgary has been and is criticized for not preserving and celebrating its history.  Yet, when it comes to war memorials, we have done more than our fair share, including being home to the second largest War Museum in Canada.

What sparked this blog was the annual “Field of Crosses” that sprouted up last week along Memorial Drive almost like magic.

It is one of the most recent additions to Calgary’s evolving Memorial Drive which has payed tribute to the men and women of the Calgary region who have fought in various wars over the past 100 years. It first started with planting of trees and continues with the temporary placement of 3,200 crosses, each bearing the name of a fallen soldier from Southern Alberta.  

The crosses, lined up row-by-row, create our own “Flanders Field.” 

Link: Calgary: History Capital of Canada?

The crosses are planted in an unused patch of grass along Memorial Drive just west of the historic Centre Street Bridge on November 1st each year leading up to Remembrance Day (November 11th). Like an annual art installation the white crosses with red poppies and Canadian Flags (there are also a few American flags) weave their way along the narrow grassy field like military regiments on a maneuver. 

It dramatically changes the Memorial Drive experience.

Over the 11-day period, over 10,000 people will visit the site to pay their respects. On the afternoon I was there, there were about 100 people milling around including a busload of junior high students. - all were very respectful.

The “Field of Crosses” was the vision of Murray McCann a prominent Calgary businessman who witnessed something similar along a USA highway.  An epiphany for him - he was so overwhelmed he had to pull over and stop.

With the help of a $100,000 contribution by the McCann Family Foundation and with tremendous support from the City of Calgary Parks department and hundreds of volunteers his vision of a Field of Cross in Calgary was realized in 2009 and every year since.

"The City annually makes the park available across the Bow River from Calgary’s dynamic downtown.  The Field of Crosses committee prepares the park for housing over 3,200 crosses during the month of October and up to November 12th when the crosses are removed.  All city departments, which are impacted, have been super cooperative and supportive of the Field of Crosses project.  This demonstrates their recognition and appreciation of the role the military played in allowing us to live the lives we live today," says Susan Schalin with the McCann Family Foundation.

A Brief History of Memorial Drive

After the First World War the City of Calgary decided to plant a tree for each fallen soldier along Sunnyside Boulevard (now Memorial Drive). The first trees were planted on May 11, 1922 by Mayor Samuel Adams.  The planting continued until 1928, creating a spectacular boulevard with a grand total of 3,278 trees as living legacy. 

It is hard to believe that this was Memorial Drive a one time. 

It is hard to believe that this was Memorial Drive a one time. 

Backstory: Many of the poplar trees (Populus Wobbstii) that now line Memorial Drive are nearing the end of their life cycle. However, the City has been taking cuttings from the original trees and today more than 1,500 offspring are growing in Grand Forks, BC to be used as part of a regeneration program. The original trees are thought to have come from Drumheller to Calgary by miners. It is hard to believe that Calgary was once almost treeless. All of the trees but one along Memorial Drive are female (female poplars bear the cotton which provides food for ducks, carries seeds and provides nesting material for birds and animals along the river.

Mega Facelift

Memorial Drive got a mega facelift in 2010, with new planters in the median to allow for more trees and poppies and decorative lampposts and banners. In 2011, The Calgary Soldiers’ Memorial designed by Calgary’s Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative was unveiled a few blocks west of 10th Street next to the Bow River. It lists the names of over 3,000 soldiers who died in various wars and conflicts on massive white marble slabs thrusting out of ground.   Illuminated from below, at night the memorial becomes a to pensive, eye-catching sculpture.

The Calgary Soldiers' Memorial

Poppy Plaza located along Memorial Drive at 10th St. NW is another Boutin design.  It is dominated by two menacing-looking rusted steel sculptural shapes (some say bomb-like) and eight large letters that spell “MEMORIAL.”  Quotes about war are water jet cut into the steel and backlit to remind visitors of the hopes and sacrifices involved in wartime activities. There are also two illuminated sentinels the Bow River on the south bank, which at night shimmer on the endlessly moving Bow River suggesting a connection with the constant movement of time.

Poppy Plaza driving east along Memorial Drive. 

Collectively the war memorial elements along Memorial Drive are called “Landscape of Memory,” a City of Calgary project funded by the ENMAX Legacy Parks Fund.  

Last Word

To me, the “Field of Crosses” is not only a memorial but a very significant piece of public art as it is so visual (public art doesn’t have to be permanent). This is the kind of meaningful public art we should foster - something that captures the public’s attention and motivates them to come and see it again and again.  Something that clearly speaks to the public rather than being obtuse.

Perhaps one of the keys to help accomplish this is to make public art more of an event; something temporary, a pop-up exhibition, so there is an urgency to come and see it before it gets taken away.

Geroge V. Bittman bench sits in the trees above the field offers a pensive place to reflect on the Field of Crosses and what they mean. He was co-creator and chairman of the Memorial Drive "Field of Crosses" project.  He died in 2011.  

Geroge V. Bittman bench sits in the trees above the field offers a pensive place to reflect on the Field of Crosses and what they mean. He was co-creator and chairman of the Memorial Drive "Field of Crosses" project.  He died in 2011. 

Wouldn’t it be lovely too if the “Field of Crosses” become the catalyst to create more ways to celebrate our history?  Perhaps it will inspire someone creative way to celebrate Calgary’s tremendous "sense of community" with an annual flood memorial each June in memory of great floods of Calgary?

If you like this blog, you will like:

Calgary Military Museums: A Must Visit

Putting the public into public art

Poppy Plaza Revisited

BL writes: "Excellent blog Richard. We arrived back in the desert last night and took a taxi home, about ten minutes. Most of the drive is through Cathedral City, the mostly Hispanic bedroom community between Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage. Along the roadside they have a flag display every year in memory of the young kids from Cathedral City who gave their lives for "their" country. It is a shame that most of these kids came from the families of illegal immigrants and the number of Hispanics is unusually high because the Hispanic army units are given some of the highest risk assignments. Sobering when you drive by."