Calgary's Historical Architecture: Then & Now

Though I’ve never been a big history buff, I do appreciation of the importance of preserving historical buildings and sites.They are critical to telling a city’s story and creating a unique sense of place.

Calgary is often criticized for focusing too much on the prosperity of the present and future at the expense of the preservation of the past. For many (including me) our philosophy is “we are creating Calgary’s history today.” But cities really are built over decades and centuries, not years.

To me, Calgary is just a young teenager striving to find its own identity, its own personality.

I thought it would be interesting to look back and see what buildings we have lost over the past 100 years that we might like to still have today. And to see what has replaced them.

Entrance to Grain Exchange Building

Entrance to Grain Exchange Building

Hull Opera House (606, Centre St. S.)

Imagine it is the early 1890s. Calgary rancher, entrepreneur and philanthropist William Roper just commissioned a 1,000-seat opera house be built at 606 Centre St. S. (known as McTavish Street until 1904) by architects Child and Wilson at a cost of $10,000. One of Calgary’s first major sandstone and brick buildings, it hosted opera, theatre, school concerts, and community dances. It is hard to believe a frontier city with a population of only 4,000 people could support such a large opera house. But it did, for 13 years anyway.

In 1906, it was renovated to accommodate street level retail, residential on the upper floors and renamed the Albion Block. Then in 1960s, George Crystal bought the building and demolished it to create parking for his adjacent York Hotel. The York Hotel was demolished to make way for the Bow office tower, (its facade brickwork is now safely numbered and stored so it can be integrated into a new building on the corner of Centre Street and 7th Avenue S.W. sometime in the future).

So, we lost one icon and gained another in the Bow Tower. If we still had the Hull Opera House, it would have made a great public market, along the same lines as the Centro Market in Florence, Italy.

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CPR Train Station (115 9th Ave. S.E.)

Yes, Calgary had a downtown train station, but I have been told it wasn’t anything as grand as say Grand Central Station or Penn Station in New York City. It wasn’t even as grand as Winnipeg’s train stations given that in the late 19th century, it was Winnipeg that was going to be capital of the prairies and the rival to Chicago. It was a time of Winnipeg’s heyday – it boasted the most millionaires per capita in North America. Calgary, on the other hand, was still a frontier town with a population 4,000 people. My, my, how times have changed!

Calgary’s CPR station was demolished in 1966, making way for the Palliser Square and Calgary Tower (then called the Husky Tower) as part of a Calgary’s first modern urban renewal project that included the Convention Centre, Marriott Hotel (the Four Seasons Hotel) and the Glenbow.

I now think our historic train station would have made a great modern art gallery like the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

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The CPR train station it home today to the Calgary Tower and Palliser Square.

The CPR train station it home today to the Calgary Tower and Palliser Square.

Central (James Short) School (Centre Street S. between 4th and 5th avenues)

James Short School was Calgary’s first large three-story square sandstone school. It proudly opened as Central School in 1905 and was noted for its impressive cupola above the entrance. When, by the late ’60s, the school-age population in downtown wasn’t sufficient to keep the school open, all but the cupola (now located on the northwest corner of Centre Street S. and 5th Avenue) was demolished to make way for redevelopment.

Today, James Short (a pioneer teacher, principal of the school and later a school board member, he was also the lawyer for the Anti-Chinese League) is best known as a park and parkade. If it were still around today, what a great boutique hotel it would make.

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James Short Park today.

James Short Park today.

Southam (Calgary Herald) Building (130 7th Ave. S.W.)

The Southam Building was touted as the “finest home of any newspaper in Canada” when it opened its doors in 1913. It was well known for its terracotta gargoyles (made by Doulton Lambeth of England) that adorned the roofline and depicted various newspaper trades.

Built in 1913, this magnificent Gothic structure was occupied by the Calgary Herald until 1932, when the paper needed more space. In the 1940s, the building was sold to Greyhound, which used it for 30-plus years as a bus depot, gutting the main floor to allow for the buses to drive through. Eventually demolished in 1972, it made way for the Len Werry Building. All of the gargoyles were rescued when the building was demolished in 1972 and some can now be found on the second floor of the north building of the TELUS Convention Centre.

Today, it would have a phenomenal character office building.

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The Calgary Herald building site is now home to Brookfield Place office tower and plaza.

The Calgary Herald building site is now home to Brookfield Place office tower and plaza.

Burns Residence (501 13th Ave. S.W.)

Patrick Burns, a rancher, businessman and one of the “Big Four” who founded the Calgary Stampede, built his grand mansion with ornate sandstone carvings in 1901. Designed by the famous Victoria, B.C., architect Francis M. Rattenbury, the mansion and English garden rivalled the still-standing 1891 Lougheed House and garden two blocks west on 13th Avenue. It is hard to imagine that 13th Avenue S.W. was Calgary’s millionaires’ row a hundred years ago. The Burns mansion was demolished in 1956, replaced by the Colonel Belcher Hospital, which in turn got demolished to build the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre, which opened in 2008.

The Burns Manor restaurant and lounge would have a nice ring to it, a bigger version of Rouge (in the Cross House) in Inglewood.

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Burns residence site is now home to the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre.

Burns residence site is now home to the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre.

Stephen Avenue East

Calgary historian Harry Sanders would like to have back the entire east end of 8th Avenue all the way to 4th Street S.E. It was all demolished in the 1970s and ’80s clearing the way for the Municipal Building, Olympic Plaza and the Epcor Centre (Calgary’s second attempt at modern urban renewal).  Sanders imagines a lively pedestrian street full of small shops, cafes and restaurants all the way from Holt Renfrew (the façade of the current Holt Renfrew building is that of Calgary’s old Eaton’s department store) to East Village.

Indeed, downtown Calgary lacks a grand boulevard or wide prairie Main Street typical of most major cities. For all of its charm and character, Stephen Avenue still lacks a WOW factor (expect perhaps at lunch hour in the summer).

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Stephen Avenue today.

Stephen Avenue today.

Stephen Avenue today.

Stephen Avenue today.

Last Word

While some may lament the loss of some of Calgary’s sense of the past, in many ways we have done a better job of preserving our history than most people think. Most of the buildings along Inglewood’s Atlantic Avenue (Calgary’s first Main Street) have been preserved.

As well, Stephen Avenue’s 100 and 200 West blocks are designated National Historic District. And, while the Fort Calgary was not preserved, there is a major effort today to preserve the spirit of the place and two of the original buildings. We also have a wonderful collection of buildings from our Sandstone period, including the Memorial Park Library and McDougall School.

That being said, it would still be nice to have a few more historical buildings with their different facade materials and architectural styles to add more visual variety in our downtown.

In the words of poet William Cowper, “Variety is the spice of life, that gives it all its flavour (The Task, 1785).

Note: This blog was originally published in the Calgary Herald in 2015.

If you like this blog, you might be interested in these links:

Discover Calgary’s Secret Heritage Walk

Understanding Calgary’s DNA

Calgary’s Motel History