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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Doors Open Alberta

Changing the Face of Calgary Heritage Architecture of the Past and for the Future

by D. Larraine Andrews

Restorations rub shoulders with new construction.

The warmth of the evening holds the promise of spring. A soft steady rain begins to fall, and the streets are suddenly deserted. Many have darted across the road for shelter, drawn by the light flooding from the windows of the Alberta Hotel, one of Calgary's earliest sandstone buildings. The clink of glass and the sounds of laughter seep through the doorway and into the wet night. They welcome the weary traveller with the promise of a hearty meal in the company of good friends. And then the traffic lights change and the spell is broken. I hurry across the street unprepared for the rain. But as I pass Alberta Hotel, I can't help wondering how Bob Edwards (the hard drinking, cigar-smoking editor of the Calgary Eye Opener newspaper at the turn of the last century) would react if he stumbled out the door into the 21st century. What would he think if he strolled down Stephen Avenue Walk-the largest remaining collection of sandstone buildings west of Winnipeg? Would he write one of his scathing editorials, lambasting us about lack of vision and the destruction of some of our most magnificent sandstone landmarks? No doubt he would lament the loss of the Alberta Hotel's Long Bar, (said to be the longest between Winnipeg and Hong Kong), and the transformation of the Hotel through several renovations. On the other hand, he might be astonished at the frenzy of activity along the Avenue and the sense of pride in a heritage worthy of preservation.

A notorious cynic, perhaps Eye Opener Bob would ask us why we view these old buildings as part of our "heritage"? What, he might ask, are "heritage buildings" anyway? And which, if any, of our new buildings would be considered "heritage buildings" in the future?

A First World War military parade marches down Stephen Avenue in 1917.

"Heritage" is an elusive concept to define. People generally agree that in the context of buildings it is something worthy of preservation. Conservation architect Lorne Simpson, senior partner of Simpson Roberts, has worked on 21 Stephen Avenue buildings. A significant factor for him is the "rarity" of the collection on the Avenue. "One can see a streetscape and put oneself back in time to the pre-WWI boom era" As well, Simpson sees the integrity of the materials, in this case sandstone, and almost-forgotten technologies such as masonry as important elements to consider. He also believes "society adopts and values heritage buildings when no one is left to tell their stories." Rick Singleton, an architect with Cohos Evamy, believes that heritage buildings "have a quality that someone loved them and created them masterfully." Neil B. Watson, Chairman of Calgary's Heritage Advisory Board, feels that heritage buildings "evoke a sense of the past. They can be modest (or large in scale) but there is something singular in the design, the history or the people connected to them" Trudy Cowan, former Advisory Board Chairman, says in her foreword to Calgary: A Decade of Heritage, "Older buildings were constructed on a scale which related to the people who used them. . . . They used forms and materials which spoke of strength, stability and permanence. They were understandable" Heritage buildings help make our city unique, giving us an anchor firmly planted in the past that helps define who we are and where we come from. These concepts of heritage could also apply to buildings of our own era when someone assesses them in the future.

Calgary\'s Stephen Avenue at the turn of the century.

For many years, Calgarians were not good at preserving their heritage. Barry Graham, partner at Graham Edmunds architects, points out, "Heritage buildings reflect the evolution of the city. As many buildings related to our history were destroyed, there was a gradual realization that they could never be replaced" Over the last two decades this realization has led to a concerted effort to recognize the contribution of these buildings to the fabric of the city. Establishment of the Heritage Advisory Board (a voluntary advisory group to City Council on heritage issues) in 1979 and the Stephen Avenue Heritage Area Society in 1991 has resulted in increased interest in preserving and restoring remaining heritage buildings.

The last two years have seen an explosion of activity along Stephen Avenue. Neil Watson believes more awareness and a "broader sensibility" of heritage issues are shown not only by the general public but also by owners and developers. There is also the potential for commercial success. "People want to be there, in a lovely space. There is a slower pace, that evokes a [simpler] time." They appreciate the chance to slow down. The buildings draw them to open doors and window displays at street level, inviting them inside to shop or linger over a good meal.

Restorations rub shoulders with new construction.

Eye Opener Bob would probably not be impressed with our nostalgic reply. We would have to show him. Just down Stephen Avenue from the Alberta Hotel, 117 and 119 have been transformed into the Art Gallery of Calgary and the Good Earth Cafe, under the direction of architect Gerald Forseth. Originally Patrick Burn's Pioneer Meat Market, 117 has had the sign at the back of the building and the facade preserved, and 119 (built by the Calgary Milling Company in 1902 as a grocery store and retail outlet), has been restored. The two buildings share a common sandstone wall, portions of which are visible in the exhibition galleries. Response by the public and local advocacy groups such as the Alberta Historical Preservation and Rebuilding Society has been very positive. Across the street, the Tribune Block was briefly home of the Calgary Tribune. The building was rescued from a Moderne Style facade that covered the original rough-faced sandstone in the 1950s, and now houses Abelia Floral Gallery.

Restorations rub shoulders with new construction.

In fact, all the way down the Walk, the revitalization and rebirth of the "Sandstone City" are in evidence. The Glanville/Ward Block, once the dry goods store of John Glanville is now the Belvedere dining room. The sleek elegance of the Merchants Bank with its large segmental arch surrounding a central window and distinctive oculi has been transformed into Martins on Eighth. The moulded terracotta tiles and exquisite details of the Hollinsworth Building have been incorporated into the thoroughly modern award winning Bankers Hall office complex. Lorne Simpson says the first principle guiding him in restoring the gold leaf ceiling in the lobby, and the interiors of the Bank of Montreal (now A&B Sound), the Payne Building, and his other Stephen Avenue buildings is "to absolutely maximize the remaining historic materials and, where necessary, to reconstruct missing elements in order to achieve integrity." The seemingly minor details-original doorknobs people handled, single-glazed windows they peered through, the bold paint colours of the period-add up, Simpson stresses. "They're a direct connection between the building and the people who gave it life every day."

Calgary\'s Stephen Avenue at the turn of the century.

But as we make our way east along the Walk, Bob would probably be startled by the extent of the transformation at this end of the Avenue. No doubt he would have enjoyed wading into the controversy surrounding the construction of the Hyatt Hotel and the Telus Convention Centre. Hopefully, he would listen objectively to all sides before assessing the success of the project and its attempt to marry the sandstone of the 19th century with the glass and steel of the 21st.

Barry Graham led the architectural team on the Convention Centre. It faced the difficult task of trying to incorporate the Neilson Block, built in 1903, into a facility with 50,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space combined with the technology and meeting space required to support it. The Neilson Block was designated as an "A" building on the Heritage Advisory Board's Inventory of Potential Heritage Sites, meaning it was considered a notable, unique, or rare heritage structure and no replacement building on the site could contribute more to Calgary.

Calgary\'s Stephen Avenue at the turn of the century.

Controversy arose over the incorporation of the rubble wall (composed of loose irregular aggregate material) on the eastern side of the structure. As Watson explains, the Board "felt there was something special from an architectural perspective. It was part of the original fabric of the building and they were reluctant to see it disturbed" In the end, the wall was rebuilt to accommodate the minimum space requirements of the Centre with about 20% of the original material incorporated into the final structure. Watson feels, "there was more compromise than desirable." They had hoped to maintain more of the "historical integrity of the old building, but there is really only the facade left." The rebuilt rubble wall will be featured in the grand entrance.

Patti LaPorte, president of the Historical and Rebuilding Society, views the final outcome of both the Hyatt and the Convention Centre as "facade-only" not restoration. The society feels the City did not fulfill its promise of "blending the new with the old." But Graham explains, "It is very difficult to incorporate old buildings past the first or second floor because of modern access and fire codes that didn't exist when the buildings were constructed." He points out, "The original commercial buildings were really storefronts with not much behind them." The builders were fairly practical in their use of materials. "They weren't viewed as grand architecture at the time, [that was reserved for the public buildings like City Hall and the Memorial Park Library], but are important for what they represent."

Restorations rub shoulders with new construction.

Although Graham "strongly opposes historical imitation because it trivializes what was there" he feels that the final project "respects what was done in the past" Urban design in the 19th century featured a certain rhythm based on the 50-foot storefronts along the street. The buildings were very open to street traffic, and doors and windows occurred frequently to pull people in to shop. The Convention Centre design acknowledges this "rhythm in a 50-foot pattern of modules to tie in with the narrow front urban rhythm" of the past. Graham explains one of the design goals was to use glass to "animate the building. It will light up the street at night and glow. It will open it up," and welcome people, in contrast to the stark cold concrete facade of the old centre across the street. The new centre will also feature a soft sandstone coloured finish and a small balcony on the southeast corner in recognition of the original "Speaker's Corner" at that site. Graham believes there has been a successful combination of old and new. "It's a high-tech facility that demonstrates what Calgary is about, [but] it fits in scale and proportion, it respects the rhythm of the street"

Calgary\'s Stephen Avenue at the turn of the century.

Rick Singleton's team faced the dilemma of incorporating four heritage sites into the Hyatt project. They included the Doll Block, the Thomson Bros. Block, the Imperial Bank and the Lineham Block. As Singleton points out, "It was the major wish of the owner and the Heritage Advisory Board to incorporate the old and the new in the design" To that end, all the sites except the Lineham will be returned to their original use as retail outlets. The Lineham will serve as the Avenue entrance to the Hotel. An attempt was made to preserve the historical integrity of the buildings but as Singleton points out, "they were basically warehouses, built pragmatically, economically with different codes." This makes it difficult to meet strict modern regulations without making some structural changes, but pedestrians will still be able to enjoy the distinctive quality of each of the buildings as they shop and stroll along this length of the Avenue.

The Hotel itself reflects a classic design with a distinct top, middle and bottom. Singleton believes the "gentle sandstone texture of the building [results in] a kinship between the two-the old and the new. The texture and tone create a sense of timelessness-a sense of where we have been as well as being comfortable going into the future [with] a functional and useful [building]."

By now, Bob may be feeling slightly overwhelmed by the scale and pace of change that has overtaken the city in less than 100 years. He might also be surprised at what we consider heritage sites from his era-buildings that he may have viewed as nothing more than a saddle shop or a place to eat. What, he might ask, will be a heritage building from our era?

Jeremy Sturgess of Sturgess Architecture believes that "buildings are about context. A heritage building is significant in its time and place" He views the Nova building as a potential heritage building because "it is part of our historic context." Gerald Gongos, Partner with BKDI Architects, points to the "scale and profile" of tall buildings like Bankers Hall and "how they end against the sky. They inspire awe, pride and a sense of location-like a sundial, you know exactly where it is." The new Transcanada Pipeline tower, he suggests, exhibits "a thoughtful approach to its environment and where in the urban grid it fits." Its use of colour and "curvature to acknowledge its neighbour" to the east, and the curtain wall with mullion spacing "add dynamic texture to the building" But how will future generations view the significance of these buildings in the urban context of Calgary 75 years from now?

In the end, we can't answer that. It seems, after all, that Heritage is an elusive thing to define.

D. Larraine Andrews is a freelancer writer in Calgary.

This article has been reprinted with permission from Legacy, Alberta's Cultural Heritage Magazine, and the author.

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