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Dawn of Canada's Oil Capital (1946-1960)

View of British-American oil refinery

Immediately after the Second World War, Calgary went through an economic decline. With the war industries shut down and men returning from overseas, the city was characterized by record unemployment and a severe housing shortage. These conditions were exacerbated by a continuing trend of rural depopulation, whereby residents of rural areas and smaller towns were moving to larger urban centres like Calgary. But one important event changed Calgary's fortunes almost over night. On February 13, 1947, oil was struck near Leduc, Alberta. Imperial Oil's Leduc #1 well revived Alberta's depleting oil industry and marked the beginning of Calgary's transformation from a service centre to a true urban metropolis. Most notably, Calgary would go on to become the Canadian headquarters for the oil and gas industry.

Foundations of office building

The post-war population of Calgary was a modest 125,000. By 1965, that number would reach 325,000. Calgary's economy was transformed by the oil industry during the 1950s when American companies began flooding to Alberta in search of drilling rights. Because of the management role that Calgary had played during the tumultuous Turner Valley oil strikes, Calgary was chosen as the headquarters for the petroleum industry, despite Edmonton's geographic proximity to Leduc. Wealthy American companies began buying up Calgary's real estate, and for a time, Calgary became the fastest growing city in Canada. The impact on Calgary's downtown was dramatic-many of its historical sandstone buildings were replaced with high-rises owned by petroleum industry giants like Imperial Oil, Shell, Gulf, Texaco and Pacific Petroleum. One of the most prominent office towers at the time was the 11-storey Barron building erected by real estate tycoon J.B. Barron. The Barron building contained offices, retail space, a restaurant, a movie theatre, and the Barron penthouse with a rooftop garden. Many of the new skyscrapers were concentrated along 7th, 8th, and 9th streets joining 9th Avenue, aptly nicknamed Petroleum Row. This development was the beginning of a trend by which the downtown core became a single-use, high density district.

Barron Building

The suburbanization of Calgary was another prominent feature in describing Calgary's post-war building boom. Young, wealthy Calgarians were looking for large, spacious homes that were centrally-heated and could accommodate the latest appliances. Calgarians preferred bungalows complimented by front and backyards thus causing average lots sizes to increase. In response, city planners advocated the Neighborhood Unit plan, which combined residential development, park space, retail, and schools, into an enclosed non-grid street system with limited access to freeways.

Cliff Bungalow district

Beginning in the 1950s, private developers like Nu-West began to rapidly build these neighbourhood units. In 1949, building permits had reached a new high of 21.8 million dollars. Nearly 6000 new homes were constructed in the four years following the war. Surrounding these bungalows were strip malls and shopping centres. The first indoor mall in Calgary was the Simpson-Sears North Hill Mall, built in 1958. Two years later, western Canada's largest mall, the Chinook Centre, opened in Calgary, followed by the Southridge Shopping Centre in 1963. Calgary also saw the development of several drive-in theatres, a new football stadium in 1960, and the South Alberta Institute of Technology in 1958. All of these developments were shifting life from Calgary's downtown core, to the suburbs.

Hudson’s Bay Oil and Gas building

Calgary was a city transformed. Both in the suburbs and downtown architectural modernism ruled, with functionality and progress at the centre of it all. Historic buildings were rapidly torn down in favour of the practical, the progressive, and the large. Suburban sprawl issues faced by Calgarians today have their roots in this era. Calgary rapidly expanded its territory, annexing suburbs and fringe communities. In 1953, Calgary annexed a large territory to the north, and then in 1956, the city spread south and west. Several outlying municipalities were annexed - Forest Lawn in 1961, Montgomery in 1963, and Bowness in 1964.

Calgary skyline view

Amidst the territorial expansion, Calgary's real estate industry thrived. Jack Rich and Ervie Jackson held the biggest real estate firm in Calgary in the post-war period. Women also started to join the field; Evelyn Hinds started a firm while Paramount REALTORS® were comprised entirely of female real estate agents. The 1950s ushered in an era of change throughout the industry; for the first time, real estate specialization became the norm. In earlier periods, real estate professionals often sidelined as lawyers or as insurance agents. With the expansion of the industry, organized real estate had a more important role than ever to play. In the immediate post-war year, the Calgary Real Estate Board was heavily involved in political lobbying because of Federal regulations left over from the war, like the Veterans' Land Act, passed in 1942 that prevented Real Estate agents from charging commission on sales for veterans and nearly threatened to put real estate agents out of business. The board also worked with the national and provincial real estate associations to improve the licensing and education of REALTORS®. In addition, Calgary real estate professionals looked into creating co-operative listings, hence the creation of the Calgary Co-op Listing Bureau in 1951, which was amalgamated with the Calgary Real Estate board in 1955.

References

Collins, Robert. “After a Fruitless Ten-Year Search Imperial Strikes the Big Bonanza.” Alberta in the 20th Century, Vol.9: Leduc, Manning & the Age of Prosperity 1946-1963. Edmonton: United Western Communications Ltd., 1991.

Maunder, Mike. “A Metropolis is Superimposed upon a Drowsy Ranching Town.” Alberta in the 20th Century, Vol.9: Leduc, Manning & the Age of Prosperity 1946-1963. Edmonton: United Western Communications Ltd., 1991.

Maunder, Mike. “A New Urban World Appears as Suburbia Transforms the Cities.” Alberta in the 20th Century, Vol.9: Leduc, Manning & the Age of Prosperity 1946-1963. Edmonton: United Western Communications Ltd., 1991.

Peach, Jack. The First Fifty Years: A Chronicle of Half a Century in the life of the Calgary Real Estate Board 1943 - 1993. The Calgary Real Estate Board.

Sandalack, Beverly A. and Andrei Nicolai. The Calgary Project: Urban Form/Urban Life. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006.

Stamp, Robert M. “Suburban Modern: Searching for an Aesthetic in Post-War Calgary. In Calgary Modern 1947-1967. The Nickle Arts Museum, University of Calgary, 2000.

Stenson, Fred. The Story of Calgary. Fifth House Publishers, 1994.

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