Too many of Calgary’s historic buildings have seen the wrecker’s ball

Have you ever cherished something that was really old? Maybe it’s a family heirloom that has been passed down from generation to generation. Maybe it’s old photographs, jewelry or furniture: items that help us connect with who we are today and where we came from.

Like heirlooms, heritage buildings are important to preserve because they connect us to our community and help us discover who we are as a city, says Scott Jolliffe, chair of the Calgary Heritage Authority.

Jolliffe says it’s very important to preserve our history.

“Historic buildings are symbols of the hopes and dreams of generations that came before us and preserving those gives us roots in this community,” he says.

The city itself is only 127 years old. Compared to other cities such as those in Europe, which are thousands of years old, Calgary is quite young. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have history.

The only problem is that much of Calgary’s history has gone under the wrecker’s ball in order to make room for rapid growth and expansion.

The implosion of the Ogden grain elevator on Oct. 16 was just the latest historical landmark in Calgary to be lost. Various groups in the city have lately been successful in preserving what heritage buildings still remain.

Photo by: Victor DormaThe most recent part of Calgary’s heritage to be demolished was the Ogden federal grain elevator, which was owned by Cargill.

On Oct. 16, Calgarians watched as a little piece of their history imploded into itself and came crashing to the ground after nearly a century of service.

The Ogden elevator is just one of many of Calgary’s heritage buildings to be destroyed. Everything from the Robin Hood Flour Mill, which was torn down in 1973, to the Calgary General Hospital, which was imploded in 1998, have all disappeared to make room for our ever-growing city.

Cynthia Klaassen, president of the Calgary Heritage Initiative Society, says that the Ogden elevator was iconic to the city.

“The building held a lot of stories and now that the building is gone, the stories are gone too,” she says.

Klaassen blames the rise of the automobile and the increasing need for wider roads for the loss of many historic buildings.

“A lot of buildings went right through downtown core areas and a lot of buildings were demolished for the sake of the car,” says Klaassen.

Jolliffe agrees with Klaassen’s reasoning, saying there were some good reasons to get rid of historic buildings.

“In order for Calgary to become a bigger city, we needed to increase the density of the downtown area, which involved removing some old buildings and replacing them with newer ones.”

Calgary is a lively city that has experienced rapid growth in a short amount of time. With all this growth, according to Jolliffe and Klaassen, the city has needed to find ways to quickly develop and expand in order to accommodate for its fast-growing population.

The legendary King Edward Hotel, located in Calgary’s East Village, is one of 650 heritage buildings that have escaped the fate of being torn down and will be preserved by the City of Calgary.

Photo courtesy of: Wikimedia CommonsAlthough several of Calgary’s heritage buildings have been demolished, there are many more that still stand today, which are being restored and protected.

Lorne Simpson, an architect with a Master’s degree studying historic building conservation, has worked on restoring many of Calgary’s historic buildings, from the Scotiabank Saddledome and the Centre Street Bridge to several buildings on Stephen Avenue.

Simpson said in a speech at a Saving Places screening at the Memorial Park Library on Oct. 20 that a lot of progress has been made to help protect Calgary’s heritage.

“We’re seeing a lot of change and it’s only excelling,” Simpson told the crowd.

Jolliffe says that the City of Calgary, through the Calgary Heritage Authority, has recognized about 650 historic buildings and there are steps being taken to identify, protect and maintain these buildings.

“We’ve definitely turned a corner in the last dozen years,” says Jolliffe, who said he believes the last senseless historical loss was the original St. Mary’s High School building, which he says was torn down in 2002 for no reason.

“That was a real low point for heritage preservation in Calgary, but I think today, something like that would never happen,” says Jolliffe.

According to him, these days, when development is happening and there are heritage buildings in the way, there’s usually a chance to deal with the developer and see if there’s any way to preserve those buildings.

“A good example are the buildings in the East Village, which will be legally protected from demolition,” Jolliffe says. “We’re headed in the right direction.”

ltaylor@cjournal.ca