Calgary's heritage buildings: There's value in old bricks


Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, May 13, 2016 12:57PM EDT
Last updated Friday, May 13, 2016 4:19PM EDT


In July, Canada’s National Music Centre, Studio Bell, will open to the public. The impressive feat of architecture and engineering totals 160,000 square feet over five storeys with nine interlocking towers. The structure is clad in 220,000 custom-glazed terracotta tiles which shine a myriad of colours in sunlight, a beacon of modern architecture.

And cradled by the structure, at its heart, is the original 1905 King Edward Hotel. Well, sort of.

The King Eddy, as it’s affectionately known, was in fact completely disassembled and rebuilt, brick by brick, into its new parent structure.

“We didn’t want to dismantle it. That was never the plan,” says Andrew Mosker, the National Music Centre’s President and CEO, “but it had lain empty for a decade, unprotected from the elements, and the building was unsound.”

The building, known as Calgary’s home of the blues, had been owned by Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) since 2008 and prior to that by the city. In 2010, it was pegged for demolition to make way for an underpass, but was saved due to public outcry. The underpass was relocated.

It was around that time that Mr. Mosker approached the CMLC with a plan to incorporate it into the National Music Centre and the hotel’s fortunes took a turn for the better.

Three years later, Ontario-based Clifford Restoration was hired to undertake the epic task of taking apart the building, numbering and zoning 48,000 century-old bricks and rebuilding the entire structure, ensuring each brick was placed within a metre of its original location.

“I strongly believed the Centre should be anchored to a Calgary music story and a physical space. Some authenticity was needed. The King Eddy was the obvious choice,” Mr. Mosker says.

They also stripped back decades of paintwork to restore the building to its turn-of-the-century glory.

Studio Bell rendering, with restored King Edward Hotel facade. (Mir AS)

“It was a huge undertaking,” Mr. Mosker admits, and also “vastly more expensive” than other available options.

“It was in the region of $7-million more to dismantle and rebuild it the way we did. But it we didn’t see it as a choice; it needed to be as real as we could make it given our situation. We didn’t want to chase the ghost away.”

While many consider the re-birth of Calgary’s second oldest hotel to be a triumph, others say it begs an important question about whether or not enough is being done to maintain the city’s heritage buildings.

Last year, the City of Calgary increased its maintenance budget for city-owned heritage buildings from just $200,000 a year to $10.5-million over four years; a sum that is exclusive of the $34.1-million rehabilitation budget allowed for City Hall.

The budget increase resulted from the introduction of a management plan for city-owned heritage buildings in 2013, shortly after work commenced on restoring the King Eddy.

“We recognized that something needed to be done about city-owned heritage buildings,” says senior heritage planner Clint Robertson, though he remains noncomittal about whether or not the plan and the budget increase were a direct result of the King Eddy.

But for some, the city’s policies still don’t go far enough to protect the city’s history.

Restoration veteran and president of Calgary’s Heritage Property Corporation Neil Richardson is perplexed at what he calls “hollow restorations” such as the King Eddy, which he claims are “like taking a photo of the Mona Lisa and saying ‘Hey, I saved the Mona Lisa.’”

Some of the heritage buildings on the 100 block of 7th Ave. SW., current condition. (Neil J. Richardson)

“This is happening more and more in Calgary and it’s all public relations; there’s no substance to it. People tear down buildings and stick the old façade back on and call it restoration, and it’s not.”

Mr. Richardson currently owns six historic sites on the 100th block of 7th Avenue S.W. including the original Calgary stock exchange. The buildings date from 1911 through to 1921 and according to heritage planner Mr. Robertson, the buildings are “one of the most important streetscapes in downtown Calgary.”

And yet, despite owning the sites since 2008, Mr. Richardson has struggled to make progress on an ambitious restoration and development plan which would see the block become an arts and culture hub, financed by a large automated parking facility at the rear.

Mr. Richardson worked with the city on re-zoning the sites in 2013. He then submitted a plan that, last October, was overturned due to a neighbour refuting his traffic report.

“I’m pretty sure this particular neighbour, who owns the Hyatt Hotel, is assembling an entire block of Stephen Avenue to build something and our development would throw a major spanner in the works. That’s my belief.”

Rendering, 100 block of 7th St. SW, Calgary, once restored. (Neil J. Richardson)

He’s due to resubmit a new plan this fall but, as time goes on, he’s increasingly concerned over the state of repair of his investment.

“Because we’ve always been led to believe we’d get permission for this development shortly, we haven’t undertaken the repair and maintenance you might normally undertake with buildings like these. Now it’s eight years on and there’s water damage, broken windows, graffiti, leaking roofs. It all adds to the escalating costs. It also looks unsightly.”

Mr. Robertson agrees. “It’s unfortunate the project has ended up where it is, these are really significant buildings.”

Mr. Richardson’s previous list of heritage restoration successes includes the Lougheed Building and Grand Theatre and The Lorraine. The latter had been partially destroyed by fire and demolition permits had been issued for all three sites, along with planning permission to build condo towers in their place.

“The Lorraine sat for a year and a half with no roof, the top floor had been completely destroyed. The Lougheed is a six-storey building which came with permission to build a 30-storey condo,” says the lawyer-turned-developer.

A rendering of a proposal to redevelop the 100 block of 7th Avenue S.W., Calgary. (Neil J. Richardson)

“Often the condition of heritage buildings provides a very convenient excuse for not restoring them. Because of City policy, you’ll always make more money tearing them down and there’s no incentives not to.”

Never one to give up easy, Mr. Richardson says he’ll “hang in there” with his 7th Avenue project.

“It comes down to how you measure return; is it about dollars or is there a social value to consider? These buildings are important, this could be an incredible arts and culture location for our city.”

While Mr. Richardson and Mr. Mosker might not agree on the integrity of the King Eddy’s restoration, they do agree that heritage buildings contribute hugely to the social fabric of the city.

“It was always important for us to create a place, not a monument. In years to come I want people to come to Calgary and say ‘Let’s go to the King Eddy and watch a show tonight,’” enthuses Mr. Mosker, “and they will, because it’s part of the soul of the city and there’s something magnetic about that.”

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