The Sandstone City

By James Keller

In the early hours of Saturday, November 7, 1886, fire broke out in Parish & Son’s grocery and provision store on Calgary’s Atlantic Avenue (now 9th Ave, in the downtown core). The blaze quickly spread to adjoining buildings, like Sherman House and Lamount’s Tin Shop. Wind carried the fire further to a building on the opposite corner, where it met a vacant lot and stopped.

Meanwhile, at the fire’s origin, it also spread northward-first to the Union Hotel, then further, only to stop as it reached the Royal Hotel. The fire left a path of destruction that nearly destroyed the city’s downtown core. Many of the city’s wooden buildings were leveled, businesses crippled. The total cost of the disaster reached over $100,000.

This event transformed the face of the city in a matter of hours, and its effects are still visible today. The fire sparked what is known as Calgary’s “Sandstone Era.” To ensure this would never happen again, city officials borrowed a page from the Three Little Pigs and drafted a law: all large downtown buildings were to be built with Paskapoo sandstone. The effects were far reaching for Calgarians and for the city’s future.

Fifteen sandstone quarries were opened along the banks of the Bow River to extract the material, both within the city and as far away as Cochrane. Industry was transformed, and by 1890, half the city’s tradesman worked in the stonecutting industry. As suburbs quickly expanded, the quarries were pushed out of the city, allowing neighbouring towns like Okotoks to flourish, and Calgary quickly became a major exporter of raw sandstone. However, these were temporary effects. The boom didn’t even last 30 years, with all of Calgary’s quarries closed by 1915. With the onset of the First World War, the Sandstone Era came to an end, leaving the city with a host of buildings, renowned both for their beauty and as portals to a Calgary generations away.

The first substantial sandstone building erected in Calgary was the Knox Presbyterian Church in 1887, just one year after the fire. The building, now the 5th Ave. site of the York Hotel, was not built by locals since there were no skilled stonemasons at the time. Workers were brought in from Winnipeg, and stone was gathered for free at local quarries. When it was complete, it towered 72 feet above the city streets and cost $8,000. The church moved to a new building in 1912, a few blocks east of the old site along Centre St., and the empty building became the York Hotel. The building still stands in its original spot. It was purchased in 1993 by Calhome Properties, the city’s non-profit housing agency for $1,030,000.

In a span of less than 15 years, over 40 sandstone buildings sprung up in the downtown core alone. With some of these buildings already 100 years old, and others, like the Grain Exchange Building soon approaching their centennials, these buildings serve as a reminder, even if the people who now sit in their stone walls are drastically different than their original inhabitants.

At the bottom of the Grain Exchange Building on Stephen Ave., built in 1909, lies a piece of Calgary culture as unique as the building itself–the Beatniq. Within the confines of the old Bank of Montreal building, built in 1889 and housing the bank until 1929, sits A ïœ| B Sound. In the top floors of the Alberta Hotel, 1888, sits Merrieta’s Bar and Grill, with a Bata shoe store below. However, this isn’t the case for all of these sandstone castles.

City Hall began construction in 1907 and was occupied by our civil servants in 1911. Even after a newer, modernized hall was finished in 1985, and after a major restoration from 1995 to 1997, the offices that peer out of the sandstone window frames are still in use by aldermen. With some exceptions, most churches are still churches, like the First Baptist Church, completed in 1912. Some hotels still house tourists from around the world in their aging, but undoubtedly renovated, rooms. The Palliser Hotel, completed after three short years in 1914, still stands as majestic as it was then, and remains at the heart of a very concentrated pocket of remaining sandstone buildings.

In a Calgary Herald article in September of 1980, famed Canadian historian Pierre Berton wrote, “The two blocks between the Palliser Hotel and The Bay is the only part of the city that resembles its former self.” While Berton was actually criticizing the city for its gross lack of history, the history he seeks is rooted in these very same buildings. Trapped in their stories, hiding in the walls, are the lives and communities that built this city. A key to our past, one of many, is in understanding where these buildings came from and by whom they were built.

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