By Dave Carpenter

Calgary’s Historic City Hall is a National, Provincial and Municipal Heritage Resource. It has stood for 109 years, and after four years of meticulous work on the facility, Darrel Bell’s confident it will last for a hundred more.

Bell, the Acting Director of Facility Management for the City of Calgary, has led the Historic City Hall rehabilitation project since its inception in 2016, through to the ceremony to honour the building’s restoration on September 15 this year.

Bell says the use of the term ‘rehabilitation’ in the project’s name is quite intentional, and in keeping with the important place the building holds in Calgary’s history and the hearts of its citizens. “It means to renew as opposed to replace; that’s an important distinction,” he says.

The building’s construction began in 1907 through to 1911, and it’s the only remaining city hall from this time period in Western Canada. It’s constructed from sandstone, readily available at the time from the many quarries operating in and around Calgary.

After weathering the elements for more than one hundred years, the sandstone on Historic City Hall began to show signs of deterioration and in 2014, a piece of sandstone fell from the north side of the building.

That’s when Bell was tasked with managing the building’s rehabilitation. However, the most important measures Bell took to protect the building for future generations remained mostly hidden from view.

Rehabilitation of historic City Hall Begins

The project team began Historic City Hall’s rehabilitation by installing a rain-water management system to protect the sandstone and the building for generations to come. Bell and the team then connected the rain-water management system to a weeping tile to drain the water away from the building, into the stormwater system and out onto the main street.

“That did not exist before,” Bell says. “The water used to just run off the roof, into the gutters and overflow into the building. Some parts of the roof had no gutters, which was one of the major causes of deterioration of the original sandstone.”

Another of the first steps was to build scaffolding and a heavy-duty protective enclosure that housed the building. This allowed the crew to work year-round regardless of weather conditions which was a key factor in fulfilling project timelines and decreasing costs.

Bell says that while all the workers were protected by their personal safety equipment, the public wouldn’t have been. “The wrap kept the workers working through each season and the silicone environment contained,” he says. “It also helped us manage the project in a very busy part of town. It allowed the LRT to keep running and the library to be kept open – we didn’t impact any of the surrounding aspects by keeping the building wrapped up, which is great.”

The wrap displayed a large-scale graphic image depicting the building beneath it – an industry standard for long term heritage rehabilitation projects when a building will be under wraps for years. In this case, Historic City Hall was underneath the wrap for three years.

A Round-the-World-Search For New Sandstone

To preserve the look and heritage of the building while ensuring its longevity, sandstone was used for the rehabilitation. Unfortunately, the local sandstone which was originally used is no longer easily accessible due to issues such as privately held mineral rights and land use designations.

With that, the project team looked abroad to seek the stone they required, ultimately landing on three sources of sandstone. The first was a quarry in Spain where the stone visually matched what they wanted to use at the front of City Hall; the second, a Polish sandstone that would shed water easily at higher levels of the building where the stone is most exposed to the elements. The last type of sandstone they chose came from Ohio – the densest stone and most resistant to water, which they used in the building’s foundation.

There are 15,522 pieces of sandstone in Calgary’s Historic City Hall and Bell and his crew have touched 97 per cent of them. “That could range from cleaning the stone or minor repairs to major structural repair or outright replacement,” Bell says. “It’s a level of treatment based on the condition of the stone. We’ve replaced eighteen per cent of the stones and reused the balance of that – as a means of rehabilitation, you take what you’ve got and reuse it as best you can.”

Rehabilitating The Famous Hundred-Foot Clock Tower

Those who built Calgary’s City Hall in 1911 didn’t use steel in its construction. The seven-storey clock tower was made of load-bearing sandstone and red bricks, but no steel. During their investigation, the project team discovered that the clock tower had shifted slightly away from the building over the last century. Another issue discovered was that due to gravity, the 8’ holes in which the clock faces are housed had begun to come apart because of the enormous weight of the structure.

As part of the rehabilitation project, the clock tower has been reinforced inside with new structural steel that fully braces the tower from the third floor up. This new steel skeleton has corrected the leaning and widening issues and will ensure the tower and the clock encasement remain immovable for the next century.

Renewed From Foundation To Roof

The rehabilitation of Historic City Hall has been one of the most significant heritage projects underway in Canada for the last five years. The building’s exterior has been restored to a condition intended to last for another hundred years, with work done from the building’s foundation to its roof and many components in between.
“We’ve replaced all fifteen hundred pieces of mortar,” says Bell. “We’ve replaced the roof and reinforced the verandas and balconies as well as redone the wood underneath the roof, so all the old timber’s gone away, and the new timber’s gone in.” 189 of the building’s 191 original wooden window frames have been repaired and preserved and given new sashes and glass; the remaining two windows remain completely original.

The building has been given a new rain-water management system using weeping tile that drains water away from the building, into the stormwater system and out onto the main street.

Financing the Restoration

Like any major construction project, there are invariably budget concerns, and mitigating them in the case of the Historic City Hall fell on Bell. With a $34.1 million investment to complete the rehabilitation, the team decided to purchase all of the machinery for the project.

“That was the most strategic investment we could make for the project – we’re now in the process of reselling the machinery,” Bell says, which includes the stone mason’s cutting room, the scaffolding system that shrouded city hall and the office the construction workers used.

Once the city recoups the funds from that, Bell expects the project to be on budget.

Public Reaction to the Project

Bell has been involved in many projects over the decades and says that Calgary’s Historic City Hall rehabilitation had much more interest from the public and the media than any other construction initiative he’s been involved with in the past. Bell says that when the city opened the building on the 15th of September, it was a pretty small, low-key affair due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Still, we had members of the public stopping on the sidewalk to listen to the speeches, and then they broke into applause when the building was actually re-opened which is pretty darn neat,” Bell says.

“It took them four years to originally build it, and four years for us to rehabilitate it, almost to the day; there’s a synergy there. The day we re-opened it (September 15) this year, that was the day the cornerstone was laid for the building back in 1907,” Bell says.

“Restoring the heritage, heart and history of Calgary” – I think that tagline really resonated with people,” Bell says. “Calgary’s also a relatively new city, so it’s like a landmark building, people always know where it is. Now that it’s been restored and rehabilitated, it looks fabulous where it sits in the corner of downtown.”