The 107-year-old Historic City Hall in Calgary is getting a facelift

By Anna Guy

The great fire of 1886 changed the face of downtown Calgary. Before the fire, most of the city’s buildings were made of timber; after, they were built of inflammable materials like sandstone and brick, earning Calgary the moniker Sandstone City. Constructed by 1911, Historic City Hall is the crown jewel of the city’s sandstone legacy. Surviving 107 years, it’s the only surviving city hall of its period in Western Canada, and is a National, Provincial and Municipal Heritage Resource.

Over the years, Historic City Hall has been not just the seat of civic government but also a court and a jail, and the site of numerous notable visitors to the city, including members of the Royal family from King George to Princess Elizabeth. Once it became apparent the stone work was falling into disrepair (a stone fell onto an upper balcony in 2014), there was little hesitation by council to raise $34.1 million to restore the building.

Scheduled for completion in 2020, the project also includes fixing the clock tower, and implementing a rain water management system which will reduce one of the major factors in the building’s deterioration.

“This is really a wonderful project to be a part of,” says Darrel Bell, Acting Director of Facility Management for The City of Calgary. “Rehabilitation of historic buildings differs greatly from new construction. The materials, methods and trades required for historical rehabilitation projects are scarce and costly.”

“Planning on a project of this age and scope requires significantly more time to plan,” says Bell. “The protected status of designated heritage buildings means that any work must meet National Standards for the treatment of these properties.”

Sourcing the exact sandstone for the reparations is another unique logistical challenge. Any replacement sandstone must be physically and visually compatible with the existing stone and have appropriate density to last for a century. “The building was made with original Paskapoo sandstone taken from quarries that were open around Calgary at the time, but which no longer exist.” Bell and his team searched for compatible sandstone world wide, eventually finding sources in Ohio, Spain, and Poland. Such intricate specifications and plans are required for every component of Historic City Hall’s renewal, including the mortar and windows.

During the rehabilitation of Historic City Hall, extensive heritage treatments will be done on almost every piece of sandstone on the building by up to 30 expert stonemasons, many of whom worked on similar projects on Parliament Hill. Of the building’s 15,522 pieces of sandstone, all but 380 of those have been specified to require some kind of treatment (cleaning, structural fortification or replacement).

“This highlights a key feature of the conservation work,” says Bell. “The goal is always to preserve and repair existing material whenever possible, rather than resort to replacement.”

One of the more innovative parts of the project is actually hidden to the public—the installation of a rain management system, one of Bell’s points of pride. “With our new rainwater management system, we are now able to take the rainwater, which was one of the major sources of deterioration, away from the building and pipe it out into the stormwater system from the building,” said Bell.

Despite the enormous amount of pre-planning that was required for this job, when you work on a building that’s over a century old, surprises are always around the corner, like the delightful day autographs of the original stonemasons were uncovered on the walls around the clocktower. There was also the discovery of a flag they believe one of the project managers from the original build managed to hide in the rafters. “We will frame and display the flag once the building is complete,” says Bell.

According to The City, the flag was concealed near the top of the clock tower, wrapped in a copy of the Albertan newspaper from August 22, 1912. Based on that date, it is likely the bunting was among those originally ordered to decorate the building for the September 1912 royal visit to Calgary of His Royal Highness Prince Arthur the Duke of Connaught and Strathern, and the 10th Governor General of Canada.

Historic City Hall has seen Calgary through many chapters. It is with pride and anticipation that The City is now close to unveiling the “new” Historic City Hall and welcoming back the Mayor and Councillors to their home. When that happens, we will follow up with the celebrations.