Downtown Calgary and the Beltline are wonderful areas to explore and there is a surprisingly rich history to animate those walks. We asked Richard White, an urban blogger renowned for his blog The Everyday Tourist, to share some of the history and background of the buildings in the surrounding neighbourhood of Hotel Arts.
First Street SW: South Stroll by Richard White
When most people think of Calgary, they think of modern office buildings as that is what dominates our skyline. But, once you get on the street and if you keep your eyes open, you will find there are lots of historical buildings that date back to Calgary’s early frontier years.
The streets around Hotel Arts are a delightful mix of old and new buildings offering a diversity of things to see and do. One of the most interesting strolls is along First Street SW, where you will find turn-of-the-century department stores, a cathedral and also a turtle-shaped recreation centre.
Turn left out the Front Doors at Hotel Arts and walk past local artist Tyler Lemermeyer’s bike-themed mural to First Street SW to begin either the South Stroll which should take between 20-45 minutes.
First Street SW
First Street was originally called Scarth Street and 12th Avenue was Van Horne Avenue, named after William Cornelius Van Horne, President of the Canadian Pacific Railway. All of Calgary’s downtown streets had names until 1904 when the City converted them to numbers. Along the south stroll the old street names have been included on the street signs.
Canadian Bank of Commerce
At the corner of 12th Ave and 1st SW is the Canadian Bank of Commerce, which opened in 1912 as the banks south branch. This three-story Georgian Revival building had a bank on the main floor, offices on the second and staff residences on the third. Today, it is home to Forman’s Menswear (which is celebrating its 70th Anniversary this year).
The Eagle Block
This heritage building was built in 1908 as the home of the Fraternal Order of Eagles. The ground floor was rented out to various businesses over the years including the “Farmer Meat Market”, James Small’s bakery, Olivier’s Confection Store, Trafton’s Candy Mill, among others. Fast forward to the 1980s when it hosted the Night Gallery, a popular live music venue. It is now home to one of Canada’s best new restaurants, 10 Foot Henry.
Radio Block (1215 – 1223 1st Street SW)
Walk towards 13th Avenue SW and you will see The Radio Block (1923) which evokes the spirit of the time when the radio was changing the lives of humans around the world just as the smartphone is today. It is a good example of how residential and commercial uses were mixed in the early 20th century to create vibrant pedestrian streets. Today, it is home to a popular pub, the St. James Corner.
Walk to the end of First Street and you come to Rouleauville Square, developed in 1995 as homage to Calgary’s French settlers. Check out the interpretive panels in the square, as well as the relief artworks.
St. Mary’s Cathedral
Proceed through the square to the 1956 Modernist Gothic St. Mary’s Cathedral designed by Maxwell Bates. The original sandstone church built in 1899 and consecrated as a cathedral in 1913, had to be demolished in 1955 due to structural problems.
Be sure to check out the reliefs on the front door and the broken cornerstone of the original cathedral embedded into a cairn on the west side of the modern building. If you want to see inside, best to check out mass times.
Parish Hall / CN Train Station
To the left of the cathedral is a classic French-style mansard roofed sandstone building that was the St. Mary’s Parish Hall and dates back to 1905. It served as the community centre for the parish and the community until 1911 when the parish sold it to the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) whose right of way to downtown included this property. The last train departed for Edmonton from this station in 1971 and the structure was vacant until 1987 when renovations were completed and Alberta Ballet moved in to use two large dance studios.
Continue to walk along First Street to the back of the building where you will find some of the old rail left from the railway and you can get a better view of the actual train station. There are also interpretive panels.
Repsol Sport Centre
Proceed across the bridge to Lindsay Park and the Repsol Sport Center, which is one of the most active aquatic and multi-sport recreation centres in North America. Build in 1983 for the Western Canada Games, the unique turtle-like Teflon roof allows natural light into the building, which decreases the cost of lighting. The building precedes by 30 years the current trend of creating strange-looking public buildings. Walk around the building and go inside for a workout or just to explore.
Head back to First Street the same way you came. When you get to 19th Ave SW walk a half block to your left to check out the Sacred Heart Convent.
Sacred Heart Convent
Back in 1882, a small mission was constructed on the site when the North-West Rebellion broke out in what is now Saskatchewan (Alberta and Saskatchewan didn’t become provinces until 1905). The Sisters of the Faithful Companions of Jesus fled to Calgary and took over the mission building as a convent, which they named Sacred Heart. In 1893, a west wing was added and in 1924 the original mission building was demolished and replaced it with the east wing that duplicated the 1893 wing and a chapel (both designed by Maxwell Bates).
The convent is currently operated as a retreat centre. If you walk inside, you will discover an oasis of peacefulness along the shore of the Elbow River and a grotto on the east side of the building.
Circle back to First Street SW and head back the way you came to Hotel Arts.