On the avenue

*Sandstone City: A series looking at the people, architecture and culture of Calgary’s sandstone glory days

Stephen Avenue fire almost 130 years ago sparked Calgary’s sandstone era

As the Calgary Stampeders celebrated their Grey Cup win Dec. 2, little did they know they were revelling on the site of a once-tragic fire.

On Nov. 7, 1886, flames ravaged downtown Calgary, destroying about 18 buildings that ranged from hotels and barns to saloons. While no one was killed, losses added up to more than $100,000 – an astronomical sum for the times.

The cause of the blaze was never found, but it’s said at the time of the fire, then mayor George King told the crowd, “If you find anybody setting fire to any building … I hand him over to you and you may deal with him as you like.”
That fire, and the need to prevent future occurrences of the same devastation, would spark Calgary’s transformation from a once wooden western town to Sandstone City.

In the years following 1886, 15 sandstone quarries would pop up in the Calgary area, including Glenbow Quarry, Elbow River Quarry and Bow Bank Quarry. Combined, they contributed to the construction of now iconic buildings that still dot the local landscape, such as City Hall, Cathedral Church of the Redeemer and the Imperial Bank Building on Stephen Avenue.

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“As Calgary was rebuilt, locally quarried Paskapoo sandstone figured in most substantial construction over the next quarter century, giving Calgary a distinct appearance from other prairie cities,” said Calgary’s former Historian Laureate Harry Sanders. “Sandstone had the dual advantage of being fire resistant.”

Saunders said development has seen the loss of sandstone landmarks such as McDougall Block, demolished to build the Glenbow Museum, and Alexander Corner, now the Hudson’s Bay Company, but the avenue still has the “greatest concentration of remaining sandstone buildings, and they are a city treasure.”

Those Stephen Avenue sentiments were echoed by Calgary Downtown Association executive director Maggie Schofield.

“It really is the foundation for Calgary, so between here and Fort Calgary is really where everything took off in the heart of the city. It’s really where our roots are,” she said of the area named for George Stephen, first president of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), and declared a National Historic District in 2002.

“What’s interesting is we have the ultra-modern in places like The Bow for instance, and then we have this juxtaposition to the historical architecture, which has its own beauty charm and grace. We’ve seen very, very interesting installations within these [historical] buildings – beautiful restaurants, beautiful office facilities – and it’s just really appealing to people because it’s telling them where they came from.”

Calgary’s sandstone heritage thrived throughout the remainder of the 1800s and into the 19th century. As a young, attractive and growing city, sandstone was in high demand for schools, banks and even private residences – one of the most popular being Lougheed House, which today sits on 13th Avenue and Seventh Street S.W.

By 1913, the real estate boom began to falter. And with the start of the First World War, the era of the Sandstone City was nearing an end.

A few of those sandstone sentries remain, including Connaught School, King Edward School the Palliser hotel and Bank and Baron Pub, formerly the Bank of Nova Scotia. Only one wooden building that predates the fire of 1886 remains, the T.C. Power and Brothers building, which, along with the Bank of Nova Scotia Building and others, serves to add to Stephen Avenue’s draw.

“[Stephen Avenue is] the backbone of the entire city, but certainly the downtown specifically, and it’s got a little something for everybody,” said Schofield. “It’s got really interesting architecture from all decades and it’s got street performers. It’s got food, it’s got surprise elements; so pieces of art and performances that people wouldn’t necessarily expect.”

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