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OnCampus Weekly...NOV. 18/05

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OnCampus Weekly



Calgary's Grand story

History professor pens history of cultural landmark

By Erin Carpenter

At the foot of Calgary's impressive office towers, nestled in the shadows of the monuments to modern commerce, sits the Lougheed Building.

Look a little closer at the six-storey building and you'll see the Grand Theatre-the faded grande dame of Calgary's early cultural community. Almost a century ago, the Grand was conceived as a cultural landmark in a young, rough-hewn city at the junction of the Bow and Elbow rivers.

Lougheed Building in 1911/12“ It was the place for live theatre, the place for music, for dance,” recalls University of Calgary historian Donald Smith, who fought successfully with a local support group to save both the Grand and the Lougheed.

“ And it wasn't just big artists coming from outside, people like Sarah Bernhart, Fred Astaire, Jack Benny. What was perhaps more important were the locally produced plays, musical performances, and political and community events that were in the Grand for 40 years.”

The Grand and the Lougheed were constructed in 1912, at the height of Calgary's first boom. The city's population had exploded from 4,000 to 44,000 during the previous decade.

The Lougheed once cut an imposing figure on Calgary's skyline as the city's "premier corporate address." But it was almost condemned to history when Smith and others lost their fight to have it designated as a provincial historic site, and the city granted a development permit for an office tower in its place.

“ I thought this was stupid, absolutely idiotic in a city that doesn't know itself," Smith says. "At least the oldtimers do, but many newcomers have no idea where they are.”

As a historian, Smith's motivation to save the Lougheed was partly professional, but highly personal too.

“ My dad was an architect and he was involved in historical preservation in Toronto. I guess I felt subconsciously that this was something that should be done.”

Smith began documenting the rich history of the Grand and the Lougheed for a book. Calgary’s Grand Story, was published by University of Calgary Press on September 1, Alberta's 100th birthday. In it, he recounts how the historical buildings have their roots in the shared vision of James Lougheed, then a federal cabinet minister and one of Calgary's largest landowners, and his wife, Belle Hardisty Lougheed.

The Lougheeds believed a vibrant city's buildings should reflect its status both commercially and culturally-thus the Lougheed building was constructed as a showcase office structure housing the Grand Theatre.

Calgarians could now watch vaudeville, live theatre, opera and early silent films. Three Canadian prime ministers also spoke at the theatre, as did Nellie McClung and other popular lecturers of the day.

Smith describes the Lougheed's tenants as heavy hitters in the province's agriculture-based economy; the United Farmers of Alberta, the Alberta Wheat Pool, and the United Grain Growers.
Henry Wise Wood, the most powerful and influential leader of the farmers' movement in Alberta, worked and lived in the building.

The Lougheed has survived for many years, but the Grand met an ignoble fate in the 1950s. It continued as a movie theatre, but live performances ended with the construction of the Jubilee Auditorium as a new concert hall.

The Grand's marble wainscoting, stained glass and ornate carvings have been renovated many times since then, but the character of much of the Lougheed, particularly on its second floor, has remained consistent, aside from lighting and electrical upgrades.

When the city granted a development permit in 2000 to demolish the historic buildings, Smith was dejected.

“ It was kind of depressing, because really, I was writing an obituary. But in 2003, Neil Richardson bought the buildings and suddenly there was hope,” Smith says, referring to the member of the Calgary business community who had already saved and restored several other city landmarks.

After a 2004 fire damaged the Lougheed and the Grand, the city voted to help Richardson restore the buildings. Theatre Junction has since bought the Grand. On February 21, 2006, it will launch its regular season in its newly-designed contemporary theatre space. On March 4th Theatre Junction hosts “The Grand Opening,” a celebration of the rebirth of Calgary’s oldest theatre. Smith is ecstatic at the turn of events.

“ It’s fantastic, because here is a record of our city in the 20th century through two buildings, and it’s a constant reminder of where we ’ve been.”