Jul 20

1990s Calgary - Preserving City Hall’s History

by Kristy · 0 comments

Postcard of City Hall circa the 1920s (Retrieved from the University of Alberta)


In 1990, a bylaw was signed in order to designate Calgary’s City Hall as a Municipal Historic Resource. It was the first such designation by the city under the Historical Resources Act. The province indicates that: “Alberta municipalities are empowered under the Historical Resources Act to designate historic places through the passage of a local bylaw. The bylaw legally protects historic resources from demolition or alterations that take away from their heritage value.” Calgary’s City Hall certainly does have historic value!

Downtowns 1886 Fire, Seen From 9th Avenue (Retrieved from the Glenbow Museum Archives)


In 1885, a town hall was constructed in Calgary. The agreement to build a town hall was one of the first decisions made by the newly elected town council of 1884. In 1886, a fire ripped through Calgary, and while the town hall was spared, the fire ushered in an era of sandstone building, responsible for the characteristic look of Calgary’s downtown. By 1904, the town hall was looking run-down, and with the growth of the city, people wanted a civic center that was more fitting of the city’s stature. Debates on location and costs stalled the project, but finally, several years later, it was decided that City Hall should be built on the same site it had occupied since 1885.

City Hall Being Built. Old Town Hall in the Foreground (Retrieved form the Glenbow Museum Archives).


The current City Hall, designed by architect William Dodd, was built in 1911. It is a four-storey building with a sandstone façade, and a large, central clock tower measuring more than 100 feet high. The structure was intended to be fireproof. Internally, the steel framework is reinforced by concrete. The steel-frame construction was the first of its kind in the city, and the building produced one of the first budget controversies when the completion cost ran more than double the original estimate. The controversy ultimately saw Dodd ousted from the project and the building sat untouched for more than a year.

City Hall in 1910, Pre-Clock Tower (Retrieved form the Glenbow Museum Archives)


Eventually, Dodd was replaced by local architectural firm Hodgson & Bates who oversaw the finished product. Local jeweler David Ernest Black, a specialist in watchmaking, was contracted to install the clock and provide maintenance under a five year contract. The clock he selected to grace the tower was made by Seth Thomas Clock Company, supplier of timepieces to the CPR.  D.E. Black eventually sold his business to Henry Birks and Sons in 1920 and became managing director of the company. You can still purchase jewellery from Maison Birks, - their business still exists downtown. Major repairs were done to the clock in 1955 when city council voted to approve maintenance instead of accepting the proposal to dismantle the tower and remove the clock altogether. More repairs have been done throughout the years and there are many names and initials inscribed inside the clock room to represent the many people who have been keeping it ticking.

Originally, City Hall was not only a center of government, but of community policing and law and order. There were 15 jail holding cells in the basement until 1914, as well as the police department and court room. Numerous renovations have taken place on the inside of the building, but the exterior has been carefully preserved and well maintained. City Hall was designated a Provincial Historic Resource in 1978 and a National Historic Site of Canada in 1984.

This blog is part of a series created to compliment our Downtown Through the Decades program on the Downtown Summer Stage. Each weekly performance runs from 1pm – 4pm on Saturdays on Stephen Avenue, and highlights a popular musical genre from a specific decade in Calgary’s history. July 28th will not have a performance).

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