King Eddy has story to tell

National Music Centre considers landmark a precious artifact

With a collection including everything from a 1679 harpsichord to the synthesizer used in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind Calgary’s National Music Centre features both the historic and the futuristic. So it’s only fitting its new digs should combine these qualities.

Likened by its architect to an instrument one can “play” the $135-million 165000-square-foot (15330 square metres) new facility will house the centre’s existing collection; artifacts from the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and broadcast studios and recording facilities. Its heart however will be the King Edward Hotel which opened in 1905 and later became one of the city’s — and Canada’s — premiere blues venues in the ’80s and ’90s.

More than a century old shuttered for almost a decade and contaminated with mould the King Eddy might seem like a museum piece itself. But that says National Music Centre CEO Andrew Mosker is precisely the point. While most of the interior will have to be gutted the centre is retaining as much of the building as possible including the sword-shaped sign and sandstone window sills.

It’s even going so far as to take the exterior wall apart brick by brick for reassembly later. Restoring the Eddy’s an expensive monumental task but Mosker says the centre never doubted that it’s worth doing.

“When you visit our collections and see all this history before your eyes it’s a very special experience for many of our visitors. Hearing these instruments play some of them 300 to 400 years old is a unique experience only we can really offer to this degree. My sense was that’s an element of our culture as an organization to give visitors an authentic and unique visitor experience. We think of the King Eddy as quite frankly the largest artifact in our collection.”

Although any builder on the King Eddy site would have had to preserve parts of the hotel which are protected under heritage legislation Mosker sees preservation as a joy rather than a burden. Despite the interior renovations he stresses the new facility will still be the Eddy not a replica.

“It’s important to see that what history we have left in Calgary is preserved and celebrated” he says “particularly if they’re places where the public gathered. The King Eddy was such a landmark for so many years in Calgary. People have so many memories of it that it’s an important landmark to save and repurpose and an important story to tell. Where does Calgary come from? What was on Ninth Avenue in 1905 and 1907? What kind of people used to stay at that hotel?”

A rather seedy clientele in fact frequented the Eddy in the early days as it anchored the stretch of hotels known as “whisky row” home to many drifters due to its proximity to the railway station. But as a blues bar the hotel’s humble origins didn’t deter the greats who performed there including B.B. King Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters. And it didn’t stop people from all walks of life from flocking to hear them play music that serves as a reminder of people’s shared troubles.

“To see those artists close up in that venue was an experience for many Calgarians” says Mosker. “It was an experience many of them cherished and also brought many people from the community together. Whether you were a senator or a mayor or a corporate CEO or a biker or just a music fan many people gathered at the King Eddy to hear this music.”

People will gather again when the Eddy reopens in early 2016 as home to one of the centre’s two planned performance spaces. But the restoration’s significance Mosker believes goes beyond the building itself. Other East Village sites including the old Simmons mattress building and the St. Louis Hotel are enjoying similar revitalizations. And Mosker hopes such restorations will just be the first of more to come.

“We’re hopeful it becomes a catalyst the saving of the King Eddy repurposing of it” he says. “There are many challenges but there are many opportunities as well so we’re hopeful that it becomes more of a trend in Calgary.”