Preservation and development

We must get better at blending the old with the new

I just returned from a whirlwind tour through San Francisco a city that causes equal parts whiplash and sore legs. The legs obviously are due to the hills. The whiplash is a symptom of beautiful architecture and stunning old homes scattered everywhere. Around every corner you find something that makes you shake your head in partial disbelief — contemporary and old alike.

And then I came home.

Of course Calgary doesn’t have the same kind of history density geography or economy as San Francisco. Our built history is short and our rapid boom-bust cycles are like Ebola virus for history preservation. Although there is some movement when it comes to improving the city’s contemporary architecture we’re still a long way off anyone getting whiplash and we’re still destroying our built heritage left right and centre.

Which brings us to the McHugh House in Mission an old brick mansion perched across from St. Mary’s Cathedral that was built by rancher and railway contractor J.J. McHugh in 1896. It’s a rare example of a Queen Anne Revival style home with most of the others in the city already torn down. Since the property was bought by the Catholic Diocese in the ’60s it has housed various social agencies and is currently sitting empty.

The diocese wants to tear down the home in order to sell the parcel of land to a developer who wants a blank canvas. There is no legal protection on the home and the money offered by the province to protect it was turned down by the church because it’s money from gambling (of all the morally and ethically bankrupt things the Catholic church turns a blind eye to gambling is still just too sinful).

On January 28 Coun. Evan Woolley (who I should make clear is a friend of mine) introduced a motion in council to consider buying the property assessed at about $2 million with the intention of protecting the house setting guidelines for the development of the site and then reselling the land to a developer that would incorporate the house into a new design.

With the clock ticking this seems like the only way of preserving what’s considered the sixth oldest house in Calgary.

For examples of what can happen when preservation meets progress one need only jump across 17th Avenue into the Beltline where examples include the new Calgary Board of Education building with its old sandstone school abutting a new mid-rise or the Arriva/Guardian project with two of Calgary’s oldest schools incorporated at the base of the towers. Currently plans for the old Enoch Sales house sitting in the midst of a parking lot on 12th Avenue S.E. include a new restaurant nestled into a new Beltline park.

It’s examples like this that demonstrate the possibility of preserving what’s left of Calgary’s old buildings and showing them the respect they deserve while not impeding the inevitable rise of a new inner-city.

The proposal before council would cost little in overall terms and would in all likelihood be recuperated by reselling the property. No doubt there would be added incentives in terms of density when it came time for plans sweetening the deal for developers.

Calgary is once again at a precarious time in our growth. Towers are rising condos are going up old neighbourhoods are being transformed and densified. We’re moving full steam ahead with our urban development for better or for worse. That’s why it’s so essential that we do it right and that we remember not to destroy everything that came before in our headlong quest for progress.

The two things need not be mutually exclusive as the work in the Beltline has shown. While we should vehemently oppose the faux-historical brick podiums and buildings that are too often mandated as a Disney-fied mockery of our architectural past we should work equally as hard in preserving and incorporating the past into our future.

The McHugh Mansion is a prime example of the spaces we need to save.