With the Keystone pipeline likely scrapped and an endless barrage of negative media about “dirty oil” Calgary’s oil sector desperately needs good PR in the form of memorable historic architecture. The wealthy oil capital has glass downtown boxes galore and cookie-cutter suburbs that know no bounds; the result is a prairie city that has long been a passing station for tourists heading to Banff.
Today, the city’s best example of Art Moderne architecture, the Barron Building now 60 years old, stands empty and deteriorating and with a demolition permit for the theatre marquee filed with the city. And yet when the building opened in 1951, Picassos hung in the plush oil company offices of the Barron Building and fish swam in the pond of the Morris Lapidus- inspired Miami Beach lobby of the Uptown Theatre.
Originally housing Mobil Oil, Shell, Socony Vacuum Oil, Sun Oil and Trans Canada Pipelines, the city’s first skyscraper was built by J.B. Barron. Born in Winnipeg in 1888, he and his younger brother, Abe, graduated from the University of Chicago law school and on the urging of their uncle, developer Charlie Bell, headed for Calgary. In 1913, they set up the Barron & Barron law firm.
But law could not hold Barron’s full attention. J.B. Barron was a renaissance man, a hobbyist photographer, an inventor who garnered five patents to his name and became a distinguished philanthropist in Calgary’s Jewish community.
But his true passion was the theatre. He owned numerous venues around Calgary including the Palace Theatre and the Grand Theatre. In 1947, when oil was discovered in Leduc, people thought (wrongly, as it turned out) that since the oilfield was closer to Edmonton than to Calgary, oil companies would settle in the provincial capital.
Instead, when Barron noticed that oil company workers from Texas and Oklahoma worked in basements and attics because of a lack of office space, he risked his life’s savings – according to family legend even pawning his wife’s jewellery – to build the city’s first skyscraper.
J.B. hired Calgary architect Jack Cawston and construction began in 1949. When complete, the Barron Building was a mixed use development having the Uptown Theatre and retail at street level, ten floors of office space, and for himself, J.B. built offices, a penthouse and a rooftop garden on the 11th floor. (The penthouse design was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright.)
The Alberta Association of Architects includes the Barron Building on its list of Significant Alberta Architecture. The City of Calgary describes the building’s architectural significance as “distinguished by its stepped massing and restrained detail… clad with buff-coloured brick, Tyndall limestone and polished black granite. A vertically emphasised central bay, ribbon windows, rooftop penthouse and theatre marquee serve to further characterize the building.” The “stepped massing” and “emphasised central bay” are likely more familiar to readers as design features of rather more famous buildings, such as the Rockefeller Center and Chrysler Building in New York City.
The Barron Building inspired the term “the oil patch” for all the office buildings that sprung up around it, anchoring the oil industry in Calgary and transforming the city into the oil capital of Canada.
The City’s description continues, noting it as “the finest example of Art Moderne architecture in the city and among the best examples of its type in Western Canada; it is also historically and symbolically significant for solidifying Calgary’s position in becoming the centre of the oil industry….”
The era in which the Barron building was built was unlike todays, where, as in too many North American cities, people don’t walk, they drive. So the pedestrian network—especially in Calgary with its “Plus-15” above-street level square “tubes” that connect one unremarkable glass tower to another—is disjointed and aesthetically poor.
It wasn’t always so. In the early 20th century, the small prairie city had a bustling street life. Glimpses of that are still recalled on summer days and during the Calgary Stampede when office workers flock to the one remaining pedestrian friendly street, Stephen Avenue. It is there that the last concentration of early 20th century buildings in the city can be found.
The mid-20th century Barron Building and Uptown Theatre is located a couple of blocks west of Stephen Avenue and, given its rarity and significance, should hold court as a mini-Rockefeller Center. Instead, its value is neither understood nor appreciated.
Yet a single building can be a force behind reviving the surrounding neighbourhood. One perfect example is Shanghai’s Sassoon House, built in 1929 by Sir Victor Sassoon, a landmark that played a key role in reviving that city’s historic Bund district.
If looking to the Far East feels like chasing the impossible, Calgary has its own precedent. After years of neglect, a demolition permit and even a fire, the Lougheed Building and Grand Theatre was fully restored in 2008. It has contributed to the street vibrancy of an eastern section of Calgary’s downtown with restaurants, a coffee shop and its flourishing Grand Theatre while supplying funky office space to the rental market.
The restoration of the Barron Building and Uptown Theatre would not only preserve the city’s best example of Art Moderne architecture; it would also serve to acknowledge the building’s monumental role in anchoring the Canadian oil industry in Calgary.