Calgary’s economic boom of 1912

Eighty-nine people have already registered for the Community Heritage Roundtable on Wed. Jan. 25 when Don Smith, Aimee Benoit and I will talk about Calgary’s economic boom of 1912. It’s great to see so many people interested in the history of our city. This is the first of several centennial celebrations that have been planned for this year. Watch for future announcements regarding the centennials of the Calgary Public Library, the Stampede, the Grand Theatre, and other local institutions.

Calgary heritage endangered

As soon as I read in the paper yesterday morning that the old Calgary Herald building was slated for demolition to make way for a 50-storey office tower, I wanted to have my picture taken in front of the 7th Avenue landmark. A CBC Radio reporter, Mary-Catherine McIntosh, kindly obliged after first interviewing me for a story about the seven years, 1974-81, that I spent working in the building as a reporter and columnist.

I told Mary-Catherine I was saddened to hear about the pending demise of this former workplace of mine because it’s another part of Calgary’s history that’s being sacrificed at the altar of commercial progress. Granted it’s not the most architecturally striking building in the world – a functionalist 1967 makeover took away much of the aesthetic character of the original 1912 structure – but it’s still an important link with our city’s past.

A lot of good journalism was done in that building. A columnist for the competing  Albertan used to dub our paper “The Old Grey Lady of 7th Avenue,” which he intended as an insult but which we accepted as a compliment because of the obvious comparison with The New York Times. Like the Times, we saw ourselves as the trusted newspaper of record for our region, not as a purveyor of cheap thrills or sensationalism.

We earned that trust by dint of hard work and independent reporting. We didn’t pander to politicians and we didn’t pander to advertisers. Of course I can be accused of bias but I always felt we were standing on the shoulders of distinguished predecessors who  believed their fight to preserve the freedom of the press was a fight for democracy itself.

That's me on the left circa 1980, with a lot more hair than I have now!

During my first week on the job there I was surprised and pleased to discover that back in 1938 the Herald, along with four other Alberta dailies led by Edmonton Journal publisher John Imrie, had been honoured with a special Pulitzer Prize – the first one given outside the United States – for its spirited crusade against the Social Credit government’s attempt to gag the press. I was proud to be part of a news organization that would take a government to the Supreme Court of Canada to establish its right to tell the truth.

The 7th Ave building was the Herald’s headquarters from 1932 to 1981. Located across the street from the Bay, it was connected to the downtown’s beating heart in a way that’s never possible when you live in the suburbs. City hall, the police station, the courts, the library, the school board and the corporate head offices were all within easy walking distance. We did most of our interviews in person, not over the phone. If a freight train had derailed near the Palliser Hotel, the Herald’s reporters and photographers would have gotten to the scene before the fire trucks.

I was disappointed when the Herald moved in 1981 to a new building northeast of downtown near the intersection of Deerfoot and Memorial. Our bosses told us there was a practical reason for this. We had purchased new printing presses that the paper’s 7th Avenue mechanical building was too small to accommodate. But did we have to move the paper’s editorial offices out there as well? I never thought so, but then I was just a reporter. I didn’t have any say in the executive decisions made by senior management.

We did maintain a Herald presence in the 7th Avenue building for a short time after moving out to the Deerfoot and Memorial location. If you wanted to buy a classified ad, you could still do so at the downtown office. But maintaining two separate offices proved impractical during the ensuing economic downturn, and the downtown office was quietly closed in 1982. Removed from the front window were the big clocks announcing the time in Tokyo, Berlin and Los Angeles, and the only remaining visible reminders of the building’s journalistic history were two small “Herald building” signs outside on the southeast corner.

The City of Calgary considers the Herald building to be of significant historical value and has included it in its heritage inventory. It seems baffling to me, therefore, that a developer can simply send out eviction notices to 60 existing tenants and announce this pending demolition without any word of protest from city council or the city’s heritage planning department. This is supposed to be Calgary’s big year for commemorating its cultural heritage, with centennial celebrations planned by the Calgary Public Library, the Stampede, the Grand Theatre (just across the road from the old Herald) and the Pumphouse. Let’s not spoil it by destroying one 100-year-old landmark while remembering the others.