How are you enjoying Calgary so far? Today we’re going check out Calgary’s downtown core.
Downtown Calgary in the early 50s
Downtown Calgary in 1968 or 1969.
Just look at that Tower! It must have been so strange back when the Calgary Tower was first built, when it was three or four times as tall as anything around it. As a matter of fact, for a really brief time period, it was the tallest structure in Canada. It must have been weird to be a Calgarian at that time and look up at that thing and think, Holy cow – I’m living in the future! You know what else people thought were really futuristic back then? Skyways.
I’m really fascinated by skyways: to me they’re a symbol of a mid-20th century Utopian ideal that looks bleak and depressing half a century later. They are a relic from a time period that envisioned future cities as completely enclosed, self-contained environments, where humans would be safe from nature’s elements and technology’s pollutants; a more realizable practice than building domes over cities. They make me think of indoor food courts, depressing office towers, and motorists that hate the sight of pedestrians. I mention all of this because downtown Calgary has the world’s largest system of skyways.
Calgary’s system is call Plus 15, because the bridges start about 15 feet above the roadway. This naming strikes me as a little strange, because I thought Canada was on the metric system, but since the City of Calgary cites that as the origin of the name, I’m sticking to it. The system has a length of 16 m (10 miles) and contains 59 bridges, although the system’s not fully interconnected. I’m going to avoid using the +15s myself, but since it is only 21º F (-6º C) out, I’ll totally understand if you use them (here’s a map if you need one). Either way, it’s worth finding an entrance so we can check out the funny logo they have for these things.
The first +15 showed up in 1970, just two years after the opening of the Calgary Tower. Calgary must have seemed so space-age back then! The +15s have continued to grow in number ever since. They’ve also grown in size: there are double-decker and triple-decker sky bridges (referred to as +30s and +45s, respectively). The city has an active plan for increasing the number of them whenever new buildings are being constructed in the downtown core.
Looking over Stephen Avenue from a +15
Whether we take the street level or the sky bridges, we’ll head on over to Stephen Avenue. Stephen Avenue is downtown Calgary’s National Historic Site and contains many examples of Calgary’s late 19th century and early 20th century architecture. It’s also now a pedestrian mall, and features these – ahem – iconic sculptures:
It’s also been the site for another type of public sculpture:
I thought that I had written something about this sort of tacky public fund-raising project when we were visiting Spokane, but I guess I ended up dropping it from the final draft. Apparently, these cow sculpture decorating competitions are part of a specific Swiss company, CowParade, so we have them to thank for this type of thing. Calgary’s project is not actually part of the official CowParade business, but the intent is the same and they bought the fiberglass models from the same company. They provided theirs with a name that really makes me cringe: “Udderly Art“. Ouch.
Also, since its a pedestrian mall it does end up with its fair share of buskers, weirdos, and this junk, but it’s also got the cool old buildings:
One of my favorite finds along Stephen Avenue are the gargoyles in the Alberta Hotel. These are unusual gargoyles in that they came from a newspaper building (the Calgary Herald) and so instead of depicting stone monsters, they depicted caricatures of the employees that would work for a newspaper. The building was torn down in the early 1970s, but casts were made of some of the original gargoyles, and at some point afterward they were installed in the Alberta Hotel.
I’m completely amazed by these things, especially considering that they were sculpted back in 1912! I’ve got a special fondness for the guy in the picture below, as type-setters used to be referred to as “printer’s devils“, which helps to explain his features I think. A more full accounting of these whimsical (a word I rarely use without cynicism, but here is genuine) characters can be found at this blog.
Well, that’s what I’ve got for you for downtown Calgary. There’s tons more, but we just don’t have the time to get to all of it. If there’s something that I’ve left out that you think people should really know about, or if there’s something I got terribly wrong, why not leave it in the comments?
We’ll check some more of Calgary out before we leave for our next destination, but to do it we’ll probably need to get out of downtown. Between this post and next, we’ll be riding on the second oldest Light Rail Train system in North America, the C-Train.