Old City Hall restoration about preserving Calgary heritage, says project lead

It’s a labour of love for Darrel Bell.

As acting facility management director, the Old City Hall restoration project is about paying respect to Calgary’s history, which for a period of time, involved everything sandstone.

Preserving the past becomes a duty of the present, and something that takes planning for the future. Choices need to be made, priorities set, projects begun.

Our historic buildings are a legacy we want to hand to future generations.

Old City Hall is one of Calgary’s most recognizable buildings. And it sits in the heart of the city.

The $34-million project is slated for completion by June 2020. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

“There are 15,522 pieces of sandstone on this building and we will be touching over 15,100 of them to some degree,” Bell told CBC News in an interview.

“Virtually every stone is going to get touched. Some are in good condition and will just be cleaned. Some will be repaired and some will be replaced.”

Darrel Bell is the acting facility management director on the Old City Hall restoration project. He says it’s about preserving Calgary’s heritage. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

When the building opened in 1911, sandstone was abundant and popular, in part due to its fire-resistant properties.

“Back in the late 1800s council made a decree that all new buildings would be built of stone because before that they were built of wood and there was a major fire downtown which caused a massive amount of destruction,” Bell said.

Calgary is no longer known as the Sandstone City. Many quarries have since been built over, and while the former quarry in Edworthy Park was briefly considered as a source for new sandstone pieces a couple of years ago, the Edworthy family had donated the land to the city on the condition that it remain a park forever.

Sandstone was popular in the late 1880s. In fact, Calgary was called the Sandstone City at that time. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Calgary ended up buying sandstone from Poland, Spain and the United States for the $34-million project and attracted stone masons from the East Coast.

“When we do the repair and replacement, it’s really important to maintain the original architectural features. The stone masons’ work is really pivotal in that,” Bell said.

“Some of them will be done by hand. There’s some very small pieces and some really large pieces, some around 300 kilograms and others five kilograms.”

The push to restore Calgary’s Old City Hall came after a piece of sandstone fell from the top level in 2015. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

The wrap currently surrounding the project serves three purposes, he said. It illustrates what the finished product will look like, is temperature controlled and protects the public from flying dust and debris.

“My guess is that steel and glass are cheaper to manufacture,” Bell said, as to why sandstone is used far less today.

“Sandstone is quite labour intensive. To take it out of the ground, to cut it, quarries it and then shape it on-site is quite labour intensive, so it becomes quite expensive.”

A heritage to preserve

Bell says he’s thrilled to be involved in the project, slated for a completion date of June 2020.

“This is one of the most intriguing and complex projects I have ever been involved with but it is so important that we take the time and the effort to protect the heritage fabric of Calgary,” he said.

“We have a heritage to preserve.”

Calgary’s city hall in 1912. (Glenbow Archives)

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary’s special focus on our city as we build the city we want — the city we need. It’s the place for possibilities. A marketplace of ideas. Have an idea? Email us at: calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca

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