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Calgary’s historic Barron Building gets a new lease on life

The iconic heritage structure has been an anchor in Calgary’s downtown since 1951

The Barron Building will boast 118 modern residential rental suites and street-level retail when its transformation is complete in 2024. // Julie Vincent

What’s old is new again as the city’s historic Barron Building gets a new lease on life.

Originally built in 1951 at 610 8th Ave. SW, the Barron Building was the city’s first skyscraper. The Strategic Group took it over more than a decade ago but it’s sat empty since then.

Strategic Group CEO Riaz Mamdani and Mayor Jyoti Gondek made the announcement at the building Wednesday morning flanked by MP George Chahal.

Big plans

Scheduled to open in 2024, the now-empty Barron Building will be transformed from a derelict heritage office tower into a modern and vibrant residential community.

Mamdani says the collaborative project is not only beneficial for the city’s heritage and vibrancy, but it will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and construction waste.

“The rebirth of this beautiful and historic art deco building has been a passion project of ours since we acquired the building 15 years ago,” Mamdani said.

The company estimates that the repurposing will prevent 4,175 tonnes of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere, and the group expects to save more than 11,000 tonnes of demolition material from going to landfill.

The Barron Building will boast 118 modern residential rental suites and street-level retail. The total area of the residential is just over 100,000 sq. ft. and the retail adds another 8,580 sq. ft.

A win-win for the city

Mayor Jyoti Gondek says the rebirth of the Barron Building will add to the vitality of the city’s core.

“By investing $8.5 million in this project, we are investing in the future of our city centre while honouring and maintaining an important part of our history,” Gondek said in a press release.

“Our downtown revitalization strategy is working and remains critical to seeing assessed property values continue to rise.”

It’s an ambitious project, one that Mamdani says will be complicated and challenging.

“For example, work is underway to create an underground parkade with the historical building in place. The experience, creativity, and ambition of our team make developments like this possible,” he said.

Another angle // Julie Vincent

Exploring the Barron Building’s roots 

In 1949, lawyer Jacob Bell Barron began building himself a home on top of a business; an 11-storey art-modern-style building located in what was the western edge of Calgary’s downtown at the time.

Barron came to Calgary at the urging of his uncle, Charlie Bell, who built the King George Hotel. In 1947, oil was discovered in Leduc, and JB Barron’s building would come to house several burgeoning oil companies.

The structure, designed by Jack Cawston, cost just $1.25 million to build. It was one of only a few buildings in Calgary built in the modern style at the time.

The style was modelled after two other significant buildings, the Lougheed Building and The Grand Theatre, but with some unique features.

The big oil boom

When completed in 1951, the building was known as the Mobil Oil Building.

One of the first multi-use buildings in the city, it housed Sun Oil, Shell, Socony Vacuum Oil, and Trans Canada Pipelines, as well as a two-storey theatre and office space on the second to 10th floors.

The Barron family occupied the entire 11th-floor penthouse overlooking a young, energetic, and growing city.

Barron’s building was the first of several to house oil companies in the area, which became known as the oil patch.

The budding oil sector “anchored the oil industry in Calgary, transforming the city into the oil capital of Canada,” says writer and historian Irena Karshenbaum in a 2011 Chinook Country Historical Society newsletter.

Barron and his family occupied the home from 1955 until the patriarch’s death in 1965. On the lower floors, businesses came and went, thrived, and shifted with economies and the vagaries of a rapidly growing city.

Beyond the Barron building

At the time, Barron also owned the Grand Theatre on First Street SW.

With the Uptown Theatre opening in March 1951, Barron had free rein to indulge his passion for live theatre and music. Daniel Barron, JB’s grandson, remembers the crowds lining the streets and says the Uptown was “one of the premier places for first-run shows.”

The theatres, part of the Odeon chain, closed in 1989, but reopened in 1993 as the Uptown Stage and Screen, hosting everything from WordFest, to live music, to theatre productions.

JB Barron’s sons, William and Robert sold the building in 1981. At the time, it was fully leased.

Between that sale and the Strategic Group’s later purchase, an inspired but underfunded owner with grand plans purchased the building and had begun tearing away its interior features and structures.

An abandoned building

That owner quickly ran out of funds and abandoned the project.

The Strategic Group acquired the Barron Building in 2007 and in 2015 the company developed plans to revitalize it and add a six-storey glass atrium on the east side.

But, by 2019, Calgary’s high vacancy rates, combined with significant downward pressure on international oil markets and a resulting struggling provincial economy, gravely affected the developer’s plans to redevelop the building.

At the time, Mamdani cited Alberta’s lagging economy and high city vacancy rates as the reason the company liquidated much of its inventory.

What’s inside

Ken Toews, Strategic Group’s senior VP of development, previously told Calgary Citizen that this is “the coolest, and toughest project” he’s worked on but that the group is excited to bring the Barron Building back to life.

Toews noted that one of the key challenges with reviving heritage buildings is finding a way to create a functional use that will provide sustaining revenue and maintain the building’s stand-out elements.

The Barron Building’s interior fixtures cannot be incorporated into the redevelopment, as they cannot satisfy current building and safety codes.

The theatres have been removed, as has the curved stairway. The building’s elevators and pullies are gone as well. But Toews said then that construction will preserve and revive the building’s iconic exterior.

The entire building, including the emblematic penthouse, will be converted to residential rental units, something much needed in the core.

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