In 1949, lawyer Jacob Bell Barron began building himself a home on top of a business; an 11-storey art-modern-style building at 610 8th Ave. SW, then the western edge of Calgary’s downtown.
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 tenth 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 others housing 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 passing 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 the building’s interior features and structures. That owner quickly ran out of funds and abandoned the project.
The Strategic group acquired the Barron building in 2007. Irena Karshenbaum wrote, in a post on SkyScraper.com, “On the morning of August 1st, 2012, Newel Post, which operated the Uptown, announced permanent end of operations.”
A change of plans
Three weeks later, Karshenbaum continues, “Newel Post announced a last-minute ‘pick and pull.’”
A few dozen people trickled in to take Uptown souvenirs that included ’50s and ’60s furniture, art-house movie posters, toilettes, and a dozen buckets filled with broken chunks of Terrazzo floors.
In 2015, the Strategic group developed plans to revitalize the building 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, Strategic CEO, Riaz Mamdani, cited Alberta’s lagging economy and high city vacancy rates as the reason the company liquidated much of their inventory. However, Strategic retained the Barron building.
What’s next for the iconic structure
Ken Toews, Strategic Group’s senior VP of development tells Calgary Citizen that earlier plans to make office space in the building were “cool,” but he adds, “This is the coolest, and toughest project I’ve worked on. We’re very excited about bringing the Barron Building back to life.”
Toews notes 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 says construction will preserve and revive the building’s iconic exterior.
A new lease on life
The entire building, including the emblematic penthouse, will be converted to residential rental units, something much needed in the core.
Toews says permits will be in hand by May 2022 with the revision beginning June or July this year. He expects the building will be ready for occupancy in late 2024.
In 2021, as one of its last acts under Mayor Nenshi, city council voted 12-1 to provide $7.5 million towards transforming the iconic building into residential units.
Toews says the city has been an exceptional partner.
“They’re as enthusiastic as we are,” he says. “It’s a real ‘team approach.’ ”
Earmarked funds will be released to Strategic on completion of the Barron building’s transformation to residential units.
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