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72 years after he helped create the Barron Building, Calgary carpenter returns to see its second act

Updated: May 5, 2023

Brodie Thomas

Eric Haffenden, a former carpenter, pauses as he visits the Barron Building work site in downtown Calgary on Wednesday, March 29.Jim Wells/Postmedia


Step inside the Barron Building on Stephen Avenue today and you’ll be greeted by the concrete bones of a structure that has been stripped down, ready for a new interior.


The last time these walls were exposed in 1951, Eric Haffenden was an 18-year-old apprentice carpenter working on the building. He helped put the finishes on the tower that would help attract the biggest oil companies in the world to set up shop in Calgary.


On Wednesday, building owner Strategic Group invited the 89-year-old Calgary man back to see the building again.


Haffenden reached out to Postmedia two weeks ago after seeing a story about the Barron’s pending second act as downtown apartments, and once Strategic Group officials learned he still lived in Calgary, they were keen to meet him.


Ken Toews, senior vice-president of development with Strategic Group, said they never expected to have such an opportunity.


“We see this project as a special project for Calgary and for ourselves, but to be able to tie it back to somebody that actually worked on building the project — it’s pretty cool,” he said.


Jade Getz, VP development and design, joins Eric Haffenden in turning some sod inside the Barron Building in Downtown Calgary on March 29.Jim Wells/Postmedia


Strategic will convert the former office space into 118 rental residential units, as well as some retail space at street level. It’s being done with an $8.5-million boost from the city, which is trying to spur the conversion of six-million square feet of downtown office space into other uses as part of a revitalization project.


The budget for the entire project is $100 million.


The Barron Building will not only find new life as a home for hundreds of people, but it will also potentially act as a model for how pieces of Calgary’s built history can be preserved and restored.


Haffenden knows a thing or two about restoring old buildings. Following in his father’s footsteps, he got his start as an apprentice carpenter in London during the Second World War. Back then, many of the jobs they took on were repairs to buildings that had been damaged in the Blitz, or by the V-1 and V-2 rockets launched by the Nazis across the English Channel.


Jade Getz, VP Development and design, joins former carpenter Eric Haffenden as he visits The Barron Building, which is under renovation in downtown Calgary on Wednesday, March 29. On the right is a former elevator shaft, which is being renovated and brought back to life with modern standards.Jim Wells/Postmedia


“With the V-1s, you could see them coming, and I had experiences two or three times of having them cut out right overhead,” he said.


Haffenden said the elementary school he once attended was directly hit — fortunately in the middle of the night when the building was empty.


When his family moved to Calgary in 1949, the work wasn’t restoring old buildings but constructing entirely new ones in a young city.


He worked on many over the years before going to seminary school to become an Anglican priest, and then back to university to become a psychologist.


Despite the career changes, the carpenter in him has never gone away.


“Once you were a builder, you never stop being a builder,” he said. “I still think of myself as a carpenter. It’s not that I was a carpenter — I am a carpenter.”


Haffenden has a workshop in his garage and he does odd jobs around the house. Although he was using a wheelchair for his tour, he generally gets around with a walker. This summer he plans on building a new gate for his backyard.


While much of his original handiwork has been stripped out in preparation for the Barron Building’s revamp, there was much to see and talk about. Haffenden was wheeled over the original terrazzo floors, which had the Barron Building’s “BB” logo.


Haffenden was especially excited to once again see the stairs he worked on with his father.


“My father had worked on lots of stairways in England,” he said. “Yes, he was just the man for this and I helped him do it.”


He explained how the curved staircase cantilevers from above, giving it the appearance of hanging in the air. Unfortunately, those stairs will not survive the remodel, although the restoration will be done in a style that pays homage to the building’s original blend of art deco and art moderne styles.


Jade Getz, vice-president of development and design with Strategic Group, was also along for the tour and came prepared with some questions. Before long, Getz and Haffenden were huddled, discussing the intricacies of why things had been built a certain way.


Jade Getz, VP Development and design, shows plans and drawings as she joins Eric Haffenden in the Barron Building on March 29.Jim Wells/Postmedia


She had a package of renderings to show Haffenden what the building should look like in about 18 months, once the restoration is complete.


“It’s really interesting to hear (Haffenden’s) stories and experience of building the building,” she said. “We’re keeping a lot of the history within the building. Even though we’re changing the use of it from office to residential, I think the history will always still stand.”


Haffenden said he has seen many buildings he worked on come and go over the years. He remembers working on Linda Mae’s Restaurant which once stood on Centre Street in Chinatown, and then on the Chinese Masonic Lodge, also in Chinatown.


“In the 1960s and ’70s in particular, there was a big rush to tear down buildings downtown, and no matter what they were to put up new buildings. There wasn’t much thought going to historic significance or anything like that,” said Haffenden.


Eric Haffenden receives a “gold” shovel, embossed with the dates of the Barron Building’s completion, and its planned refurbishment.Jim Wells/Postmedia


Many he helped construct still stand. He worked on the Jubilee Auditorium, and also acted on the stage he helped build for the grand opening. Haffenden said he had minor roles, but still remembers most of his lines.


Aside from the renderings, Strategic Group also presented Haffenden with a golden embossed shovel, and held an impromptu sod-turning ceremony with some wheeled-in dirt at the foot of the stairs he had built. Company officials said they plan to invite him back for the building’s grand reopening, which is expected to take place in about 18 months.

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