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Opinion: Barron Building restoration a celebration for Calgary and a win for heritage

Updated: May 9, 2023

Source: Calgary Herald .............................................................................................................

Irena Karshenbaum

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek, Strategic Group CEO Riaz Mamdani and Skyview MP George Chahal take part in a ceremonial sod turning at the official launch of the redevelopment of the Barron Building in downtown Calgary on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. Strategic Group is redeveloping the downtown historic office tower into a residential building. Gavin Young/Postmedia Gavin Young/Postmedia

On March 15, with shovels in hand and smiling, Strategic Group CEO Riaz Mamdani was pictured with Mayor Jyoti Gondek and Skyview MP George Chahal for a ceremonial sod turning, announcing the residential conversion and restoration of the 1951 Barron Building.

Considering how often Calgary’s heritage assets have met tragic ends, this was a miracle.

At the heart of many stories, the Barron Building has been home to countless workers of Sun Oil, Shell and other companies and the Barron family once hosted swanky parties in their penthouse. My earliest memories go back to the 1980s when, as a teen, I browsed the fun knickknacks at Chess & Games Galore (owned by John and Linda Barron, I later learned), and spent evenings in the 1990s and 2000s at the Uptown Theatre with excited audiences watching great foreign films, as if a scene out of Cinema Paradiso.

They say that what is meant to be is meant to be. In 2005, at a community gathering, I met Linda Barron. Intrigued by her last name, I asked if she had a connection to the Barron Building and learned that the grandfather of her husband, John Barron, built the building. My relationship with the Barron family grew along with my knowledge of their storied building.

When oil was found in Leduc in 1947, J.B. Barron (1888-1965) saw that Calgary desperately needed office space. As he secured more tenants, his office tower grew to 10 floors, crowned by a penthouse on the 11th, for himself and his law firm Barron & Barron.

With its stepped-back form and vertically prominent central bay, Barron had the vision – was he looking to the Rockefeller Centre in New York? – to create what has become Calgary’s best Art Moderne asset.

He wasn’t some neophyte who, through dumb luck, stumbled his way into building a work of art. Highly educated (receiving a law degree from the University of Chicago), Barron worked as a lawyer, but his passion was for the arts and being a theatre impresario. He brought to Calgary such greats as violinist Jascha Heifetz in 1924 and composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1925.

Calgary’s Strategic Group is redeveloping the Barron Building, a downtown historic office tower, into a residential building.Gavin Young/Postmedia

In 1981, the Barron family sold the building and in 1992, it came into the hands of Blake O’Brien, a young banker, who made the Uptown Theatre flourish.

In 2009, it was bought by Strategic Group and its future came into question when the company discarded the contents of the penthouse, removed its character-defining theatre marquee and closed the Uptown Theatre.

Between 2007 and 2013, I wrote several articles, gave public talks and in 2012 wrote the submission that included the Barron Building on that year’s National Trust of Canada’s Top Most Endangered Places List. This advocacy helped raise awareness of the significance of the building. Representatives of Strategic Group attended my talk for Historic Calgary Week in 2012 and, in the fall of that year, I was invited to meet with Riaz Mamdani who showed me his plans for the building. I asked him to restore the Barron Building to the highest heritage standards and make it the jewel in his Strategic crown. I left the meeting unsure of a positive outcome. Later, several groups wrote to provincial and municipal governments and, in response, in 2014, a Historic Resources Impact Assessment was ordered. Things stewed for almost 10 years.

Strategic Group will be receiving an $8.5-million incentive from the City of Calgary for this restoration project, but this is a relatively small amount considering their $100-million investment. Mamdani and Strategic Group should be celebrated for restoring the Barron Building and I hope their work will inspire other heritage building owners to choose the path of restoration.

Further, as citizens, we have a responsibility to advocate and use legal resources as public policy, and ultimately how we live, is shaped by the people.

Irena Karshenbaum is a writer, historian and heritage advocate.

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