Stephen Avenue – One of Alberta’s Unique Cultural Landscapes

Stephen Avenue - where the historic meets modern.

Stephen Avenue – where the historic meets modern.

Back at our Place Matters! Municipal Heritage Forum in November 2012, we heard a dynamic presentation from City of Calgary Senior Heritage Planner, Darryl Cariou, about Stephen Avenue. He described – with his usual wit – the history of the Avenue from its early days through the various “pedestrian mall” concepts popular from the 1960s through the 90s. One of the most compelling aspects of the presentation was the juxtaposition of images and photographs of the Avenue over the decades.

Stephen Avenue Walking Tour (Municipal Heritage Forum 2012)

Stephen Avenue Walking Tour (Municipal Heritage Forum 2012)

Here is a link to Darryl’s image-rich presentation of Stephen Avenue.

Numerous Provincial and Municipal Historic Resources line Stephen Avenue. What some of you may not know is that this historic district is actually a National Historic Site of Canada, commemorated as such by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 2001. The Parks Canada website describes the importance of Stephen Avenue as:

Calgary’s Stephen Avenue provides a direct link to the unique circumstances that shaped the character of urban development on the Canadian Prairies between the 1880s and 1930.

The typical prairie city was a distinct entity from the beginning: built according to a gridiron plan oriented to the convenience of the railway and its station, with a spatial organization that placed retail and financial businesses close to the station, industry on the outskirts of the core, and residential areas in outlying suburbs that were serviced by streetcar systems. The combination of rapid growth, gridiron plan and distinct commercial, industrial and residential zones distinguished western cities from their older eastern counterparts.

During Calgary’s “sandstone era,” entrepreneurs converged on Stephen Avenue, building rows of commercial blocks in brick and stone that reflected the dramatic growth in the retail sector of the Canadian economy at that time. This street became the hub of Calgary’s retail district, strategically situated near the station and rail yards, and at the convergence point for streetcar lines leading to the city’s outskirts.

The remarkable thing about Stephen Avenue is that it continues to perform its original function as Calgary’s main street, despite the dramatic changes that have transformed retailing and urban cores across the country. Today, the rows of two to six storey commercial buildings that line both sides of the street continue to house a broad range of retail services, while their designs reflect the architectural revival styles of a bygone era, in sharp contrast to the office towers that now encircle the area.

Saved from redevelopment through the efforts of far-sighted Calgarians in the 1970s, the buildings along Stephen Avenue serve as reminders of the central role that retail streets have played, and continue to play, in sustaining the vitality of Canada’s cities.

Whether you stroll Stephen Avenue this summer as a tourist, rush along the street during your lunch break or dine in one of the many restaurants along the Avenue, perhaps the next time you experience Stephen Avenue you will take a moment to breath in the history and heritage of this significant cultural landscape!

Written by: Matthew Francis, Manager of Municipal Heritage Services

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s