Plans for an elaborate armoury in Calgary were well underway prior to the outbreak of the First World War, as the need for a permanent, military training structure was apparent within the first decade of the twentieth century. The story of the construction of Calgary’s own armoury was a drawn out affair that lasted to nearly the end of the Great War. There were problems from the very beginning, including fierce opposition to the cost and chosen site of the armoury, a shortage of building materials and ultimately the outbreak of war. In the end, the result was a state of the art facility with a central drill hall surrounded by 117 rooms and complete with dining hall, shooting gallery and even a bowling alley. This post will examine the Mewata Armoury, a building that was established during the First World War, and its place as a significant symbol of military heritage in Alberta.
In the early 1900s, the Canadian military underwent a number of reforms to modernize it and establish permanent facilities for the army. The federal government set the ambitious goal to establish 350 new drill halls and the decision to construct these served a dual purpose. These structures were to foster a sense of military pride amongst Canadians while boosting recruitment and create a closer connection between civilians and soldiers. Calgary was considered part of Ottawa’s military expansion plan early on and the city became the headquarters for Military District No. 13 in 1907, which covered all of Alberta and the district of MacKenzie (a portion of the Northwest Territories at the time). This declaration was significant since it meant that the area was deemed to be an important part of the future of the Canadian military.
It was nevertheless the local military regiments, and not the federal government, that took it upon themselves to push for the construction of a new armoury. Calgary was growing rapidly in the early twentieth century and they felt they needed a facility to house their growing regiments. The city’s military organizations wanted a building that would better accommodate their soldiers and approached the federal government for approval to build an armoury in Calgary. Potential sites for the location were suggested over the next few years, but were all deemed insufficient and plans for the armoury were soon shelved.
It was not until Sam Hughes was appointed Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence in 1911 that Ottawa’s plans for a modern militia were put in motion. Hughes undertook the responsibility of reforming Canada’s military and his ambitious agenda included the construction of armouries and drill halls across the country. Hughes promoted the volunteer soldier as the foundation of the Canadian military and believed that volunteerism was the most viable form of recruitment. He was also a strong supporter of building a shared place for civilians and soldiers. This belief was reinforced by the need for an armoury, as it would serve as a visible presence to foster civic pride, and in turn, increase the number of soldiers who enlist. In addition to providing an adequate space for training, the new structures were to be a permanent symbol of Canada’s military reform program.
Another supporter of this vision was the Calgary Conservative MP, Richard Bedford Bennett. Bennett agreed with Hughes’ plan for an elaborate military structure and wanted Calgary to have its own armoury. One of Bennett’s first decisions upon taking office was to lobby the federal government to establish such a facility. Although the city already held a number of rented military buildings for training purposes and used school grounds for parades, these sites were spread throughout Calgary and it was considered more practical to consolidate these into a single location. The city also remained without a permanent indoor space for military training during the winter months. Bennett considered this to be inadequate for a growing city and the proposal for an armoury was revisited. It took minimal lobbying on Bennett’s behalf to convince Hughes that Calgary was worthy of a magnificent armoury and the funds were soon allotted to begin building.
When it came to deciding on the location for Calgary’s armoury, Bennett had just one area in mind, Mewata Park. The site was already being used as an athletic field and had originally been designated a civic park for the people of Calgary. The site was centrally located, which meant that it would be impossible for the structure to be missed by many Calgarians during their daily commute downtown.
As the plans for the new armoury proceeded, the project was met with opposition, notably from Alberta Liberals, who felt that the federal government had no right to devote public land to a military institution. They also raised concern over the cost that would be incurred to construct the new building. The daily pro-Liberal newspaper, Morning Albertan, voiced their opinion against the construction of an armoury, citing that “an expenditure of such an amount would be a lavish and inexcusable waste of money.” However, this did not appear to be the sentiment of the majority of the citizens of Calgary. The opposition was soon squashed by people who came out in strong support of the armoury during the 1913 municipal election. This was a heated election issue that year and included a question on the ballot enquiring if citizens wanted to see the project move forward. More than 70% of voters were in favour of constructing an armoury at Mewata Park, indicating their support for the local military. In 1916, supporters were granted their request and the City of Calgary donated the land to the federal government to build the armoury.
The First World War erupted in August of 1914 and the armoury’s construction was therefore delayed for a few years. This was due to the city’s resources being allocated to more necessary and immediate projects for the war efforts. A brick shortage contributed to construction being deferred even further. Building was eventually underway in September, 1916 and was finalized in the fall of 1918. Once completed, the armoury was used as a training centre and demobilization depot for soldiers returning from WWI. Although it was too late for the armoury to be fully utilized for the war, the construction of an impressive military facility helped to encourage pride among its citizens.
Although the armoury’s interior has been remodelled substantially, the exterior has retained its original appearance as constructed in 1916. The building is one of only two similar structures in the province (the other being the Prince of Wales Armoury in Edmonton). The architectural design is a classic example of the gothic and Tudor revival, which was built to look like a fortress with its four corner towers and six smaller side towers. What makes the Mewata Armoury unique is its castle-like style, massive size and the use of brick and sandstone construction. This is one of the last buildings in Calgary that was created with sandstone.
Mewata Armoury remains a long-standing military landmark and shows the federal government’s commitment to a militia-presence in Calgary. A number of regiments have called the armoury home over the years, including the Calgary Regiment’s First Battalion (currently the Calgary Highlanders), the Second Battalion (now the King’s Own Calgary Regiment) and various cavalry units. Mewata Armoury has primarily been used as a military facility, but has also been a training centre for the police, a base for numerous Cadet Corps and is the headquarters for the Southern Alberta Militia District. Various sporting events have been held at the armoury and Mewata Park was still used as an athletic field. The armoury remains an important site, as it was constructed to connect the military with the civilian population, amidst the First World War.
This was the third part of a series commemorating the First World War. This series will look at a range of topics that will show Alberta’s involvement in this historic event.
Written by: Erin Hoar, Historic Resources Management Branch Officer
Designation File # 177, in the custody of the Historic Resources Management Branch.
Lackenbauer, P. Whitney “Partisan Politics, Civic Priorities, and the Urban Militia: Situating the Calgary Armoury, 1907-1917.” Urban History Review 33, no. 2 (2005): 45-60.
“Mewata Armoury” Alberta Register of Historic Places. HeRMIS. (Accessed August 12, 2014).
Rowe, Allan “Historical Context Paper Mewata Armoury (Calgary),” Historic Resources Management Branch, Des. File #177. (April 25, 2014).