Iconic Calgary building can be read like a swanky and hopeful history of our city
What the Barron Building and its Uptown Theatre tells us about our past
On the west side of downtown, in the shadow of newer, taller skyscrapers, sits one of Calgary's architectural gems, the Barron Building.
The facade of this 11-storey building completed in 1951 features white and yellow stone interspaced with horizontal windows. It's a bit dusty these days, but it's due to be spruced up.
The building stands empty but soon will be converted into rental apartments. It's just the latest use for this well-known building with a rich past.
It has changed as the city's landscape and economy has changed. It helped create communities, from the somewhat-down-at-the-heel art house crowd to the affluent.
The Barron Building was a gamble by Calgary lawyer J.B. Barron. He built it to capture the lucrative market in office space for oil companies.
But it was no mere office building.
On the top floor, a residential/office penthouse brought together Calgary's movers and shakers for legendary parties.
On the ground floor of the building, at 610 Eighth Avenue S.W., moviegoers lined up around the block to take in first-run features and, in later years, art house flicks and film classics.
Geared to the oil patch
In the late 1940s, oil was discovered near Leduc, Alta. And Calgary would never be the same.
"After Leduc struck oil in 1947, all the big oil companies wanted to set up headquarters in Alberta, and there were no real office buildings that were sufficient," says Daniel Barron, grandson of J.B. Barron.
"My grandfather thought, 'Why don't I set up this building?'"
A stylish combination of art deco and art moderne influences, J.B. Barron's building was a step-back design popular in 1930s New York and Los Angeles, wrote architect Stephanie White for the Calgary Herald in a 1979 column.
"This form quickly became very trendy and was featured in everything from radio sets to coffee cups," wrote White.
Certainly it changed the look of the city. When completed in 1951, the Barron Building was one of the city's earliest highrises.
It was also purpose-built.
"The Barron was the first modern office building designed for the oil patch," says Calgary historian Harry Sanders. "As soon as it opened, it became headquarters for three different oil companies."
While Calgary was already developing a core, the Barron Building shifted the centre of gravity.
"It expanded the central business district, west past the Eaton's store," says Sanders.
"Within a few years, other oil patch buildings went up around there: Shell, Petro Fina, the Petrochemical building. It's the first of a set of contemporaries that became oil company headquarters at the moment when the oil industry came to dominate Calgary's economy."
The building was also ahead of its time in a couple other ways.
In the early 1950s, it was uncommon for a single building to house office, residential, theatre and retail space under the same roof.
Today, we don't see a lot of office towers built so the owner can live in the penthouse.
"My grandfather anticipated living there eventually," Daniel Barron says.
J.B. Barron hired an architect to craft his new home, and lived in the penthouse from 1955 until his death in 1965.
Daniel, now 59, says his grandfather's architectural inspiration for the penthouse was the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.
He says his grandfather hosted incredible parties in the penthouse. One on New Year's Eve 1962 was photographed extensively. It was, apparently, the place to see and be seen in Calgary.
"I can count five lawyers in the pictures, a doctor, and their wives," says Daniel.
"It was pretty formal for a get together except for my dad, Robert, he is just wearing a short-sleeve shirt. The rest are in full suits and ties."
While the invited could attend fashionable parties in the penthouse, Calgarians could also head to the Barron Building to catch the latest Hollywood flick or some nifty tunes at the Uptown Theatre.
If there's one thing Calgarians might associate with the Barron Building, it's the Uptown Theatre.
According to his grandson, J.B. Barron's passions included theatre and live music. Barron already owned the Grand Theatre on First Street S.W. At his new location, the Uptown, he offered impressive entertainment.
"He's an impresario," says Sanders. "He hired musicians and conductors and put together orchestras for his cinemas."
There was even a hidden viewing space just for family.
"They had a little private room at the top, where we used to sit," says Daniel Barron. "It had two-way glass, so you could look out but not look in."
Daniel recalls the crowds the Uptown could attract in its prime.
"It was considered one of the premiere places for some of the first-run shows," he says.
"There are a couple of pictures of the lineup for A Queen is Crowned, that was Queen Elizabeth II being crowned, although she was already the queen. You can see a huge lineup around the block," he says.
"It was part of the Odeon chain, and then Cineplex Odeon, which closed it in 1989," says Sanders.
But the theatre wasn't just for film.
"It reopened in 1993 as the Uptown Stage & Screen, an art house cinema and live theatre venue. Besides showing non-mainstream films, it hosted events like Wordfest, One Yellow Rabbit's High Performance Rodeo, and even an Arrogant Worms concert. It finally closed in 2011, more than 60 years after the theatre first opened," Sanders says.
After the Barron family had sold the building to developers, the Uptown Stage & Screen continued to offer entertainment and create a sense of community, says former theatre manager Selina Clary.
"There are so many fond stories. Even today, I bring it up as the absolute best place that I ever worked," said Clary.
"In about 2006, the wonderful then-owner Blake O'Brien took me for a drink at the Ship and Anchor at about midnight and said 'Do you want to run my theatre?' I said 'Yes, I do.' I stayed there until Halloween of 2009, so I had a few good years there, for sure."
Clary has another connection to the Barron Building.
"My mother worked there when Husky had their office there. She remembered getting a tour of the penthouse. Everybody got a tour, everybody got to check it out at some point. It was a really welcoming place," she says.
Places, buildings, take on emotional significance in a city. They are places where people come together to build memories.
"As a kid, I used to go to the Uptown Theatre, I saw Star Wars there in its original run," says Sanders.
"The summer Star Wars came out, I went to that same cinema three times."
Daniel remembers being terrified at another premiere in the 1970s, Jaws.
But time passes.
"My family didn't sell the building until 1981, so we spent many years visiting my father there, who managed the building after my grandfather's passing," Daniel says.
For theatre manager Clary, it was the people who made the Uptown a place of magic.
"It's just a really special place for everybody who has ever set foot in it, or had anything to do with it. There are a lot of people who really miss it, that's for sure," she says.