Pain Block has no heritage status despite surviving Calgary's great fire of 1886

The Calgary Heritage Initiative Society is holding a seminar on Saturday to help demystify the heritage designation process. CBC Calgary's Scott Dippel looks at one building in the downtown that could probably fit the bill.

Heritage group hopes to demystify historic designation in upcoming seminar

The Pain Block is the only wooden building to survive the massive fire that swept through downtown Calgary in 1886. The devastation sparked a spurt of sandstone construction in the area. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

As historic buildings go in Calgary, the Pain Block on Stephen Avenue Walk is one of a kind.

It's the only downtown building to have survived Calgary's "great fire of 1886" that devastated a significant portion of the young Prairie town.

It's also one of a handful of buildings left of that vintage made entirely of wood. Many older Calgary buildings were constructed of sandstone, which became the product of choice after the 1886 fire.

However, the Pain Block doesn't have protected heritage status from any level of government even though it has ties to significant political and business figures in Calgary's history.

According to Bob van Wegen with the Calgary Heritage Initiative Society, the building which now houses a souvenir shop actually has plenty of company.

"I think most people think that the buildings on Stephen Avenue — historic buildings that they are — have legal protection and can't be torn down. That's not true," said van Wegen.

'The Lucky 13'

In fact, only about half of the buildings in the federally-designated National Historic District have legal historic protection. Van Wegen calls them "the lucky 13." 

While the Pain Block has not been designated a heritage building, it does have this plaque out front explaining its importance. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

The city does keep an inventory of evaluated historic resources but not every building on that list is protected. 

Darryl Cariou, the senior heritage planner for the City of Calgary, believes the gold standard would be that every building on the list is protected. But just because they aren't, doesn't automatically mean that's a problem — unless someone has a plan to redevelop them. 

"I can't honestly say that we've been seeing a lot of those buildings being lost, even though they're not legally protected. At the same time, we've seen more and more building owners come forward and work with the city to have their properties legally protected," said Cariou.

More Calgarians have come forward to seek heritage designation for their homes or buildings since the 2013 flood. Cariou said the provincial government has made special grants available to help with the flood recovery.

Demystifying heritage designation 

The Calgary Heritage Initiative Society is holding a seminar on Saturday to help demystify the heritage designation process.

Van Wegen said there are misconceptions about designation but it's the only guarantee that historic buildings will be around for future generations to enjoy.

"People think it means 'I can't do anything with my building. I can't even change the paint colour or fix a window without getting permission.' And there's some people who think it just freezes your property value. And those things just really aren't true," said van Wegen.

Besides becoming eligible for government grants, owners of historic properties can transfer unused density or parking capacity to other downtown buildings.