As images of a burning Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris blanketed the news earlier this month, contractors and consultants working on a $34-million restoration of Calgary’s Old City Hall were paying close attention.The parallels between the two buildings weren’t insignificant after all: a historic stone building with a timber-frame roof undergoing substantial renovations — when the Parisian cathedral caught fire, a site supervisor for EllisDon asked, “how do we prevent this from happening here?”“When he came in to work on Tuesday morning, he started this conversation right there and then,” says Darrel Bell, head of facility management for the City of Calgary.“They started to review the procedures and then they had a meeting on Wednesday morning, the 17th, where they agreed on what they wanted to do.”Five new hoses with emergency water at the ready were immediately installed at all four corners of the roof-level scaffolding and beneath the clock tower’s wooden framing.A new policy was implemented to ensure any “hot work” was stopped by 11 a.m. each day to ensure any subsequent flare-up could be caught hours before most of the workers left the site for the day; and a new permit system was launched for electrical work being completed in the attic or tower.
Darrel Bell, Acting Director of Facility Management, City of Calgary shows media the location of the iconic clock tower on Historic City Hall in Calgary Wednesday, June 27, 2018. The building is undergoing a multi year, multi million dollar renovation. Jim Wells/Postmedia
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“I think we already had a robust fire suppression system in the building but it never does any harm to do some extra preventive measures, just in case,” Bell says.“It’s a timely reminder to us. It’s an old building, there are some ancient timbers in there, which are pretty flammable for sure, but now we’ve given an extra level of protection and we’re very comfortable with it.”Built between 1907 and 1911, the building’s roof — which is being replaced alongside the critical restoration of stonework on the exterior — contains original timbers that Bell says are “quite dry” but in perfectly good condition.“Notre Dame was very similar to us, much larger scale, of course, but very similar reconstruction and rehabilitation project, much like ours is,” Bell says.Calgary’s architectural history has been shaped by fire in many ways.Calgary got its moniker, Sandstone City, and a number of its sandstone buildings, including Historic City Hall, as result of the great fire of 1886 that destroyed much of the wood-built downtown.“City council said that any future public buildings had to be built of non-combustible material and we sit on a huge deposit of sandstone, hence everything then being built out of sandstone from 1886 forward until the First World War,” says Josh Traptow, executive director of the Calgary Heritage Authority. “Our city does have a history of fire.”
A worker removes damaged sandstone on Historic City Hall in Calgary Wednesday, June 27, 2018. The building is undergoing a multi year, multi million dollar renovation. Jim Wells/Postmedia
Jim Wells /
And recent fires in historic buildings such as Edmonton’s Strathcona Hotel, the Prince of Wales Hotel in Wetaskiwin and Calgary’s own Enoch Sales House have put heritage advocates on high alert.“I think fire is on the minds of many in the heritage community, so I think it is extremely positive and I’m very pleased the city took that proactive step to ensure there is adequate fire protection measures for Historic City Hall,” Traptow says.“I hope that moving forward on other heritage buildings, whether they’re private or public, that there is more emphasis put on fire protection.”The loss of the Enoch house — the last such home of its type in Victoria Park until it was destroyed in an accidental blaze during February’s brutal cold snap — has also helped focus the minds of officials on fire protections for historic sites.
This is a photo of the old Calgary City Hall taken July 16, 2010. (Grant Black / Calgary Herald)
Grant Black /
Coun. Jeromy Farkas recently asked the city about fire protections for Historic City Hall at a utilities and corporate services committee meeting and says he was relieved to hear about the additional protections put in place since the Notre Dame blaze.Never having had the chance to work in the building since taking office in 2017 once renovations had already begun, Farkas says he found a recent tour of Old City Hall to be a “humbling” experience.“There is something about the place that is larger than life. Even in the dark, with all the scaffolding up, it was quite a humbling experience going through it,” says Farkas. “Maybe it’s mundane for people who have worked there for a long time. But for somebody who is brand new to the job, I really felt a sense of gravity to those halls.”Old City Hall disappeared behind heavy-duty wrap in 2017 and since then crews have been working steadily on one of the most significant heritage restoration projects currently underway in Canada.More than 15,000 pieces of sandstone will be treated as crews rehabilitate an exterior that had been crumbling away for years — in part due to a drainage system that has now been replaced.As part of the work on the roof, the original red tile has been stripped away to reveal the building’s Douglas fir timbers that were milled more than a century ago in Banff and Kananaskis.Every window will be replaced and the frames and sashes will be restored before the wrap is finally removed, sometime in early 2020.In the meantime, the additional fire protections have given those closest to the project some peace of mind.“I’d like people to know that we were thinking like this. We are always paying attention to things that may not go perfectly in other places and we can learn from that,” Bell says. “There’s nothing new under the sun, is there?”email@example.comTwitter: @mpotkins