Historic Lougheed House in the heart of the Beltline is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. The former home of the late Canadian Senator James Lougheed and his wife, Isabella “Belle” Hardisty Lougheed and their six children, the 2.8-acre estate is now designated a Registered Museum by the Alberta Museums Association and is operated by the non-profit Lougheed House Conservation Society. To celebrate the 125th anniversary milestone, there will be a big birthday to-do on Saturday, July 23, with musical performances (everything from classical to country), comedy, crafts and activities for families and a “speakeasy” (a.k.a. Lougheed House’s version of a beer garden). The house itself and its current exhibition “Something Old, Something New: 125 Years of Wedding Fashion” will also be open. We caught up with Lougheed House executive director Kirstin Evenden for a chat about what its like to go to work in a piece of living history.
Lougheed House is such a unique site, a kind of historic oasis in the Beltline. What do you love most about working there?
“It is as it was once. I’ve worked in museums my whole career so I’ve always worked with history and ideas and things, but what’s interesting about a site is that history is all around you. It kind of physically consumes you and eats you up. It’s so compelling! You can literally get inside it.”
Why has it remained intact over the years and not been eaten up by urban development?
Well, remarkably, it almost was eaten up. When the Lougheeds left the property in the mid-1930s it then went into public ownership and was owned by the City of Calgary for a while and used as a public building – the Canadian Women’s Army Corps trained there during World War II, it was a blood donor clinic and the head for the Southern Alberta Red Cross for a period of time – so it has had a bunch of different public functions in addition to being the residence of the grandparents of Premier Peter Lougheed. For a time in the mid-century, the formal gardens had apartment buildings on them [which were later torn down]. But it has been saved because the community wanted it saved and because it is such a significant piece of architecture. It’s called a Victorian Eclectic; there is nothing like it on the prairies left today. It was designated as a historic resource in the 1970s and then the public really got behind it and a society was formed to conserve it 20 years ago. We run a non-profit organization that serves the public through the house itself. It’s a cultural hub.”
If this year is the 125th anniversary that would mean the house was built in 1891. What was the city like back then?
“The Beltline in 1891 wasn’t the Beltline, it was the outskirts of town. Turn-of-the-century Calgary was about 4,000 people and the Beltline back then was like what Springbank is today. The Lougheeds moved from Stephen Avenue – they had a growing family of six kids – to the outskirts of town for more room and built this wonderful estate that now is a jewel in the city.”
You can’t help but think of Lougheed House as a Calgary version of Downton Abbey.
“It has been referred to as Calgary’s Downton Abbey! The time frame is similar [to that of the TV series]. Senator Lougheed helped raise resources for the war and Mrs. Lougheed was very involved in fundraising for women’s organizations to support men on the front. They had kids in the war. It follows a very similar trajectory but in turn-of-the-century Canada. They were essentially Canadian royalty – she was a Hardisty, and the Hardistys were a very well-connected fur-trading family, some of whom were Metis and in the executive of the Hudsons Bay Company. She was raised in an HBC fort – there’s no more of a Canadian story than that.”
As executive director you must know every nook and cranny of the house. What’s your favourite spot?
“I work at the very top of the tower where I have a panoramic view of the surrounding community as well as the gardens, that’s a precious thing. But also, in our office on the top floor we have a meeting room for the team, and on one wall there’s a window – when they restored the house they put in these windows so you can get a sense of what the interior structure looks like. Behind this window is a whole bunch of bricks and perched on one brick is a small child’s shoe. It’s old and worn, looks like it would maybe fit an eight-year-old, and it’s been there since the house was built. It was a mystery when they uncovered it while renovating the house 15 years ago, but they did some research and it turns out it’s a very common practice in Northern Europe and, in particular in Britain and in Irish traditions. There were a lot of Irish contractors and workers and people from Britain coming through Calgary when the railway went in who probably helped build the house. It’s a tradition that goes back to time immemorial that you bring good luck and good spirits to a house and the house is protected if you put [a child’s shoe] in the structure while you’re building. It’s quite common in older, pre-modern buildings in the U.K.”
Calgary gets a bad rap sometimes for not valuing its heritage buildings and being too enthusiastic about tearing down the old to make way for the new. Would you agree?
“Maybe, historically, we could have saved more. But you certainly get the sense that once people have been to a place like Lougheed House, they realize that there’s such wonderful value in having that place as their own. The Beltline around us is changing and transitioning all the time and I talk to numerous neighbours who consider it their “backyard,” where they bring their Frisbee, where they bring their kids. That’s part of saving heritage too, participating with the space in that way. Once people actually experience it, they see the value in it, and I get the feeling people increasingly appreciate what these places can offer them in their day-to-day lives. There was a study done, I think by the National Trust in the U.K. that showed that people are physically more well, that there is increased wellness in people who spend time in historic spaces and places.”
So the more we engage with historic sites, even if it’s just casual engagement, the better we’ll be at preserving history?
“And then the case doesn’t even need to be made.”