Central Memorial Park Then and Now

This park was originally sold to the city for debts owed and has seen multiple uses in its more than 100 year history. But, its award winning redesigns have maintained much of its early character.

Photos courtesy of the City of Calgary and Calgary Public Library Archives

Central (Memorial) Park, as seen in a postcard from the early 1900s and today.

Within seven years of its founding in 1881, Canadian Pacific Railroad had run into a massive problem. Burdened with the substantial costs of starting a railroad, it had been accruing debts with many of the cities and towns where it had purchased land as speculative investments. In many cases it was unable, or unwilling, to pay the necessary taxes.

Calgary, still a young town with its own bills to pay, sued the CPR for unpaid back taxes. The CPR and Calgary eventually came to an agreement where the company paid half the money it owed and sold the city land at a reduced price, with the stipulation the land could only be used for a park and not be resold.

Fast forward 20 years to 1908, when that land was became known as Central Park. At the time, it featured a gazebo and was partially used as a tree farm that fed the rest of the cities ambition for greenery.

In 1912, the province opened its first library, Central Library, on the site thanks to an $80,000 grant from American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (four times the $20,000 the city contributed). If the sandstone library was well received, the same could not always be said of the adjacent park. At the time chief librarian Alexander Calhoun described the park as “an unsightly wilderness of sand and scrub.”

Two years later, the Boer War Memorial, meant to simply depict a soldier from Alberta in honour of those who fought in the South African war also made its home in the park, as would an underground irrigation system as well as electric light installations. In 1928, the last major change to the park occurred when it was renamed Central Memorial Park and redesigned in order to accommodate a cenotaph honouring those who died in the First World War (eventually updated to include the Second World War). The cenotaph replaced an old bandstand in place since 1909, one of many bandstands that joined the list of removed park structures over the years, including a statue of Amazons, vined lattices and German cannons. This marked the long, slow shift in the park’s purpose away from a social gathering and education space to more of a ceremonial backdrop.

Not to say the park didn’t see its share of action. According to Calgary’s Gay History Project, the park served as a prime cruising spot during the 1970s and 80s. Its large foliage providing the perfect cover for amorous encounters. In addition, with a few exceptions, the park has seen every Calgary Remembrance Day service since the installation of the cenotaph in 1928.

Its last renovation, which occurred in 2009 to 2010, restored the original carpet bed design of geometric patterns of plants, paths and grass, as well as restoring the park’s monuments while modernizing the space with new lighting plans, water features and free Wi-Fi. The revamp also integrated the Boxwood Cafe and public facilities into the space, as well as a central water fountain originally planned for in 1912, but scrapped due to rising costs and a change in park superintendents.

In 2012, the City of Calgary Parks department won a Heritage Canada Foundation Achievement Award for its revitalization of the Provincial Historic Resource. Central Memorial’s collection of accolades also includes one from the Calgary Heritage Authority in 2010 and two Mayor’s Urban Design Awards, one for community improvement in 2011 and one for conceptual design in 2005. According to the parks department, the latest redesign, which returned the classic Edwardian garden atmosphere to the park, will remained untouched for the foreseeable future.

[Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the Boer War Memorial statue depicted Canadian soldier Russell Lambert Boyle.]

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