Andrew Mosker, president and CEO of the National Music Centre (NMC), describes the King Edward Hotel as his organization’s heart. “The King Eddy is the largest artifact in the NMC collection,” he says. “It’s an iconic live music venue that has a story about Calgary, that extends beyond Calgary.”
The century-old King Edward Hotel, affectionately known as the “King Eddy,” is one of the only remaining buildings on what was once “Whiskey Row,” a strip of hotels along 9th Ave. S.E. In the 1980s the King Eddy became known as one of Canada’s greatest blues bars, and its fame as a music venue outshone its increasingly seedy reputation and decaying structure. “Calgarians from all walks of life went to the King Eddy to hear great music,” Mosker says. The hotel closed its doors in 2004 after 99 years in operation.
After the King Eddy closed, it was purchased by the City of Calgary. In 2008 the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), which was incorporated to oversee the Rivers District Community Revitalization Plan, issued an RFP for ideas to rejuvenate the historic building.
When the King Eddy closed, plans for NMC were still in their infancy. “We were exploring different ideas and places to move our operation,” Mosker says. When CMLC issued a request for proposal for ideas that would restore the King Eddy, NMC (then the Cantos Music Foundation) responded – and won. “We felt that [NMC] needed to be anchored in a strong Calgary music story,” Mosker says. “So we decided to build the whole NMC around the King Eddy.”
NMC’s new home at Studio Bell is not only on the hotel’s original location, it encircles the King Eddy building itself. “It’s almost cradled by the rest of the structure,” Mosker says. Architect Brad Cloepfil’s design incorporates the King Eddy into the west block of Studio Bell, its north, south and east exterior walls exposed, sheltered by a soaring skybridge that connects the west and east blocks. When NMC opens in 2016, the King Eddy will house classrooms, office space and CKUA Radio’s Calgary studio, as well as the hotel’s original live music room. It’s a striking element of a striking building, made more remarkable by the extraordinary effort put into its preservation.
In 2012, the King Eddy was dismantled brick by brick and put into storage. Its rotting original wooden frame was replaced with steel, and in 2015, the preserved elements of the structure were rebuilt according to their exact original specifications. Each brick has been replaced within a metre of its original position, and the iconic neon sign, cornices and sandstone ledges have been restored. Once-boarded-up windows shine in their original locations and layers of white paint have been stripped to expose the original red-white bricks.
Mosker says the process of restoring the King Eddy involved many conversations, some more difficult than others. He was advised several times to tear down the King Eddy and build a replica in a different location. While that might have been a simpler path, Mosker says it just didn’t fit NMC’s vision. “That’s where the landmark is. That’s where it happened,” he says. “Our audiences care about seeing the real thing, whether it’s a performance or an artifact. In our world, authenticity matters.”
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