HomeFeaturesThe Winnipegger who changed the course of Calgary’s history

The Winnipegger who changed the course of Calgary’s history

By IRENA KARSHENBAUM Calgary is not known for saving its heritage buildings — although some impressive exceptions exist — so when on March 15 a local real estate investment company, Strategic Group, that is not in the business of heritage restoration, announced they will be restoring the city’s most significant Art Moderne building, the news came as a welcome surprise.
Work has begun on the 1951 Barron Building, once the epitome of chic, that for the last dozen years had stood empty and its future uncertain.
In 1947, when oil was discovered in Leduc, which is closer to Edmonton than to Calgary, oil companies could have settled in the provincial capital instead they were lured to Calgary, thanks to the daring of J.B. Barron, a Winnipeg-native, who saw that the city desperately needed office space and built Calgary’s first post-WWII high-rise. Named the Mobil Oil Building initially, in honour of its biggest tenant and located at 610 8 Avenue S.W., John Barron, J.B. Barron’s oldest grandson who, at the age of five, broke ground in 1949 for the construction of the building, remembers that his grandfather was thought of as “crazy” at the time because, “the city was never going to move that far west.”
Calgary had been struggling through a depression over the previous 35 years since the economic collapse in 1913, so it was hard for the naysayers to imagine a different future.
Calgary’s rising fortunes had their beginnings in Winnipeg.
Born in 1863, Joseph Samuel Barron arrived in Winnipeg in 1880 from Kiev. In 1887, he married 18-year-old Kiev-native, Elizabeth Belapolsky, and the couple had two sons, J.B. (Jacob Bell), born in 1888 and, Abraham, who followed in 1889.
Not immune to the gold rush fever that had spread across North America, in 1898 J.S. Barron left behind his family in Winnipeg and headed to Dawson City enduring an arduous journey by climbing through the White Pass on foot, carrying his merchandise on his back.
A lucky few struck it rich during the Klondike Gold Rush, which lasted only from 1896 to 1899, but most did not – J.S. Barron among them. In 1899, when gold was found in Nome, Alaska, people abandoned Dawson City to seek their fortunes in Nome. J.S. Barron remained.
Elizabeth waited for her husband to return and finally, in 1902, set out on a difficult journey with her two young sons. They traveled from Winnipeg to Regina to Calgary to Seattle by train, where they boarded a liner that sailed north to Skagway on the coast of Alaska, then by railroad to Whitehorse, where they boarded the Casca sternwheeler, which sailed on the Yukon River, and finally arrived in Dawson City.
J.B. and Abe were the first graduates of Dawson City High School and, in 1905, while the father remained in the Yukon, headed with their mother to the University of Chicago, where they studied law. Elizabeth supported her sons by sewing dresses for Vaudeville and Yiddish Theatre actresses and cooking for them. Following graduation, in 1911, J.B. Barron came to Calgary at the urging of his uncle, Charlie Bell, who had recently built the King George Hotel (demolished in 1978). Elizabeth and Abe arrived in Calgary the following year.
Even though J.S.’s mercantile business burned down three times, he continued to stay in Dawson City. Elizabeth had to brave another journey to Dawson City to coax her husband to return to his family. The parents eventually joined their sons in Calgary in 1913, but Joseph passed away in 1917. Elizabeth survived him until 1941.
In 1914, J. B. Barron married fellow Winnipeg-native Amelia Helman, daughter of Odessa-born John Louis Helman and Esther Helman (née Finkelstein), from Shumsk, Ukraine. The couple had three sons: William, Robert and Richard. A teacher, Amelia served as president of the Calgary Chapter of Hadassah and was instrumental in bringing Goldie Myerson and Eleanor Roosevelt to the city.
In 1915, J.B. Barron became the first Jewish lawyer in Calgary to be admitted to the bar. Abe passed the bar in 1919 and the two brothers started the law firm, Barron & Barron. By acting as the solicitor for the Allen brothers, a Jewish family that had established a national movie theatre chain, in 1923, J.B. acquired the Allen’s Palace Theatre on 8th Avenue and discovered his calling, as theatre impresario.
In 1924, he brought the violinist, Jascha Heifitz, and pianist, Sergei Rachmaninoff, who played to thrilled audiences. In 1926, he hired newly-arrived Leon Asper to serve as the conductor of the Palace Concert Orchestra, along with his wife, Cecilia, who played the piano. He convinced Crimean-born, Grigori Garbovitsky, who had settled in Winnipeg, to move to Calgary, where the violinist and conductor founded the Calgary Symphony Orchestra. In 1928, however, J.B. Barron lost control of the Palace Theatre.
It took him another nine years before he would own another theatre, the Sherman Grand. Located in the 1912 Lougheed Building — built by Senator Sir James Lougheed, the grandfather of Premier Peter Lougheed — he bought the theatre from the Lougheed family, giving them much-needed cash. The Lougheeds, who once entertained European royalty in their mansion but, since the death of the senator, and being lenient about collecting rent from their tenants to help keep their businesses afloat during the Great Depression, were themselves on the brink of financial ruin.
Owning the Grand gave J.B. Barron not only the opportunity to return to being a theatre impresario — he brought pianist Artur Rubinstein to Calgary in 1942 and 1944 — but the Chicago Style Lougheed Building would serve as a model for his greatest project yet to come.

Located on the corner of 6th Avenue and 1st Street S.W., the 6-floor, mixed-use building contained the Sherman Grand Theatre, retail at street level, offices and a penthouse. When opened in 1912, it was Calgary’s most prestigious corporate address. (By the end of the 20th century the building was in severe decline and only thanks to a devastating fire in 2004 did it galvanize wide-spread civic support for its restoration.) J.B. Barron used this model to build his own mixed-use building with the Uptown Theatre, stores at street level, office space on the second to tenth floors and an eleventh floor containing office space for his business as well a penthouse for him, since he and Amelia were by then separated. The penthouse opened on to a rooftop garden for his dog, Butch.
Completed at a cost of $1.125 million, the Alberta Association of Architects (ASA) listed the Barron Building as Significant Alberta Architecture. The penthouse design was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. The rooftop garden won the Vincent Massey Award for excellence in urban planning for a rooftop garden.
The building housed Sun Oil, Shell Oil, Socony Mobil Oil Company and others. New office towers sprung up around it, inspiring the expression, “the oil patch.” (Built so far west, it also inadvertently saved from demolition early 20th century buildings along the eastern section of 8th Avenue that today make up the Stephen Avenue National Historic District.) Calgary’s position as the oil capital of Canada was sealed.
J.B. Barron passed away in 1965. His sons took over the management of the building until 1981, when they sold it to a Swiss family for what is believed to be $6 million. The real estate market soon collapsed and the building was eventually foreclosed. It stood on the market through the mid 1980s until 1992 when Blake O’Brien, a young banker, placed a joke bid of $250,000 at an auction and found himself the accidental owner of the Barron Building and Uptown Theatre.
Under O’Brien, the Uptown Theatre flourished as if a scene out of Cinema Paradiso, while the rest of the building languished empty like a Sicilian village. For years, O’Brien lived with his own dog in the penthouse, filled with 1950s furniture.
In 2005, while attending a Calgary Centre Hadassah meeting, I met Linda Barron (née Rosenthal), a Winnipeg native. When asked if she had a connection to the Barron Building, she explained that it had been built by the grandfather of her husband, John Barron. My relationship with the Barron family grew, along with my research about their extraordinary grandfather and his building.
In 2009, the building was bought by Strategic Group and its future came into question when the company discarded the contents of the penthouse, removed the theatre marquée ,and ripped out the Uptown Theatre.
Between 2007 and 2013, I advocated for the restoration of the Barron Building and Uptown Theatre by writing articles, giving public talks and, in 2012, witing a submission that included placing the building on that year’s National Trust of Canada Top Most Endangered Places List. This advocacy helped raise awareness of the significance of the building. Representatives of Strategic Group attended my talk for Historic Calgary Week in the summer of 2012 and, in the fall of that year, I was invited to meet with Riaz Mamdani, CEO of Strategic Group, who showed me his plans for the building. I asked Mamdani to restore the Barron Building to the highest heritage standards and make it the jewel in his Strategic crown. I left the meeting uncertain that things would end well. Later, a number of groups wrote to provincial and municipal governments and, in 2014, the Government of Alberta ordered a Historic Resources Impact Assessment.
After years of work, on March 15, Strategic Group announced they will be investing $100 million into the restoration and residential conversion of the Barron Building for which they will receive an $8.5 million incentive from the City of Calgary.
Strategic Group’s investment is likely the largest heritage restoration project in Calgary’s recent history and needs to be recognized and celebrated. The Barron Building’s continued life will serve to tell a wild story of fortunes lost and made across space and time.
With files from Daniel Barron and Donald B. Smith.
Irena Karshenbaum is a writer, historian and heritage advocate living in Calgary. www.irenakarshenbaum.com 

The Barron Building in Calgary circa 1951

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