On this day in history: Harry Hays Building honoured ex-mayor

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As the local history librarian at the Calgary Public Library, Jennifer Bobrovitz wrote a weekly column for the Calgary Herald in the 1990s called Cornerstones. It explored the stories behind historic buildings and sites in Calgary, present and past. This column about the Harry Hays Building was first published May 9, 1999.

Harry Hays (Government of Canada) Building

By Jennifer Bobrovitz

Harry Hays (Government of Canada) Building

220 4th Avenue S.E.

Built: 1974-1979

Architect: The Chandler Kennedy Architectural Group.

Structural Engineer: Stanley Associates Engineering Ltd.

Mechanical Engineer: MHL and Associates Ltd.

Electrical Engineer: Klein Dashevsky and Associates Ltd.

Contractor: CANA Construction Company — superstructure. Other contractors were also involved.

Original cost: $45.8 million. The Treasury Board originally approved $21.4 million for the project. According to the auditor general’s 1979 audit report published in April 1980, $10.9 million of the overrun was attributed to inflation, $4 million to extra costs such as consultant fees, change orders, etc., and $9.5 million for interim financing during construction, tenant fit-ups and other costs.


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Original interior details: Eight levels of office and retail space totaling 520,000 square feet. A brochure published by Public Works Canada around 1980, describes the design of the building: ”The first two floors were designed as attractive public service areas with a mall, atrium and spacious square providing access to a garden terrace on the second level. Two wings are located on the third floor, which gradually recess into upper stories creating a pyramid-shaped structure. These soft contours provide a graceful transition from the low Bow River, to the high rise structures of Calgary’s city core.

Historical highlights:

– Built on 5.6 acres adjacent to the Bow River on primarily residential property.

– Relocation of residents and demolition of structures on the site began in 1974. According to a history of Calgary’s Chinese community called Our Chosen Land, ”some 180 Chinatown residents had to be relocated” to accommodate the new federal government building, although technically the area was outside the Chinatown boundaries approved by city government in February 1974.

– Construction began in February 1976 and during the excavation more than 1,000 bison bones were uncovered.

– In 1978, the building won honourable mention in the City of Calgary’s Urban Design Award.

– A competition was held asking the public to submit suitable names. A 1979 Calgary Herald article reported that ”Public Works Canada Seeks Help on Name.” Bob Hill, regional information officer with the department, said, ”A suitable name would be that of a deceased person closely identified with the city’s or the province’s past, or at least well-known.” In the meantime, it was called the Government of Canada Building.


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– Government departments and agencies began moving in during 1979. The National Film Board became the first resident in January. It was estimated that the building would eventually accommodate 2,000 employees and consolidate about 20 federal government departments previously located throughout the city.

– The building wasn’t officially opened until two years later on Nov. 17, 1980.

– The Honourable Paul Cosgrove, Minister of Public Works, and Senator Bud Olson, Minister of State for Economic Development, opened the structure as the Harry Hays Building. Cosgrove explained to reporters, ”We decided to name the building after Senator Hays in September, before he became a chairman of the committee” (the Senate Commons committee studying Ottawa’s constitutional reform package). Cosgrove indicated that it was the first federal structure to be named after a living person. ”We have a guideline that says buildings should be named only after people who are no longer living, but I and many others don’t agree with that. As far as I’m concerned, it’s now the Harry Hays Building.”

Harry Hays was elected mayor of Calgary in 1959. Calgary Herald archives.
Harry Hays was elected mayor of Calgary in 1959. Calgary Herald archives. HERALD FILE PHOTO

During the dedication ceremonies, 16 demonstrators from a group called Committee for Better Government stood quietly in the lobby with placards which read: ”Solve the federal debt — rob an Albertan,” ”We need the east like a fish needs a bicycle,” and ”Tar and Sand Trudeau.

– On Sept. 24, 1982, four months after the death of Harry Hays, a ceremony was held to reaffirm the dedication of the Harry Hays Building. Hays, born Dec. 25, 1909 in Carstairs, Alberta, had been Calgary mayor from 1959 to 1963, elected Liberal MP for Calgary South in 1963 (became federal Liberal minister of agriculture), was appointed to Senate in 1966, and in 1980 co-chaired the Senate-Commons committee which studied Ottawa’s constitutional reform package. Hays died May 4, 1982.

– The Harry Hays Building was ”the last federal government structure for which original works of art were commissioned.” Six artists, four of them local, were commissioned; they were Annemarie Schmid Esler, David Gilhooly, Joyce Hall, Henry Saxe, Wendy Toogood and Alan Wood.


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