Central Memorial Park, in the centre of Calgary’s downtown, was designed in 1911 as an elaborate representation of the lush Victorian-era parks of the time. It is one of a few parks in North America with a Carnegie Library and associated landscape both intact, and is Calgary’s oldest park.
By the early 2000s, the park had fallen into disrepair. The challenge of the restoration project was to preserve the rich history of the site, while still addressing the contemporary needs of the inner-city neighbourhood.
In 1899, prominent citizen William Pearce convinced the federal government to donate land for the park. By 1912, the park and adjacent library were complete and considered a civic showcase. The grounds were modeled after a formal Victorian garden featuring geometric pathways, elaborate garden beds, and rows of imported and native trees.
When Calgarians needed a place to grieve over the losses of World War I (and subsequent wars/conflicts) this was the place where the monuments were erected. Remembrance Day ceremonies are still held in the park today.
The celebration and preservation of historic places play an important role in a city. Central Memorial Park provides Calgarians with an important connection to the past. But public spaces need to remain vital for users, and historic places cannot remain frozen in time. Adaptive re-use played an important role in the approach to redesigning this park space.
The restoration focused on the pre-World War II era when the park was at its peak. It included:
- The oval garden with its formal structure illustrated with symmetrical, geometric patterns of paths, planting beds, and lawn areas on a flat grassed plane and use of ornamental plants such as topiary spruce and palms;
- The 1912 Carnegie library setting and semi-circular garden;
- The cenotaph plaza, flagpole and memorials.
A further major objective of the redevelopment was to encourage and accommodate compatible new uses in the park. Prior to the restoration the park had undergone a period of neglect and the centre city location meant the park had some undesirable uses (including drug use and prostitution). The historic elements created the framework and context into which new elements and uses were placed. New uses and elements included:
- Illuminated, interactive fountains, placed in a way that respects the historic geometry of the site;
- A café to provide year-round and evening “eyes on the park”;
- A comprehensive lighting plan to address safety and highlight the Carnegie Library and the various war memorials.
- Festival and events to accommodate existing and future programming of the site, including market tents, stage areas, accessible power and water;
- Outdoor reading rooms with fixed benches, patios with movable tables and chairs, and wireless internet.
Today, the park is a popular destination year-round and a welcoming, modernized connection to our city’s past.
The team responsible for the restoration has been recognized for their work by Heritage Canada, the Alberta Recreation and Parks Association, and the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects.
A 12-minute video on the park’s history and restoration is available on YouTube.
Central Memorial Park in 1912