Not many organizations could take a stripped to the bricks, abandoned art deco era office building and into something cool that people want to see. But Calgary’s art science and engineering mashup known as Beakerhead is doing just that.
In this case, they’ve taken Calgary’s Barron Building and turned it into a chic art showcase space.
The art is really really cool. But the inside of the barren building is also pretty neat all on its own. First to the art then to the architecture.
On display in the building is Peter William Holden’s Solenoid. It’s a sound and light installation featuring tap shoes which dance on their own and tap to food beats under white spot lights.
The other art installation features Nanoleaf lightbulbs, which I’ve written about before. In this case they are set up in an abandoned warehouse style space inside mirrored triangle towers. They reflect crazily with in the spires to create a really cool environment. It’s like new and shiny technology contrasted with old and spartan space.
Barren Barron Building becomes temporary art space
Now to the venue for this crazy art installation. Strategic Group in Calgary opened up the historic Art Deco era building for Beakerhead this year. For years this historic building has been hidden behind locked doors. Now, thanks to the Strategic Group, it is once again open to the public. The building itself has been stripped to the bricks inside, and as you can see in photos is very bare.
Art Deco office towers are few and far between in Calgary. It’s said that a local entrepreneur named Jacob Bell Barron found a lack of office space in the city, and set about correcting it. With the help of architect Jack Cawston, he had plans drawn up for an 11-storey tower with Art Deco lines at 610-‐8th Avenue which was built in 1949 and finished by 1951.
Insider Access Tour
I got a rare chance to tour the hidden areas of the building, with an authorized escort. The most noticeable aspect of the building is the now-defunct Uptown Theatre.
You could shoot a horror movie in the lobby alone; it’s dark, dusty and abandoned, but with hints of the Art Decor grandeur that made the building historic.
Gorgeous railings, and architectural details are still visible, along with beautiful deco-style light fixtures. Two theatres take up the first two floors of the building, which Strategic Group says will eventually be removed.
One theatre sits in ghostly darkness, with row upon row of seats folded permanently. The other theatre has gorgeous sculpted lines, and is lit with construction floodlights.
We also got access to the old projector room, which is still filled with what looks to be a 1980’s era film projector that’s the size of a smart car. No film remains inside, but scraps of manuals, canisters, and a few 70’s era chairs are tipped acrosss the room like toys.
Floors three through ten are basic bricks and lathe, flooded with light from huge windows. Architecturally, these floors are barren, but for the stylized “B” in mosaic tile just outside the elevators.
The space is cavernous, in the way empty pre-built office spaces can be before someone puts in drywall, cubicles, closets and desks.
The Barron Building was originally named “Mobil Oil Building” after one of its biggest tenants, and this is said to mark the beginning of Calgary’s status as the oil industry’s core in Canada. (Other notable tenants in the oil industry have included Mobil Oil, Halliburton, Shell, Socony, Vacuum Oil, Sun Oil, Trans Canada Pipelines,and even Smithbilt Hats.)
There are some neat features still inside the building; a safe room and a massive floor safe. The safe room appears to be a former vault where film was stored, if the reel emblem on the door can be taken as a clue. While the door sits open, inside the room is just bare bricks and some wood. If it was a safe or fire-proof room before, it isn’t any longer.
In another room on the main floor sits a massive carved-footed floor safe. It’s locked up tight. I wonder if it’s empty?
One of the most interesting floors is the penthouse on 11. It has expansive views of the city. But what makes it truly interesting is that it used to be living quarters for first, JB Barron and his dog until his death. His sons then sold the building in 1981 to a Swiss family. Eventually Blake O’Brien bought the building in 1992 after Calgary’s real estate market fell on hard times (sound familiar?) and he was able to pick up the Art Deco relic for a paltry $250,000. He was the next resident of the soaring penthouse suite, which featured a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired roof garden.
While the garden’s location is still visible, it’s now filled in with unruly grass and broken glass.
In 2007 the building was purchased by Strategic Group, who are preparing for a massive renovation of the building.
-with thanks to Beakerhead for sharing some of the historical information, and thanks to Strategic Group for the behind-the-scenes look.