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March 01, 2009

Slice of Life: Historic Lougheed House

Lougheed House dishes up dining, music, nuptials, and a healthy helping of history

Anne Morris

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In its more than 100 years Lougheed House has seen much unfold, from hosting lavish political bashes to housing a blood bank, to narrowly missing a wrecker’s ball.

That plummet from its station of enviable prestige to near squalour mirrors the history of one of its first inhabitants, Lady Isabella Hardisty Lougheed, who shared the home with Senator James Alexander Lougheed, their six children and staff. “So much has happened in this house,” says Blane Hogue, executive director of Lougheed House Conservation Society, which runs the house. “The house itself has a personality … and it keeps changing.”

The way Hogue sees it, the stunning sandstone mansion in the Beltline is a metaphor in some ways for the Lougheeds. “They had huge success then huge disaster,” he says.

“By the time Isabella died in 1936 she had gone from the pinnacle of entertaining royalty … to (burying) her husband, three of her children and was a charity case.”

To visitors today who take in chamber concerts or dine on Sunday brunch—or simply visit the landmark—its past might not be apparent. But hundreds of young students who tour the home learn all about it. “We really try to bring the history alive,” says Hogue. “A lot of these kids are very much part of the digital age. Here everything is real.”

Archivist Amanda Kriaski, who also runs several programs, finds students are quickly engaged when shown details in wallpaper, delicate and intricate mouldings or told stories about a time when children didn’t have TVs or iPods. “The kids love it,” she says. “If you look closely there’s so much more there.”

It is also inspirational for adults who wed, hold corporate events and enjoy lunches and Sunday brunches at Lougheed House. Kriaski accidentally ended up working at the home after years of volunteering there. “It’s so inspiring. I could be working in a cubicle, but this is a beautiful space with so many stories,” she says.

Restoration began in 1995, first with the formal Beaulieu gardens outside, then the 14,000-square-foot, 21-room home. The third floor, once kids’ rooms and servants’ quarters, is now office space, while the second one is open for the public to see what was once a lavish home in its day, and one of the first with electricity. Some rooms are being restored so when visitors walk in it will be like time stood still.

“It’s a work-in-progress,” Hogue says. Lougheed House was once home to the Canadian Women’s Army Corps and later to the Canadian Red Cross Society. “Each of those occupants didn’t treat it as a historical site but as an office they had space in,” Hogue says.

Lougheed House was designated a provincial resource in 1976 and a national historic site in 1995 and Hogue says there is a coup in salvaging a piece of history in a city where so much is gone. “It’s a fight to keep anything,” he says. “This place was almost gone in the late ’80s, it was sitting here derelict and owned by the province, it was almost a fire trap … and a developer was lusting after the site.”

In the past ten years about $12 million has been spent to recreate the gardens, tear out shag carpet, strip mint-green paint off beautiful wood and furnish it with original and historic pieces—to return Lougheed House to some of its former glory. “People work here because they love it or believe in it or what it stands for and are devoted to it,” Hogue says. “To me, it truly represents the history of a very formative period in Calgary and Alberta.”

When it was built in 1891, the city’s population was just 3,800 and Senator Lougheed was about to make his mark in history—becoming the driving force behind Alberta becoming a province in 1905 and owning its mineral rights. It’s been said no other individual played as large a part in the building of this city.

Anyone walking through the house today can learn some of the stories written within its walls or simply enjoy the splendour of how homes were once built—complete with stained glass windows, a glass dome over the formal dining room, a spiral staircase, ornate oak and mahogany touches and rich wall colours, deep pinks, yellows and blues. “There’s something magical about it,” Kriaski says. CL

For more information,  on upcoming events at Lougheed House, visit http://www.lougheedhouse.com/html/events.html.

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