Story and photos by Andrea Wong
Named the fastest growing city in Canada, Calgary’s urban centre can be summarized by the concrete monoliths on its skyline. But along the edges of the bustling downtown core, past the rows of glossy office towers, a single, three-story house stands to predate them all.
Built in 1896, the McHugh House was originally owned by a pioneering family and, until a few years ago, remained occupied as a residential program for pregnant teens and new mothers. When the program relocated due to structural problems, it seemed the vacant house would meet a similar fate to many other historic houses now gone.
The city fortunately stepped in four years ago with a $450,000 rescue plan and a large moving truck, sparing the Queen Anne-revival style house from demolition. Given a second chance, the McHugh House now thrives on the corner of Centre Street and 17 Avenue, where it provides equal opportunities as the Beltline’s growing community and arts hub.
“It’s sort of that thread that connects Calgary’s early years and past with its current contemporary identity,” says Peter Oliver, president of the Beltline Neighbourhood Association, which currently runs the McHugh House as a community hub. “It being saved but then being repurposed provides a connection between the little bit of history here we have in Calgary and the future of the city.”
In contrast to commercial landmarks like the Calgary Tower and Saddledome down the road, the McHugh House is distinguished by its asymmetrical shape clad with light yellow brick and fish scale shingles, gabled roof and pointed polygonal tower.
Walking through the crimson painted door, you are immediately welcomed by a familiar warmth in the air redolent of aged hardwood. The hollow living space almost seems frozen in time as beige walls are polished by the soft mid-afternoon sun trickling through a triad of tall windows.
When you venture further in though, you will realize this house is anything but empty.
The sturdy set of stairs is lined with decorative wooden panels, a pattern mirrored by an ascending trail of paintings leading up to its source. Nestled on the second floor along the narrow carpeted hallway is a string of rooms that have been converted into office spaces or studios. These spaces have provided a home to some of Calgary’s most innovative and creative minds, including local artists and organizations such as Calgary Party 50 and Cowtown Opera.
Oliver says before their community group came across the house, they had been operating out of church basements and library spaces. Now, they have a permanent meeting space which they share with others who are looking for the same thing.
“It’s kind of just a really accessible space for just about anything,” Oliver says, adding that the house regularly hosts a variety of events and classes. “Just sort of oddball things that don’t really have a home anywhere else. We’re hoping this can be sort of that quirky place where people make things that they’d like to see happen.”
Equipped with a sound system and lighting provided by local radio station CJSW, the house bursts to life as the peaceful living space is transformed into a dynamic stage by night. Music lovers and curious passerby’s alike crowd into the living room saturated with bright scarlet lighting. Musicians from corners of the city wield their guitars and pound on drums fitted along the angular nook of the windows. If you lean against the wall, you can feel the roaring reverberation detonated by dissonant riffs and pulsating cadences.
Michael Kasper, who organizers live music performances with Book Burner Productions, says the McHugh House has been a valuable asset in showcasing lesser known genres in Calgary’s growing music scene.
“A lot of people are starting to recognize McHugh House as the experimental, odd genre house. It’s been really good for that. It’s giving a place to start scenes that didn’t really exist a few years ago.”
The house has also promoted the revitalization of Calgary’s all-ages music scene, which has dwindled with the lack of inclusive venues. For Kasper, who grew up around music, all-ages music shows allowed him to connect with likeminded people. Over time he noticed pickings were very slim in the city, which is largely why he gravitated to the McHugh House.
Taylor Shepherd, the volunteer coordinator at CJSW, also picked up on this disparity and saw the McHugh House as an opportunity to build a partnership and invest in Calgary’s younger musicians.
“Without spaces like this, youth aren’t going to be able to go out and perform until they’re of age, but if you’re able to foster these connections when people are younger, it’s just only going to reinforce the local scene,” Shephard says.
This link is also extended through the house’s welcoming atmosphere, which creates an intimate space where people can enjoy a safe and respectful environment.
“It’s tight, shoulder-to-shoulder, but the bands are up in your face as well. Even after, everyone’s hanging out in the crowd, and you see a lot of networking … Just seeing those connections made and then transpiring it into the greater Calgary community, I think it’s just rad.”
As the McHugh House continues to open its door to more groups in Calgary, it serves as a visual reminder that seemingly outdated buildings are pieces of the city still worth preserving. While reminiscent of the past, they do not remain stagnant. As the urban landscape around them changes, they have the potential to arise and influence the city’s ongoing story.