Zoey Tours the St. Louis Hotel

Another historical building on Calgary’s original main street has been artfully restored in East Village. I think Calgarians are going to love how it fits into the future of our city while preserving so much of the past.

First, a little history. The former St. Louis Hotel (430 8 Ave SE) was stripped down, reinforced with engineering that will withstand another century and refurbished beyond its original 1914 shine. It was built by NWMP officer, rancher and businessman Col. James Walker on the site of Calgary’s first telephone exchange, according to the City of Calgary. In addition to the hotel, the St. Louis had popular bar (ca. 1959) along with a cafe, cigar shop and barber. It closed in 2006.

St. Louis Hotel (ca. 1940s). Photo courtesy of Glenbow Museum Archives.

St. Louis Hotel (ca. 1940s). Photo courtesy of Glenbow Museum Archives.

Many Calgarians came to know the St. Louis as a favourite hangout of Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, starting back when he was a TV reporter. In fact, it was at the St. Louis where he decided to make a run for Calgary mayor and he continued to hang out there as premier. Other locals might recognize it as the place where Superman got drunk in Superman 3 (watch the clip here).

St. Louis Hotel in Superman 3 (1983)

St. Louis Hotel in Superman 3 (1983)

Then there were the famed horse races that took place every Friday afternoon for a decade in the ‘80s and ‘90s, called by George Stephenson Sr. The horses weren’t real. Nor were the races. It all came from Stephenson’s imagination and sense of humour. 

I was lucky enough to tour the building with Kevin and Mairi Nyhoff, the architects behind the reinvention, and Josh Sartorelli, CMLC’s Project Manager for Development. They taught me all kinds of things about how the old features of the building have been upgraded and enhanced for today.

Kevin and Mairi Nyhoff of Nyhoff Architecture

Kevin and Mairi Nyhoff of Nyhoff Architecture

The restoration of the hotel’s façade is based partly on Glenbow Museum archive photos of the St. Louis from the 1940s. Rather than the tiled exterior you might recognize from Superman's days at the Louis, the original dark red bricks and sandstone now make up much of the façade. You can see the neon and backlit signage, installed in an extensive 1959 renovation, lit up nightly after dark.

The iconic St. Louis Hotel sign now re-installed after being restored.

The iconic St. Louis Hotel sign now re-installed after being restored.

“We really wanted to respect the history,” said Mairi. “The exterior is basically a replication of what was. When you walk in, it’s what can be. The future.”

Stepping inside the St. Louis, some of the historical nuances are clear, but others are more subtle. For example, the lobby that leads to the elevator (brand new, and important, Sartorelli notes, for ensuring the building is accessible to all Calgarians) and office space, brings a visitor face to face with the pressed tin “ST. LOUIS HOTEL” sign that formerly hung outside. Mairi noted that they just gently brushed the dust off of the letters before reinstalling them inside.

“The patina of the building was really important to us,” Kevin said. “That it didn’t become this precious brand new thing, but it extended the story. If we were to polish these off and paint them all nice and pretty it would lose that sense of history and emotion.” That goal is clear in the exposed brick that remains throughout every floor and other features like bits of original tiling, wood and upcycled windows.

A more subtle nod to the building’s history is in the hexagonal floor tiles that cover the lobby, and a similar chicken-wire pattern on the glass that divides the lobby space from the future retail/restaurant space. It’s playing on the utilitarian design of the original fire-rated windows used throughout the hotel.

The ceilings are the hotel’s original floorboards, whitewashed to brighten them up even more “instead of a dark, heavy sort of warehouse look,” Mairi says. In the basement, where the bar was, the whitewashed ceiling boards retain a yellowish tinge, probably a vestige of smoking patrons of decades past.

The St. Louis is an E-shaped building, designed so most of the 60 hotel rooms would get a bit of sunlight. “Structurally, it was like a honeycomb,” says Kevin. That design led to three light wells beaming sunlight into the main floor. For decades they had been covered up by kitchen and mechanical equipment. They’re clear once again.

“One of the important points with these light wells was that we wanted (to) bring back that feeling of hearing the rain, seeing the snow, seeing the stars, the sky, whatever it may be while you’re in this space and be connected to the outdoors,” Kevin says.

And those portholes to East Village will add some texture for the St. Louis’ eventual neighbours in the N3 condo. Here’s how Kevin imagines the future: “At night from N3 you can see these shafts of light coming up from (an) event… You look down on a lot of roofs in East Village and this little building will have a roofscape.”

I’m enthralled by all the ways Nyhoff Architecture and CMLC have been able to acknowledge the past while making the St. Louis relevant to the future. I love that they’ve retained fire-fighting portholes, and a heavy-looking keg lifter that used to bring beer into the basement bar and that the elevator artwork pays homage to Stephenson’s imaginary horse races and Klein’s use of the place like a second office.

For now, the St. Louis is home to CMLC’s offices. Around the time the New Central Library construction next door is complete—in late 2018—the St. Louis will be ready to house a new generation of East Villagers.

For more information on East Village’s historical structures, read about the Simmons Building, the King Edward Hotel and the Hillier Block here