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Don Forster Limited – Mid-Century Menswear in Calgary


Although this project is about architecture, I occasionally like to delve into other topics related to the mid-century period. I'm particularly interested in the interplay between different art forms in a common era and whether there are commonalities between them. For example, is there an underlying aesthetic principle that unites Baroque music and Baroque architecture, or were they merely made during the same period? Or does the Victorian novel share characteristics with Victorian painting? It's a complex question, as the physical components of each are different. While one can talk about ornament in music and building, these are clearly two different "objects" and are challenging to compare using the same criteria.


Outside of architecture, one form of mid-century design that intrigues me is menswear. The crisp look of the era – dark suits with thin lapels, white shirts, and narrow ties – was in many ways complementary to international style architecture with its clean lines, simple forms, and rigid order. In this piece I'm not going to do an analysis of the similarities between post-war suits and office buildings. Rather, I thought I'd profile Calgary's preeminent menswear shop of the era: Don Forster Limited. The store operated from 1952 to 2001, or 1949 to 2001 if you include the predecessor business Forster & Klein. I have no doubt that most of the men whose houses are on this site bought their clothing from Forster. Both my grandfather and father got their suits there, and I have a very faint memory of being in the shop once with my dad. Over its half-century life, it had four locations:


Elks Building, 114 7 Ave, 1949–1955

335 7 Ave, 1955–1974

Forster Building, 522 6 Ave, 1974–1982

Notre Dame Place, 1818 2 St, 1982–2001


What follows is a history of the business, with an emphasis on architecture and design elements.


Background


Donald Forster was born in Regina on 13 April 1916 and was the youngest of six children. After high school he wanted to become a doctor, but the family was too poor to pay for a university education. In 1936, aged 20, Forster began working for Tip Top Tailors in Regina and eventually became the store manager. From 1943 to 1945 he served in the Royal Canadian Navy, after which time he returned to working in Regina. In April 1946, Tip Top transferred Forster to Calgary to manage the company store in the Leeson-Lineham Building. Forster, his wife Isabel, and young daughter Carol established a home in Calgary, where they would remain for the next 22 years. In 1968, Forster sold his business to Dave Richardson, Wilf Ogden (1930–2016), and Fred Wuotila (1937–2018). Forster retired to British Columbia, where he lived until his death on 1 April 2001 at age 84.

The first store: Elks Building, 1949–1955


After only three years at the Calgary Tip Top store, Forster formed a partnership with Norman R. Klein as Foster & Klein Ltd. They set up their store in the Elks Building on 7th Avenue. In August 1952, Forster bought out Klein and renamed the business Don Forster Limited, keeping the store in the Elks. Forster had come to Calgary at a fortuitous time for the menswear business. Ten months after he arrived in April 1946, the Leduc No. 1 discovery set off a major period of growth in Calgary's petroleum industry. An army of corporate men descended on the city, providing him a massive clientele.

The second store: 335 7th Ave, 1955–1974


Forster stayed in the Elks Building until 1955, when he moved the store to a 25x130 foot shop at 335 7 Avenue. The entrance and interior of the store got a full remodeling that was designed and built by Gienow Construction (which still exists today as Gienow Renovations).


In September 1965, Forster announced a complete remodelling of the store. At this time, the business moved temporarily across the street to 336 7 Ave. The remodelling was designed by Nelson MacDonald Design. The firm was run by Horatio Nelson MacDonald (1932–2020) and his wife Aileen (1932–2022). MacDonald's design employed the Mediterranean style that was popular in the mid-to-late 1960s. The newspaper described the new store as such:


The massive nine-foot panelled door, with its Spanish doorhandle of carved antique brass... Impeccable suits set against dull black backgrounds in one display window... The replica of a mediæval drawbridge in another that piques your curiosity. All these details beckon you to enter, with a hint of exciting things to come. Once inside, you are not disappointed. A Mediterranean atmosphere has been created that is graciously masculine. Rich, dark woodwork, Spanish grills of curving wrought iron, massive tables, chests of panelled wood combine to give an old-world feeling of solidity and security. A lilt of 20th century colour is played against this background in the form of striking blue-green broadloom. Focal points of blue in curved display panels add an exhilarating dash. Traditional mouldings and a beamed ceiling are played against upper walls of glowing antique gold foil from Japan. The shop is a feast for the eye.

The third store: Forster Building, 1974–1982


Around 1973, Oxford Developments bought the entire block where Forster's was located to build the new Toronto-Dominion Square. Rather than find a new location to rent, Don Forster Limited elected to build its own store. It acquired a 50 foot property on 6th Ave between Calgary House and the Imperial Oil Building. The building Forster built was 50' wide and 100' deep. The design was done by Ron Miller and built by his company Scandinavian Wood Products. The new store opened on Thursday, 18 April 1974. Provisions for a second storey were included, though this was never built.


An article in the Albertan described the design:


Designed around a "square" theme, the store features travertine brickwork, a type of white, decorative stone. More than 30 tonnes of the stone were used in construction. The entire front wall (exterior), with the exception of four window displays, is finished in the stone. A small plaza, to be built directly in front of the store, will feature the stone in decorations, and some greenery, said Mr Richardson. In addition, an entire wall within the store is finished in travertine. Main door is made of cast bronze and is currently on order from the United States. The four display windows are lined with thick brown carpeting. All woods products within the store are made of oiled walnut, said Mr Richardson. More than 1,000 hand-carved blocks of solid walnut complement the decor. Upper portion of the walls are made of "grass cloth," an actual grass fibre that comes from Japan. The entire floor is covered with a thick, brown and black striped, rug. All areas are lighted by rheostat lighting, allowing different levels of illumination in different departments.

The fourth store: Notre Dame Place, 1982–2001


On 16 April 1982, Forster moved to its fourth and final location: Notre Dame Place. This building had opened in 1980, and I haven't found out who the architect was. I remember vaguely being in this store with my father sometime in the late 1990s.