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The Oil Centre Building, 1949

The Oil Centre Building was one of the most remarkable busts in Calgary’s architectural history. If constructed, it would have been the city’s tallest building and the paramount modernist work in Western Canada. What follows is an account of how this magnificent idea fell apart.

To begin the story, it is necessary to review the history of the oil industry in Calgary. The first major petroleum discovery in Alberta was the Dingman No. 1 well that blew in on 14 May 1914 in Turner Valley. Over the next few decades, oil and gas companies operating in the Turner Valley opened offices in Calgary from which to run their operations. The next major discovery came on 14 October 1924, when Royalite No. 4 blew in with sour gas. Turner Valley’s history changed significantly on 16 June 1936, when the Turner Valley Royalties No. 1 well, a venture of Robert A. Brown Sr (1886-1948), blew in with crude oil. This event set Calgary on course to become a major international oil hub. Over the next decade, countless domestic and foreign companies opened offices in Calgary. Turner Valley soon became the largest oil field in the British Commonwealth, producing 95 percent of Canada’s oil.

The next major event in Alberta’s oil history was the Leduc No. 1 discovery of 13 February 1947, when Imperial Oil discovered crude in a Devonian field south of Edmonton. When I first began researching Calgary’s architectural history, I found it puzzling why Calgary and not Edmonton had become Alberta’s oil capital. Along with Edmonton’s proximity to Leduc and the tar sands, by 1947 Turner Valley was no longer a significant producing region. Thus, there was no geographical reason to remain in Calgary. Also, no oil companies had built large offices of their own in Calgary. Ultimately, the oil companies calculated that enough industry expertise had developed in Calgary to warrant remaining there.

So it was that Calgary found itself in 1947 with a booming economy and a dearth of office space. At the time of the Leduc discovery, little construction had taken place in downtown Calgary since before the Great War. In 1948 and 1949 a rush began to construct new office space for the influx of companies looking to get in on the boom. The Bamlett Building, Barron Building, and Petroleum Building were among the first to go up and ease the pressure.

During this first boom there was one project that would have eclipsed all others in size and style, and that would have vaulted Calgary into the modern age. But it never materialised.

The man from New York

On 26 May 1892 in Montevidio, Minnesota, Strabo Vivian Claggett was born to Strabo F. Claggett (1866-1944) and Rosa Phoenix (1869-1951). Claggett attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and then transferred to Stanford, where in 1914 he graduated Bachelor of Arts. He then went to Harvard Law School, where in 1917 he graduated Bachelor of Laws. After the United States entered the War, Claggett was put in charge of the contract section of the Department of the Navy.

Following the War, Claggett worked for several investment banking firms. In 1921 he joined Hemphill, Noys and Co., later becoming its manager for New England. Then in 1923 he became President of the firm McClelland, Claggett and Co., and in 1924 started Strabo V. Claggett and Co. In 1931 he moved to Charles F. Noyes and Co., and from 1933 to 1936 was Vice President of White, Claggett and Co.

During the 1920s, Claggett was involved actively in politics with the Democratic Party. In the 1928 Presidential Election Claggett served as an Elector pledged to Al Smith, who lost to Herbert Hoover. Earlier that year, Claggett had helped raise funds for Smith to carry Massachusetts. In 1930 Claggett ran unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts.

In 1936 Claggett joined the firm Whitney-Phoenix Co. of 70 Pine Street, where he worked until his retirement in 1958. Soon after the Leduc discovery, Claggett began looking for investment opportunities in Calgary. In October 1948 he visited the city and signed financing contracts with the Continental Oil Company of Canada Limited, providing it $1.2 million in funds for an exploration and development programme. Undoubtedly stimulated by the climate of economic vibrancy, Claggett soon dreamed up a new venture in the booming city: a new office tower, the Oil Centre Building.

Claggett’s vision was a massive office tower on the northwest corner of 7 Avenue and 2 Street, a property that today is a garden and sitting area. To organize the construction, Claggett set up a Canadian subsidiary of Whitney-Phoenix, called Whitney-Phoenix of Canada Limited, with Claggett as President, Major J. Howard Gainor as Vice-President, and C. Stewart Blanchard KC as General Counsel. This new company set up temporary offices at 122 Burns Building. The renting agents for the Oil Centre Building were to be the Toole-Peet Trust Company.

John Howard Gainor was born in Calgary on 5 March 1897 in Calgary. On 3 November 1915 he enlisted in the 89th Battalion, listing his profession as “stenographer and book keeper.” He later served with the 31st Battalion in France. Gainor fought in the Battle of Passchendaele, and on 6 November 1917 was awarded the Military Cross for his actions and given a commission. Following the War, Gainor went to Burma for a decade where he worked in the rice business. After his father died, Gainor returned to Calgary to take over the family trucking business, Gainor’s White Transport Ltd. During the Turner Valley oil boom Gainor made significant money trucking oil. In February 1941, at the rank of Major, he became the head recruiting officer for Calgary. At the time Claggett appointed him VP of Whitney-Phoenix, Gainor was the President of Calalta Petroleums Ltd. and was living at 1302 Riverdale Avenue.

Charles Henry Stewart Blanchard was born in Winnipeg on 13 April 1885. He attended Upper Canada College and in 1905 graduated Bachelor of Arts from McGill University. Later he returned to Winnipeg where in 1908 he graduated Bachelor of Laws. Blanchard began his career as a lawyer in Winnipeg, staying until 1912. That year he moved to Medicine Hat where he became a partner in the firm Laidlaw, Blanchard and Rand. He subsequently became a Crown prosecutor in Medicine Hat. In 1934 he moved to Calgary, and in 1937 became the agent for the city’s attorney general.

Claggett’s real estate agent was C. H. McGee of Frank Freeze Co. On 16 February Claggett acquired the option to purchase 100 feet on the corner of 7th and 2nd from its owners, Mr and Mrs W. F. Ross, for $78,000. The next day he obtained the option to purchase the adjoining 50 feet from the estate of John I. McFarland for $40,000. At this point, the lot Claggett had access to had 150 feet of frontage and was 130 feet deep.

Claggett commissioned the Calgary firm Rule Wynn and Rule to design the new office building. It’s worth pausing for a moment and considering how remarkable their design was. Quite simply, there was nothing like it in Calgary, or anywhere in Western Canada, for that matter. The original design called for a frontage of 100 feet along 7 Avenue. This original building was to be clad in Indiana limestone. However, due to the rapid uptake of office leases, the design was quickly expanded to have a frontage of 150 feet. This new design had aluminium cladding instead of stone. The Oil Centre Building was to be 16 storeys high, which at a rough guess would have been about 183 feet. (Note: I haven’t yet looked at the drawings for the building.) Above the eighth floor the building was set back on all four sides, and then the top three floors were set back at the corners. The architects combined stepping, a feature of 1930s Art Deco, with the nascent International Style of steel and glass grids, creating a truly transitional work. Crowning the elevator tower was a steel derrick capped by a model globe. The top floor was intended for club space, and there was to be a gym in the basement. Total floor space was approximately 185,000 ft2. Construction was to be carried out by the Canadian subsidiary of Thompson-Starratt Co., who had built the Woolworth Building, Waldorf Astoria, and Equitable Building, among others. The loan for construction was provided by Ivor Clark Inc.

Early tenants who signed up for space included the Calgary Petroleum Club and Calgary Stock Exchange. Shell Oil reserved the entire eighth floor. Five banks as well as Trans-Canada Air Lines applied for space on the ground floor.

The first snag came at the beginning of March when the Herald reported that the design didn’t comply with city building codes. Per the bylaw, the square footage of a building couldn’t exceed nine times the footprint (150 feet by 130 feet); this limited the building to 175,500 square feet, or 9,500 less than planned. To get around this rule, on 21 March Whitney-Phoenix got the option to purchase another 50 feet of property, this time from Hammill Motors for $32,000. Claggett now had 200 feet of property to work with. In a revised design, Rule Wynn and Rule added 75 feet of storefront along the avenue, which allowed the 16-storey tower to stay. Additionally, the building depth was changed to 123 feet to comply with the city’s 7 foot setback from the avenue. A final change was made to set the building back 5 feet from the street.

By March, Gainor reported that construction was scheduled to start at the beginning of May with an expected completion date of 1 January 1950. However, by April it was clear something was amiss. On 25 April, the Herald ran the headline “Claggett denies building rumor.” The piece addressed the rumor that the Oil Centre Building would not be constructed, saying,

The rumor arose following the re-painting of part of a service station at the corner of 7th Ave. W. and 2nd St. where oil centre was to be constructed. Mr Claggett, president of Whitney-Phoenix of Canada Ltd. Further said he had arranged for a $3,000,000 loan from a New York insurance company and that construction was expected to start in June, with the completion date set for March, 1950.

On 25 April, Whitney-Phoenix began offering shares in the Calgary Oil Centre Limited. A total of 50,000 shares were offered at $10.00 each. Their first advertisement, run in the Herald on Saturday, 30 April, had the exciting title “An opportunity to join in the building of a greater Calgary!” The pitch began, 

Less than two years ago, the daily production of oil in Alberta was less than 19,000 barrels. TODAY… it is more than 60,000 barrels! Alberta’s vast treasure house of oil and other resources is being developed on an unprecedented scale. If Calgary is to keep pace with this development, we must have facilities to encourage business and industry to make their headquarters here. Already, more than one hundred major and independent oil, drilling, geophysical and supply companies are located here. But the “housing problem” is acute. That is why Calgary Oil Centre Limited was formed… to relieve the situation by erecting a large modern office building and an apartment hotel with restaurant.

The final line of that paragraph brings us to the point where the story starts to get complicated. At some point, Claggett and Gainor had begun to investigate a second project: an apartment hotel. On 10 June 1949 the Herald reported that Whitney-Phoenix had proposed to build a $1.25 million, 120-unit apartment hotel on the east end of the Lougheed House property, which was city-owned and used as a playground. A day earlier, the Parks and Playgrounds Committee had rejected Claggett’s proposal and decided the property wasn’t for sale. However, four days later City Council reversed the decision and decided it would sell Claggett the property, which constituted 12 lots, or 150 feet of the block. However, Claggett said the project was contingent on his acquiring the adjacent four lots (or 50 feet), which belonged to the Red Cross and on which the Lougheed House sat.

Claggett was asked to appear before City Council regarding the apartment property. During his session, Council questioned him about the delay in the Oil Centre Building. The developer said it was his vision for Calgary to become the “Tulsa or Houston of Canada,” and blamed the delays on the “sudden heart attack” of a New York Banker, as well as the affair with the apartment hotel.

The apartment project appears to have been universally unpopular with Calgarians. On 20 June, a kind-sounding man named Arthur Pierson wrote a letter to the Herald against the proposal:

I was certainly astonished and distressed to read accounts in the local press of the action of City Council in turning over to a New York promoter some of the old Lougheed property which had been set aside for a playground, and which is being used considerably by young children of the neighbourhood.

I do not think we can have too many of these spots. It is impossible to estimate the good they do towards the health of children, and it will get harder as time goes on to secure and hold these open spaces.

I do not think that the citizens of our home town have been particularly impressed with the business ability sometimes displayed by some of our aldermen, and this deal certainly does not add lustre to their actions. I believe, and I know many of our people feel, that this deal should not go through.

Two days later Claggett responded in the Herald, with a letter that must go down as one of the rudest and most arrogant ever written. Part self-aggrandizing, part self-pitying, and part paternalistic, Claggett certainly didn’t feel the need to ingratiate himself to Calgarians. To quote a few excerpts,

[…] Mr. Pierson’s statement is typical of the kind of unfair treatment I and my firm have been subjected to since we announced the plans to build the Oil Centre Building and apartment hotel. I have been in Wall Street, New York, since July, 1920, and I have been in 350 deals of various kinds. These deals have brought me to many cities throughout the United States and I financed department stores, hotels, a pulp and paper mill and manufacturing companies of all kinds, but I have never before been subjected to as many petty misstatements or encountered such jealousy as I have in Calgary.

[…] Calgary will go ahead, double and triple in population, because of the God-given supply of oil in Alberta, probably greater than that of Texas, because of its fertile lands and its wonderful climate. New people will come to Calgary and see the opportunities that local citizens failed to realize, and these new people will be justly entitled to the rewards of their courage, vision and confidence in Calgary’s future. The composite and collective attitude of the Calgary citizens does not make Calgary deserving of these buildings, but Calgary is going to get them anyway.

By July, Claggett knew the Oil Centre was a bust. On 15 July he offered the project to another New Yorker, Robert M. Gillham, with a four-month option to acquire the properties and buy out the building corporation. Gillham apparently accepted the offer to pay the remainder of the cost for the properties, and to repay the shareholders of the Calgary Oil Centre Limited. To complete this buyout, Gillham created the Selkirk Development Company Ltd. Gillham then hired Rule Wynn and Rule to design a new building that was 10 instead of 16 storeys.

As far as I can tell, Gillham was Robert Marty Gillham. Gillham was born on 24 May 1896. I have not been able to find much information on his life, other than that he worked in advertising in New York for J. Walter Thompson and also for a time worked for Paramount Pictures. In the photo below, you can see Gillham standing behind Mae West. On 24 April 1930 he married Elizabeth Wright Enright (1907-1968), a celebrated short story author and a niece of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Finally, on Tuesday 13 September, Claggett’s option to purchase the 12 city lots of the Lougheed property expired. Whether this was because he was unable to broker a deal with the Red Cross for the additional four lots, or other reasons is unknown. That same day, Whitney-Phoenix assigned the Oil Centre Building property to Selkirk. In late November, Mr and Mrs W. F. Ross, who owned the original 100 feet Claggett had purchased, filed a claim in the Supreme Court of Alberta against Selkirk for $51,229. According to the Rosses, they had agreed on 27 May to sell the lots to Whitney-Phoenix for $78,000, which was to be paid in three installments. The first installment of $24,000 was paid immediately, with later payments of $25,000 due on 30 June and $29,000 due on 31 July. They had only ever received the first payment. While Gillham and Selkirk had paid out the McFarland estate and Hammill Motors for the 50 feet they each owned, they had failed to make the final payments to the Rosses.

At the end of November a group of investors sued to recover the $36,000 they had invested in 3,600 shares of the Calgary Oil Centre, Limited. The claim was filed in the Supreme Court by James Lewis Dundas of Allingham, Alberta, against the Calgary Oil Centre Ltd., Whitney-Phoenix of Canada Ltd., Selkirk Development Company Ltd., and Robert M. Gillham of New York. It was alleged in the suit that Selkirk had failed to repay the investors, which had been part of the acquisition agreement with Whitney-Phoenix.

On 4 January 1950 the Herald reported “Oil building plans dropped.” The article stated that Lyle Brothers Ltd., a Calgary real estate company had purchased the property. Less than a year after it had been conceived, the Oil Centre Building was officially dead.

The next chapter

Although the exciting modern office building had fallen through, there was a happy ending to the story. On 7 January 1950, Carl O. Nickle ran the headline “Royalite plans new building on 7th Ave.” The article began, 

A dream that boomed and faded during 1949 is going to turn to reality under different auspices sometime in the future, perhaps not too distant. Royalite Oil Company Limited of Calgary, one of Canada’s top two independent oil producers, has purchased the choice piece of downtown Calgary property that was the scene of the “Calgary Oil Centre” promotion last year. Royalite’s purchase was made “with a view to erecting a modern office building on the site at some future date.”

Unlike Claggett’s failed project, Royalite’s plans came through. Working with Rule Wynn and Rule, the same firm that designed the ill-fated Oil Centre, Royalite built a six-storey office on the corner that opened in early 1956. The building was intended to be 12 storeys but was never completed.