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Stephen Reid is sitting in the vaulted, second-storey dining room at Catch, Calgary's most talked about new restaurant, which opened last month.

The president of one of the city's busiest restaurant groups hopes this latest venture will be the company's flagship, a destination of "international" stature. Housed in a 19th-century sandstone bank building on the downtown Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall, Mr. Reid says Catch has everything going for it -- a great chef, architecture that is "dazzling," and a downtown location that he describes as the hottest corner in the city.

Ten years ago, no one would have described much of Stephen Avenue (the strip of 8th Avenue S.W. between Macleod Trail and 4th Street S.W.) as hot or dazzling -- dowdy, decrepit or disintegrating might have been closer to the truth. But today, after a lot of planning and at least $20-million in private and public restoration money, this streetscape of historic banks and storefronts has been meticulously restored to its original grandeur.

Swanky restaurants, galleries and shops are moving into spots where seedy stores once sold souvenirs, cowboy boots and drug paraphernalia. There are patios and park benches and people. The restored street offers a glimpse of architectural history: early commercial buildings wrought in golden local sandstone, granite, terra cotta and brick. This rejuvenated piece of prairie past may even be designated a national historic site, a decision that remains in the hands of Heritage Minister Sheila Copps.

"It's the greatest concentration of historic buildings in Calgary," says City of Calgary Heritage Planner Rob Graham of the five blocks of inner city real estate, "the best representative sample of buildings from Calgary's boom years, 1886-1930. It captures the establishment of the city of Calgary as the centre of Western Canadian commerce."

Stephen Avenue Walk, as it's been dubbed, is an anomaly in Calgary, a collection of two- and three-storey brick and sandstone buildings amidst a skyline of glass and steel skyscrapers. Historic designation of several key properties saved them from the wrecker's ball in the 1970s and 80s, when new malls and office towers took out many of their aging neighbours.

Today these historic buildings form the new centre of the city -- melding the local government and cultural side of the downtown with the business and financial district along a people-friendly stretch of Calgary's past.

"Stephen Avenue is innovative because it is a historic district but it's not set off somewhere else, it's not a historic Disney World, it's still a functioning street," says Richard White, executive director of the Calgary Downtown Association, which manages the outdoor mall. He says the CDA focused its energies on luring new tenants and turning the historic core into a vibrant main street.

"Stephen Avenue is the showcase for the image of downtown," Mr. White says. "You can have empty offices at the 30th floor, but if you have vacancies and third-tier businesses on the mall, that's what visitors will see."

Calgary's downtown core is still dominated by the vertical architecture of oil company headquarters, resulting in office densities on a par with New York and Chicago. Unfortunately, this concentration of commercial real estate, while profitable and bustling by day, turned downtown Calgary into a ghost town after the evening rush hour.

For years, politicians wrung their hands and wondered how to lure citizens back from the far-flung suburbs at night. Then the recession of the early nineties reduced the value of some downtown real estate by 50 per cent, making the rejuvenation of the old buildings along Stephen Avenue more practical. At the same time, a restoration incentive program, jointly funded by the city and the province, offered matching grants to building owners willing to invest in the costly process of renewing the historic facades, many which were hidden behind layers of unsightly stucco and siding.

"The crash in real estate was the turning point -- suddenly buildings that were on the market for $2-million were worth less than $1-million," says Mr. Graham, a heritage expert who was hired by the city in 1990 to help kick-start the downtown improvements. "Until then, it didn't make sense, it was a bone yard." Mr. Graham says the renovations of two historic banks, for a restaurant and a retail store two blocks apart, was the catalyst for others.

"All of a sudden, we had those two key pieces, then bing, bing, bing -- it all filled in," says Mr. Graham of the process that's been going on for much of the past decade. "Now the market values of these buildings have gone way up again." In fact, some of the restored properties have already been resold at healthy profits. Commercial space that was renting for $10 a square foot in the early nineties, brings $40-$60 a square foot today.

Several sandstone buildings or their facades -- including the Imperial Bank, the Lineham Block, Thomson Brothers Block with its lovely arched windows and pretty Doll Block, loaded with leaded glass -- were saved and incorporated into the design of the new Hyatt Regency Hotel, a property developed by Balboa Land Investments, and the adjacent Telus Convention Centre. This $150-million development, which anchors the east end of the mall, has done much to encourage other business to open here.

More than 30 original structures were saved along the street, from the old Palace Theatre (which later became a popular night club) to the Alberta Hotel, the city's first luxury lodgings and a popular watering hole in its heyday for publisher Bob Edwards and prime minister R.B. Bennett. Mr. Graham says it took owners and developers with vision and commitment to risk pouring money into these aging properties.

Architect Gerald Forseth, who is an authority in the field of restoration architecture, worked on several projects on Stephen Avenue. He says restoration is not an exact science, and can often run to twice the cost of new construction.

"Old buildings have no straight lines in them," Mr. Forseth says. "Projects always run into problems -- you can't get a perfect job." In the case of the sandstone facades in Calgary, there were other issues. In several cases, Mr. Forseth says he peeled away layers of aluminum siding and stucco, only to find the sandstone blocks, "so beautifully carved in the past, were chipped away to the point that all of the original detail was gone." Because the original Paskapoo sandstone was quarried out and couldn't be matched, Mr. Forseth says they learned to carefully remove individual blocks and reverse them. Old world stone masons, many employed by Calgary's I.B. Jensen Masonry Ltd., worked from old photos and sketches to carve the original details back into the rock.

Slowly the original Sandstone City, as Calgary was once known, began to emerge along the mall.

Many former banks still stand within three blocks along the avenue, a legacy from a century ago when this was Calgary's business and financial district. These impressive structures were stripped to the walls, refitted and occupied by businesses such as A&B Sound, in the circa 1930 neoclassical Bank of Montreal building; Rococo Restaurant, in the 1930 art deco original Bank of Nova Scotia; the James Joyce Pub in the 1911 Molson's (Toronto-Dominion) Bank with its Ionic columns; and Catch in the 1888 sandstone Imperial Bank of Canada.

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