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Simmons Factory Warehouse

Why we love the Simmons Building
Written by Ivan Osorio-Avila, M.Plan; Illustrated by Anil Yadav, M.Plan

There’s something fascinating about old buildings, an almost hypnotizing draw. Whether an abandoned structure in ruins or an international landmark, the way certain architecture attracts attention is undeniable. 

Part of the allure of late 19th century and early 1900s buildings is in the industrial, social and cultural transition they both enabled and witnessed, and how their existence is evidence of the century since then. Either in ruins or still in use, their walls, bricks, windows and beams have hosted a variety of people, circumstances and events, leading to an unimaginable collection of stories within their walls. 

Another part of their attractiveness is the resilience they lend to our identity as a city, as a community, and as a collective culture. Buildings, parks, streets and bridges that have endured through time remind us of where we come from and where we are going. These reminders not only live through the stories held in the memory within their walls, far from it, they live on the edges and their surroundings. 

As Dr. Beverly Sandalack from the University of Calgary’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape stated, “The outside of the buildings are really the inside of the street.” With this in mind, we can begin to understand how different buildings define our public spaces, and with that, our communities and everyday lives. This brings us to East Village, specifically, the Simmons Building.


Illustration by Anil Yadav

Built in 1912 to house a mattress and bedding factory, it started out its life as under the Alaska Bedding Company brand, that later amalgamated with US-founded Simmons, which would give it its namesake and century-old brand reference. When built, the Simmons Building cost $20,000, which adjusted for inflation to 2021 would result in a construction cost of $468,000 (still less than your average Calgary condo!).

Today, thanks to the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation’s East Village Master Plan, the Simmons is the place to go for a number of household names serving amazing food and drinks. It’s become a favourite for pastries, drinks, coffee, burgers and pizza with its generous offer of locally curated grub. 

Even though it now boasts an Instagram-worthy look, the Simmons wasn’t always as glamorous and trendy. As with any person, place or story with character, it has had a varied and diverse history.

Anatomy of the Simmons:

The Simmons Building can be best described as an Edwardian-style Commercial Warehouse. This means that its concrete-foundation, wooden-beam, brick-walled industrial look was the most “modern” building design and construction technique in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century. Its open floor plan design, with high ceilings (despite its generous exterior height, it’s only two stories), and a full basement aided in its purpose as both a manufacturing and storing facility for the Simmons Mattress Company. 

Photo by Ivan Osorio-Avila

The building also had its own adjacent boiler, steam heating and an electric elevator. All these elements were highly modern for the era, if we consider that at the same time, New York City -the North American quintessential metropolis- was still relying heavily on poor tenement housing where up to 20 families would share one outhouse and heated their apartments with wood burning stoves and subpar -if any- ventilation. 

At a time when automobiles were still a novelty and cosmopolitan urban centres were struggling to keep up with industrial and population booms, these comparisons bring to light the modernity of Calgary’s booming economy and entrepreneurial spirit at the time (specially considering the harsh winters before one could layer up in fleece and down from our local outdoor retailer!).

The Simmons Building’s anatomy not only helped define and boost the industrial and economic activities it housed, but also became part of a larger collection of buildings in the City’s centre that speak to the boom of Calgary in the beginning of the 1900s. This same style of Edwardian-style warehouses and commercial buildings can be seen around Victoria Park, Inglewood and Downtown, creating certain spaces that again rival other North American cities that boast trendy lofts and revitalized industrial spaces.

An Unsung Hero of our City’s Heritage Spaces

So why is the Simmon’s building such a meaningful structure, landmark and meeting point for Calgarians and visitors? 

Calgary is a young city compared to most large North American cities (New York, 1664. San Francisco, 1776, Mexico City 1325, Montreal, 1642). This means that our urban heritage inventory is quite limited, and being so young, the city has gone through short and quick cycles of construction and expansion. We can see this in other inner-city communities like the Beltline, where century-old homes share a street with mid-century 3 story condo buildings and 21st century high-rises. 

In the East Village, we’ve witnessed an amazing transformation, specifically over the past years with the creation of the CMLC, and the Master Plan for the area. However, through the boom-bust cycles that our city has experienced due to the nature of oil being its main economic driver, sometimes buildings, and the stories and memories they house, are forgotten. They then transform into newer, modern structures, leaving little or no trace of what came before.

Image courtesy of Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters

Simmons, however, has eluded that fate. In the middle of an area such as the East VIllage, which has big plans for its immediate and long-term future, our dear Simmons building is still here, sitting by the river, boasting its brick exterior and washed-out hand-painted signs. With age comes character, and after seeing a lot of action in its early years, turning into a warehouse and then sitting vacant, the Simmons brings the wisdom of old-age to a neighbourhood filled with newer, younger buildings.

It’s safe to say that the Rivers District and East Village would not be the same without the Simmons Building present. It lends itself as an anchor, not only geographically and visually as one floats down the Bow or walks down the River Pathway, but as a cultural and historical root for the urban identity of Calgary. As the city evolves, grows and matures, the Simmons Building is a benchmark and unsung hero of our heritage spaces, an example to study on how to readapt our older buildings to newer uses. 

As with most things in life, design, architecture and urbanism are about balance. Some older structures must go, to make way for better, safer, more efficient homes, schools, hospitals and other spaces. If we start from scratch every time, we will lose our stories, and with it our identity. However, if we care for buildings that tell stories, we can build and grow around them. 

That’s how placemaking is done. That is why we love our parks, river pathways and public spaces, because they too are the stages for our lives and our memories. The buildings frame the streets and the streets house the buildings. We should aim at preserving them to keep our stories alive, and our future bright. The Simmons Building is a testament to this, and in this author’s opinion, an invitation and wake-up call to explore our city with new eyes, and find other buildings, other hidden gems lurking between the streets and parking lots, and save them from becoming merely postcards and anecdotes.


Quick Facts:

Alternate Names: 610 5 AV SE (bldg)

Address: 618 CONFLUENCE WY SE

Year of Construction: 1912

Development Era: 1906 to 1913 (Pre WWI Boom, Age of Optimism)

Architectural Style: Edwardian Commercial

Architect: Unknown

Builder: Unknown

Original Use: Industry (Warehouse and Factory)

Current Use: Restaurant & Food Services

Legal Description: 0914003; 125; 3

Land Use: Direct Control 86D2015 SITE 1


Historic Resource

Legally Protected/Recognized:

Federal: No

Provincial: No

Registered: No

Municipal: Yes: see bylaw, 2009-12-13

Resource Type: City Wide Historic Resource

The interior character defining elements protected in the designation bylaw and showcased in the photos include:

  • Open-character floor space
  • Exposed structural elements including brick walls, and heavy-timber beams, supports and mill floors
  • Enclosed wooden staircase with an exposed, raw finish with simple, squared balusters and newels
  • Freight elevator shaft with wood-framed enclosure and metal clad doors
  • Ceiling chutes from attic; and
  • First-floor vault with steel door.

Learn More 


Revitalization

Restoration: 2008-2015

CMLC has brought the Simmons Building up to 21st-century spec while preserving and restoring its important historical elements, setting the stage for its transformation into an exciting culinary destination along the newly redeveloped RiverWalk in East Village.

Read More 


Current Tenants

Read More at DailyHive.com 




Article Sources & Bibliography:

Devoted Historians | Calgary Walking Tours. (n.d.). East Village Calgary. Retrieved June 6, 2021, from here.

Heritage Buildings. (n.d.). CMLC. Retrieved June 6, 2021, from here.

Inflation Calculator. (n.d.). Retrieved June 6, 2021, from here.

Simmons Factory Building—Calgary, Alberta—Photos Then and Now on Waymarking.com. (n.d.). Retrieved June 6, 2021, from here.

TEDx Talks. (2016, October 6). How Can a City’s Design Live Up To Its Surroundings? | Dr. Beverly A. Sandalack | TEDxCalgary. Available here.

THE EARLY TENEMENTS OF NEW YORK—DARK, DANK, AND DANGEROUS. (n.d.). NYC Department of Records & Information Services. Retrieved June 6, 2021, from here.

The Glenbow Museum > Archives Photographs Search Results. (n.d.). Retrieved June 6, 2021, from here.

The Simmons Building: Calgary’s must-visit food destination | Dished. (n.d.). Retrieved June 6, 2021, from here.


Our Vision

An inclusive, thriving, and vibrant East Village where all are welcome to live, learn, work, and play.

OUR MISSION

To encourage conversation and interaction to create a sense of belonging and ownership for all who live, work, and play in East Village.

Our Connection

Email: Info@yycevna.org

Mail: 536 9 Avenue SE
Calgary, AB T2G 0S1