A Hidden Oasis in Calgary
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Written by Erin Benedictson
As we settle into the final day of May and the days of early June, the flowers and garden beds at Lougheed House are finally being planted into their summery homes, where they will be enjoyed by all those around them who use their seasonal presence as a respite from the worries of the day. The sun will stretch her golden rays and with them bring the joys of the summer season and the fresh air that our neighbourhood thrives upon. At almost any time of day there are people in nearly every part of Beaulieu Gardens – some on their way to work, some walking their dogs, others getting their daily exercise, with others using the green space for a well-deserved relaxing break. If Lady Lougheed could see us now, as the eternal hostess, I think it would please her greatly to see all the activity that happens in her garden.
Formal gardens have almost always been a symbol of the upper class. Certainly, in up-and-coming Calgary, the Lougheeds would have been one of the few families with the means to instill this grandeur. Isabella was a supporter of the City Beautiful movement, a philosophy that promoted beauty to create moral and civic virtue among urban populations. It is of no surprise then that she called her home “Beaulieu” – French for “beautiful place” – and held many garden parties in her carefully curated oasis. To score an invitation to one of Lady Lougheed’s prestigious garden parties would be an accomplishment envied by many, but enjoyed by few. The most coveted invitation would have been to the garden party she held in 1919 in honor of the visit of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, but to meet the Duke and Duchess of Connaught in 1912 would have been a close second. In an article published in 1912, the formal gardens were described as rivalling those in the east, with “hedges of sweet peas and banks of shaded astors […] against the bright greengrass and the darker greens of the bay trees that border the drives.” Lady Lougheed even went so far as to place a beautiful swan sculpture fountain as her centre piece, a gathering place for idle chatting and children playing, much like our gardens are today, though the invitation is now open to anyone who wishes to visit.
The gardens have not always been an urban escape from our busy day-to-day lives. After Isabella died in 1936, the gardens, much like the house, passed over to the City of Calgary. While the grounds themselves were put to use (a carriage house, army hutments, and the Red Cross’ additional extension of the house), the gardens lay neglected for most of the 20th century, perhaps lying in wait until one day, they would bloom once again. For nearly thirty years, the eastern portion of the property was home to three apartment buildings, known as the Senator, the Melbray, and Leduc Apartments. They were torn down after 1979 to make way for new lodgings, but the new buildings were victim to Alberta’s boom-and-bust cycle and were never built. The property lay empty, awaiting its fate until the Lougheed House Conservation Society leapt in to save the day and restore the gardens to their former glory. You may visit now and assume that they have always been there, and it seems impossible to imagine it as anything else, but like any other open space in downtown Calgary, it has a detailed and varied history of use.
In 1995 with the newly minted Lougheed House Conservation Society officially underway, the grounds at Lougheed House were fresh with potential. Where to start the renovation of this 104-year-old property? Why in the gardens, of course! It was well known that the Lougheed family valued their gardens in the highest regard – it is said that their gardener, James Thomas Bishop Rogers, was their highest paid member of staff. When the city was preparing the expansion of the Calgary throughout the Lougheeds’ neighbourhood, James Lougheed insisted that 6th Street be rerouted around his property, apparently to account for a gully, but potentially to ensure the estate remained contiguous. The restoration of the garden began in 1997 after two years of diligent fundraising, and was completed just two years later, opening on September 12, 1999. While historic photos were used as reference, the idea was to make the gardens even more of a public recreational space for Calgarians, open to all.
Today, the gardens are planted, maintained, and lovingly cared for by our loyal volunteer gardeners. Some of them have been around since the early days of the restoration, trading buckets of paint for spades and soil. Our dutiful Head Gardener Jane meticulously designs and plans the garden beds carefully, with themes and the gardens’ history in mind. Some of the plants in the ground can date their heritage back to Isabella’s days of maintaining the space, while others may tie into current exhibits that can be seen inside the house. Many indigenous plants also find their homes here, and during the summer months we often hold tours that will teach you all about how to identify them and their historical uses. No matter where you go on the property, you will be sure to find something new to bring joy to your day, whether it be watching bees float from flower to flower as they gather pollen, smelling the roses in our Memorial Rose Garden, or watching the endless number of dogs get out all their energy as they play fetch with their owners. We welcome you to take a moment out of your day and join us in this space, mingle with your neighbours, and spend some time in nature, a haven in the middle of our bustling city.
If you would like to support the future of Lougheed House’s Beaulieu Gardens, please consider contributing to our #LoveLougheedGardens campaign!
Calgary Daily Herald, 1912, “A Beautiful Garden”
Calgary Herald, September 14, 1997, “Lougheed: The estate is slowly returning to the days when princes visited”