Canada’s Tallest Art Gallery

In a time when building the tallest and greatest gave bragging rights, Calgary’s Husky Tower opened with the final height of 190.8m in secrecy until completion in 1968. Developers withheld the true height of the tower in order to beat the Tower of the Americas which opened the same year at a height of 190m. This tower was renamed the ‘Calgary Tower’ in 1971, and it remained the tallest tower of its type in North America until the completion of Toronto’s CN Tower in 1976.

Over the decades, the height significance of the Calgary Tower was dwarfed all around the world, including in its own home town. Since it was surpassed by Banker’s Hall in 1989, a total of 7 buildings are now taller in the city. When approaching the city from the airport, it is no longer visible behind the newer growth since 2000.

Calgary Tower blocked by The Bow.

Although the Calgary Tower may be short in its home town, it ain’t, as they say, short. With the exception of the new Stantec Tower, if the Calgary Tower were in Edmonton, it would only be 2 metres shorter than the new JW Marriot Edmonton Ice District & Residences Tower, and a restaurant goer at Sky 360 would be able to enjoy their meal above the Epcor Tower, Edmonton’s tallest building until 2017.

Measurements aside, the Calgary Tower holds yet another secret.

Murals grace the stairwells of Calgary Tower.

Just like the CN Tower, the stairs at Calgary Tower are not open to the public. However, during special occasions – primarily charity events – the stairs are open to climb for participants of major fundraisers.

I had the opportunity to climb these stairs after raising $1030 in 3 days for Red Cross relief of the 2010 Chile earthquake. A total of 30 climbers raised over $30,000 for Step by Step for Chile climbing 155m to the observation deck.

During the 12 minutes and 36 seconds it took to climb the 802 steps (although I think there’s actually a few steps more to the observation deck), I couldn’t help but notice something to keep me distracted going up and down those steps (someone donated $1 for me to go down as well).

Crisscrossing stairs of the Calgary Tower

On every flight of stairs (and the alternate escape steps which crisscrosses) there were murals! Local artists had, over the years, painted every landing of the steps. Sadly this remains closed to the general public.

The murals are a result of a partnership between Calgary Tower and the Alberta Wilderness Association. The non-profit organization has an annual competition to paint the stairwells of the tower. There’s between 160 to 200 murals within the concrete shaft, bringing the wilderness into one of the most defining engineering projects in Western Canada.

It was wonderful to have been one of the few visitors to Canada’s tallest art mural gallery. This should be celebrated and opened up to the public!

In Europe stair access is available to visitors to various tall structures in addition to elevators, which are charged at a higher premium (with the exception of seniors and reduced mobility).

Climbing the height of St. Peter’s Basilica to the cupola viewing deck (roughly 116m) has a base cost. However, if you’d like a head start to the roof via elevator, you can pay extra to skip the line. I chose the latter the two times I visited, as I was part of a tour group that had time limitations. A unique feature of climbing the cupola is the view of the inside of the basilica from above. The total height of St. Peter’s Basilica is the same as TELUS house in Edmonton at 136m.

In Prague, it’s was the same situation. The Petřín Lookout Tower has two different admission costs if you choose to climb the stairs or take the elevator. In this instance I also chose to take the elevator to go up 51m to the lookout (height of Fairmont Hotel Macdonald) as I didn’t want to miss the Bohemian sunset. Taking into the account of climbing up the hill from Old Town, the height elevation is equivalent to the Eiffel Tower.

While on the topic of the Eiffel Tower, visitors also have a stairs vs elevator option to the second floor, a climb of 115m. There’s no stair option to the top due to the shear number of visitors to this landmark, but 115m is king in a city where building heights were restricted to 37m tall until recently.

Compare that to my tower visits in North America. From the CN Tower (342m to glass floor), to shorter landmarks such as the Seattle Space Needle (160m to observation deck), and even shorter lookouts like the Vancouver Lookout (130m), there are simply no options to use the stairs, whether going up or down.

Now what does this all have to do with the Calgary Tower? Given that there’s wonderful hidden murals on every flight of stairs, it would be a great opportunity for visitors and downtown dwellers to rediscover this iconic landmark on the prairies. For those who live and work downtown, this could be a great spot for monthly memberships to climb the disused stairs as a healthy workout before or after work.

Being Canada’s tallest art mural gallery certainly has quite a distinct title, and in this case, I’d rather choose the option to take the stairs in order to enjoy the scenery inside as well as outside. I certainly hope that in the near future, more of North America’s landmarks follows the pay-to-climb option, beginning with our beloved Calgary Tower.

Canada’s tallest art mural gallery.

More images of the murals available here.