This year marks the Year of the Garden. Red Deer has deservedly been very proud of its parks and gardens. For many years, the official motto of the City was The Garden City. A real standout in the parks system is the magnificent City Hall Park, the ornamental garden in the heart of the Downtown area.
The origins of the park go back to 1901, when Red Deer was incorporated as a town. There was general agreement that a civic square was needed near the central business district. This civic square would be an open space in the heart of the community which could be used for public gatherings, sporting events or cultural activities such as band concerts.
Consequently, a plan was submitted to the ratepayers to spend $4500 to purchase a whole city block of land bordering on Ross Street and MacKenzie (49th) Avenue. Although the amount was nearly double the Town’s annual budget, the voters saw the wisdom of the concept and the authorizing by-law was approved overwhelmingly.
In 1913, when Red Deer was incorporated as a city, the new City Council hired a local architect, C.A. Julian Sharman, to draw up an elaborate civic centre scheme. Unfortunately, a sharp economic downturn, followed by the outbreak of the First World War, meant that most of Mr. Sharman’s plans were never implemented.
Instead, the city square was levelled and seeded to grass. Controversy erupted when some aldermen objected to the $1000 cost and the removal of eleven hundred loads of black dirt. Another public debate ensued when the Department of Militia coerced City Council into allowing the construction of an armoury on the southeast corner of the property.
There was yet another heated controversy in 1922 when City Council attempted to have the cenotaph erected on the west end of the square. At a public meeting, the subscribers to the memorial fund voted to have the cenotaph placed on a boulevard on Ross Street. It was an issue which was to simmer for many more years.
For the next couple of decades, the city square was largely used as a recreation area. Ball games were played there in the spring and summer and, in the winter, the south area of the square was flooded to make a skating rink. In 1924, the Rotary Club installed $500 worth of playground equipment. In 1943, the Elks Club built a paddling pool on the northeast corner of the block.
On April 11, 1949, Red Deer City Council debated a proposal made by City parks superintendent, Hugh Gilchrist, to create an ornamental park on the civic square next to City Hall.
There was considerable resistance by Council to adopt the plan. Several aldermen considered the estimated $1500 cost to be too high. The mayor was opposed because he felt the site was better suited for recreation and sports activities than as “a place of beauty”. He also mentioned possible future plans for building on the site, although he did not elaborate what that building might be.
As the matter drew to a vote, the Council was split down the middle with one alderman stating that he was “undecided as to the best time to launch such a program”. However, since he felt a new city park was needed, he agreed that he would vote in favour in order to break the tie. Thus, City Council agreed to develop an ornamental City Hall Park by a margin of only one vote.
Hence, Hugh Gilchrist’s long held plans to beautify the west end of the square went ahead and a wonderful ornamental park took shape. There was one more bit of controversy. The park was laid out in spoke pattern with the centre hub set as a site for the Cenotaph. However, the new proposal to move the Cenotaph was defeated in a plebiscite held in 1951.
In 1964, after the construction of a new city hall, the park was extended to include the site of the old city hall. In 1967, a parking lot on the south side of the square became the site of the new public library after Charles Snell offered the inducement of a large donation of money.
Today, City Hall Park has become one of the most popular attractions in the City and is considered the “Crown Jewel” of Red Deer’s downtown core.
Michael Dawe is a Red Deer historian and his column appears on Wednesdays.