McKay House, circa 1960s
Alison Jackson Photograph Collection, AJ 1434
When Point McKay was developed, I was still young enough to mourn the loss of the Cinema Park Drive- In rather than contemplate the origin of the name or the heritage that it represented. At the time it looked like a great expanse of empty land – I had no idea what it was. And then I forgot about it.
And that is what is so great about my job. A customer came in looking for information about the old house in Point McKay. “What old house,” I asked in my ignorance. Well, there is an old sandstone house in amongst all the new development, which is being used as a community centre. So, of course, I had to remedy my ignorance and do some digging (I know – it’s unforgivable that I didn’t know about this, but hey, I was diverted by the drive-in!)
What I uncovered was a fascinating story of a real pioneer family. Alfred McKay originally came to this area on the original CPR survey in 1880. In 1886 he returned to Calgary and squatted on a beautiful plot of land on the Bow, across the river from the CPR line and the sandstone bluffs above it. He built a log cabin and by 1891 he had clear title to his homestead. To build his house, he would quarry sandstone across the river and, when the river had frozen, he would move the stone across to his plot. It took him several years to quarry the stone and build the house, but, according to his son Gordon, all was completed by 1904 and the family moved in. In an article, written at the time of the naming of Point McKay, Gordon and his sister, Mrs. G.S. Lord (yes, that was how women were addressed then), remembered that the house was quite modern for its time; it had a bathtub and running water and a pump run by a windmill (or by the kids, depending on the weather). The children remembered their father’s mustache, which he had sworn never to shave off as a reminder of the friends he had made on the survey. Alfred’s wife died in 1908, leaving him with seven children to raise. The house was added to over the years, making more room for the growing family.
Alfred lived in the home he had built until his death in 1940. He had donated 50 acres of his homestead to the city, land that became Shouldice Park. The house stayed in the family’s hands until 1953. That was when the land became Calgary’s largest drive-in, the Cinema Park. In the late 70s land in the city, especially on the river, was becoming a bit too pricey for something like a drive-in (and residents of Parkdale were likely never happy that it was there in the first place) so by 1978 show units were being built by Campeau. The house was nearly lost, as vandals set fire to it in 1977, but it was saved and turned into the community centre by the developer.
So, one of the wonderful old homes in the city still lives on its original site, thanks to the developer and early exponents of heritage preservation. I like learning about success stories.
If you have a home with a great story behind it, or would like to find out if your homes has a hidden past, or if you’re just curious about the history of houses in Calgary, join us on March 9 for “Research the History of your House.” Librarians, archivists and researchers from the three members of our “Heritage Triangle” (City Archives, Glenbow Museum, Library and Archives, and Calgary Public Library) will be on hand to introduce you to the wonderful world of house history. It takes place at 10:30 in the morning in Meeting Room 1, Lower Level, Central Library. Register online, in person or by telephone at 403-260-2620.
Photograph of Alfred S. McKay on the occasion of his 80th Birthday
Calgary Herald, September 28, 1940, p10