The Fifties worshipped progress, defined almost entirely in material terms. Nothing satisfied Calgarians more than building projects - office towers, roads, bridges, and dams - that showed how modern and up to date their city had become. It was a reaction to the deprivations of years of war and depression, and gave the Fifties its characteristic optimistic quality.Dwarfed by the expressways of the sixties and seventies, the road works of the Fifties were nevertheless potent symbols of progress. News photographers closely monitored headway on major transportation projects, and recorded opening ceremonies that included parades, a plaque, and dignitaries like the minister of highways cutting ribbons. Two longstanding problem areas - 4th Street and 8th Street into downtown from the south - received underpasses beneath the CPR tracks. These improvements paled in importance to the new Mewata (14th Street) Bridge. The willingness of governments to spend money on infrastructure, especially for transportation, began a cycle where spending boosted the economy, which then boosted the demand for more infrastructure, establishing a foundation for post-war prosperity. Motorists may not have realised the larger significance of such projects, but they were happy cutting five minutes off their time in and out of downtown.
Another project that piqued the interest of Calgarians was Calgary Power's Bearspaw Dam on the western outskirts of the city. The dam was a potent icon of technology: it tamed one of the great powers of nature, the river, and the Fifties saw its share of monumental water control and hydroelectric projects. Calgary still had problems with spring flooding on the Bow River, and Winnipeg suffered one its worst floods in recorded history in the Fifties. The Bearspaw was initially proposed for flood control, but incorporated power generation and was a reservoir for drinking water. Although tiny compared to mega-projects like the Glen Canyon Dam in the United States (started in 1957), or Lake Diefenbaker in Saskatchewan (started in 1959), the Bearspaw Dam conveyed the same benefits and was a monument to the age of concrete.
Even more emblematic was the modern office tower. For years, the thirteen-story Palliser Hotel dominated the Calgary skyline. Its supremacy was soon challenged as the booming economy created a tremendous demand for office space. Starting with the Barron Building in 1950, new buildings sprang up in the downtown core, mostly to house oil companies. Each new project was greeted as a sign of the city's dynamism. Downtown parking was already a problem and a novel structure, the parkade, was eagerly awaited. The opening of the Bay Parkade was a major event for Calgarians.
Calgary's new commercial architecture was generally modest. Most buildings were a hesitant adoption of the International style then in vogue - meaning they were brick or concrete boxes with little elaboration, whose names reflected the oil wealth that encouraged their construction. The buildings along 9th Avenue known as "Petroleum Row" such as the Pacific Building (now replaced by Banker's Hall) were typical: medium rise structures that suffered from rapid construction. One tenant remembered having to wear overboots in the winter because snow blew through the window frames. The Petrochemical Building on 8th Avenue and 7th Street SW, however, was a revolutionary structure for Calgary when it was built in 1955 due to its glass and aluminium curtain walls. Toward the end of the decade, the pace of development accelerated. The Elveden Centre, three towers financed by the Guinness brewing family of Ireland, introduced large-scale commercial development to Calgary. The city rescinded an old fire safety bylaw restricting buildings to only twelve stories, and the Palliser's reign ended.
New construction was not just limited to downtown. Calgary's major hospitals, including the Holy Cross, the General and the Grace, added new wings and nurses' residences. A veterans' hospital, the Colonel Belcher, was built near downtown. Fifty-eight new schools were built in the city over the decade, which eschewed the grand sandstone of earlier schools for institutional modernism. New and innovative types of buildings appeared. The Spruce Cliff Apartments in the city's south west was Calgary's first attempt at modern public housing, and North Hill Mall, started in 1956, was Calgary's first enclosed shopping centre. No other construction project in the Fifties, however, matched the new airport terminal as an icon of the future. It was Calgary's gateway to the jet age.
There was a cost to the march of progress. The Fifties saw the beginning of the wholesale destruction of Calgary's historic downtown. In 1958 Calgary's first courthouse, dating from 1890, was demolished to build a modern office tower for the courts, while the Belcher replaced Senator Pat Burns' old mansion. It was a sign of what was to come. Ironically, many of the shiny new buildings of the Fifties fell victim to the wrecking ball in later, greater booms.