Vienna on the Bow: Thomas Mawson’s City of Calgary Plan | Archives and Special Collections

Vienna on the Bow: Thomas Mawson’s City of Calgary Plan – Archives and Special Collections

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Vienna on the Bow: Thomas Mawson’s City of Calgary Plan

Thomas Mawson was an internationally famous town planner and landscape architect. In 1910, he came to North America on a lecture tour of several universities, including Harvard, Cornell, and Yale.

View Thomas Mawson image collection

While Mawson was on tour, the Canadian Governor General, Earl Grey, invited him to Ottawa to create interest in civic improvement. With Grey’s support, Mawson created a development plan for the capital.

Although a less expensive plan by a Chicago designer was eventually chosen, Mawson went on to be consulted on or directly involved with a significant number of Canadian projects.

These include the gardens at Government House and Saskatchewan’s Parliament Buildings, Niagara Falls Victoria Park, the University of Saskatchewan’s campus, a fifty year development plan for Banff and Banff National Park, and Vancouver’s Coal Harbour and Stanley Park.

Although many of these designs were not carried out, including those for Banff and Vancouver, others were highly successful in guiding future development.

Thomas Mawson Life & Work

Preliminary town planning schemeThomas Mawson was born in a small village 5 miles south of Lancashire, England in 1862. His family was part of the poorer working class but valued reading, learning, and literature. At age 12, Mawson was apprenticed to a builder where he learned drawing. Later, he also studied horticulture (gardening) and landscape design. By age 23, Mawson had worked six years in the horticultural business and had experience in architecture. When he did not get the job he had been at a plant nursery, Mawson and his brothers started their own business in 1885. Called the Mawson Brothers Lakeland Nurseries, it was in Windermere in Britain’s Lakeland District.

Within five years, Mawson had left the nursery to focus on designing gardens which he was by then building all over the country. He developed a style which the architecture in his designs overshadowed the garden’s landscape and greenery. Yet, he also believed that gardens and their architecture should go with each other and the general landscape. The combination allowed him to quickly became one of the world’s most famous town planners and landscape architects.

Mawson was not officially trained in landscape architecture, but he was ambitious, clever, and determined to improve himself throughout his life. Even with a heavy workload, he constantly read and studied the works of famous landscape artists and theorists, like John Ruskin, as well as successful landscape designs. He worked by personally visiting a site where he quickly sketched it and the complementary design he intended for that project. Only then would the project be handed over to assistants who turned his sketches into full-scale drawings. After the initial design, Mawson allowed his assistants, and even the foremen who built his gardens, a great deal of control over the details of a project, Mawson himself always had the final authority on all designs.

In the late 1890’s, Mawson entered and often won competitions for designing municipal public work projects, like gardens or suburbs, meant to lower unemployment. In 1892, the same year that he won a medal at London’s International Horticultural Exhibition, Mawson got his first job designing a public garden for the working-class at an old pottery landfill in Staffordshire. These community projects lead to Mawson becoming more and more involved in town planning, which he eventually came to see as a kind of public art.

These public works projects also expressed Mawson’s strong sense of civic duty. Mawson was continuously concerned about the well-being of society’s less well-off. He was a strong believer in the City Beautiful and Garden City Movements’ belief in the ability of beautiful surroundings and first-class city planning to improve the lives, health, financial outlook, and morals of all people and produce citizens of good character. To this end, his many jobs, lectures, and writings, created and spread public interest in city improvement and its possible benefits.

Mawson finished approximately 150 jobs during the span of his career, most between 1890 and 1920. His book, The Art and Craft of Garden Making (1900), was immensely popular and became the how-to gardening book of the turn of the century. It helped promote his views on gardening, increase his fame throughout the world. It also attracted many new clients, some of the more important of which are the king of Spain, Queen Alexandria of Sweden, and Kings Constantine and Alexander of Greece, as well as government officials, wealthy industrial barons, and large and small communities. He also won an international contest to design the gardens of the Hague Peace Palace in 1908, and his company redesigned the English towns of Blackpool, Hastings, and St. Leonard’s.

By 1923, Mawson was leaving more and more of the day to day business of Thomas Mawson and Sons to his sons control and instead devoted most of his time to writing, lecturing, and supervising projects within a day’s drive of his home. That year, he became president of Britain’s Town Planning Institute and a founding member of the Royal Fine Arts Commission. In 1926, although he was suffering from severe Parkinson’s Disease, he dictated his autobiography, and in 1929 he became the honorary head of the New Institute of Landscape Architects. Mawson died on November 14, 1933 at Applegarth, his home of in the village of Hestbank, and was buried in Windermere.

Elbow RiverAround 1900, Europe and North America were looking for scientific solutions to social problems. A popular movement called enviromentalism taught that the kind of place people were born, raised, and lived was responsible for their character and behaviour. It was also believed that being surrounded by beautiful greenery was healthy for body and mind, boosting strength and brainpower. People lucky enough to have good influences and beautiful surroundings would be honest, productive, and useful, but people whose environments were dirty, violent, and poor would be violent, dishonest, and stupid.

Many studies blamed poverty, misery, disease, and immorality on the overcrowded slums found in every city. Slum apartment buildings, called tenements, were seen as centres of poverty, crime, filth, poor hygiene, and disease, which they were. Tuberculosis, for example, was very common in tenements, and by 1900 it was killing as many Britons every week as the sinking of the Titanic. Wealthier people in the better parts of the city were afraid that if the slums were not wiped out, disease, crime, and poverty would spread to the rest of society.

Still not a great deal was done until the late 1800’s, after numerous cholera outbreaks forced national governments to focus on solving urban social problems. Under this focus, the city became an important instrument in remaking Western society. One answer was to remake the public aspects of the city into a beautiful place of impressive architecture and wide boulevards whose uplifting nature and lack of undesirable elements would improve its citizens’ character and morals. Another option was to move labourers away from the slum’s and resettle them at the city’s edges or in the country where they were surrounded by nature’s reforming power.

Both solutions lead to the City Beautiful Movement of the late 1800’s through the 1920’s. Due to the influence of enviromentalism, the City Beautiful Movement linked morality and social progress with life in beautiful, spacious, park filled, and clean towns or cities. In its style it focused on grandeur in building design and arrangement, casual-seeming but highly artificial landscapes, the re-design of cities for beauty’s sake, and the treatment of cities as if they were giant works of art. As a result of its goals, important and beautiful buildings were used to end vista or mark intersections so they attracted maximum attention and emphasis was placed on efficiency, morality, loyalty, and often power.

Not surprisingly the City Beautiful Movement was popular with scholars and theorists who supported ideas like enviromentalism. However, it was also well-liked by everyday people who actively supported it through groups devoted to village improvement, town art, and outdoor art. Despite the involvement of everyday people, however, the movement was dominated by professional town planners, like Thomas Mawson, who decided independently what a settlement needed and whose authority and vision was never questioned.


The City Beautiful movement proved to be very popular in Canada. Massive land speculation, the damage of riverbanks by factories or garbage dumps, poorly designed suburbs, narrow traffic-jammed streets, and overcrowded city centres had made larger cities very unpleasant. However, here the movement focused on creating neighbourhoods were people wanted to live, rather than on beautiful buildings, as a result it encouraged active citizen involvement and focused largely on unified town planning rather than art of landscape. Unfortunately, Canada’s City Beautiful Movement produced few results because its supporters knew very little about urban politics, were economically unpractical, and could not agree on their goal. Thus, it was eventually replaced by a love of functional design and the belief that orderly planning in and of itself is beautiful.

The Garden City Movement was a trend begun by the book Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1898/1902), by British author Ebenezer Howard. Like most people of the period, Howard believed that science and technology would end poverty and lead to universal wealth, and he argued that science and technology should be used to design cities beneficial to all people, not just the wealthy.

Importantly, Howard was far more interested in his city’s usefulness in benefiting the citizens of society than how it looked, and offered only a brief description. He saw the perfect city as one designed for healthy living and just big enough to provide a varied social life. He called for large circular cities in which the most important cultural buildings were arranged around large central gardens and were beautiful to view. Important civic buildings were to be grouped into garden plazas on the cities’ large circular boulevards. Howard’s perfect cities were finished with wide belts of greenery around their exteriors to provide land for farming and pleasure, and to keep them from growing too big.

Meanwhile, social reformers were looking for a way to eradicate the chaos, filth, ill-health, crime, and wasted lives and money found in the overcrowded slums of existing cities. Under the influence of Howard’s book and another movement called the City Beautiful, they began demanding spacious, healthy cities in which beautiful architecture mixed with extensive, public gardens. Due to the beliefs of the period and Howard’s emphasis on improving people’s lives, it was believed that Garden Cities were not only beautiful, but also made people more moral and intelligent.

The idea of the Garden City became very popular and in the first ten to fifteen years of the 20 century, it was used all over the world both to rebuild cities with more parks, playgrounds, and gardens and to design entirely new cities. Since Howard had offered only a brief description of his ideal city, the styles and ideas that came to be associated with the Garden City were easily adapted to match both the use of the buildings’ and the region of the city.

However, not everyone approved of the Garden City Movement. It was accused of being fake, controlling, and self-conscious and of creating cluttered confusion by scattering buildings around without considering their surroundings and relationship to the rest of the city. Critics insisted that towns could and should be improved without moving people long distances out of the cities where they worked, wasteful spending, and inefficient use of expensive pieces of land. Still, even the critics admitted that the Garden City Movement had been completely effective in one area; it had finally made the wealthy aware of how miserable life was in the slums.

Slide and swing in parkThe first civilian settlement in Calgary was in today’s Inglewood community. When the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in 1883, it put its first station right in the middle of the old RCMP garrison’s horse pasture, across the river from the settlement (near Fort Calgary).

Since trains were vital to transport people and products, most of the settlers followed the station and moved across the Elbow River .

With the train’s arrival, Calgary was easier to reach and began growing quickly.In 1887, only four years after the first CPR station opened, Calgary had electricity, and two years later the Calgary Electric Lighting Company Ltd. was using it to light up the city.

So many people were moving to Calgary that between 1901 and 1911 its population grew from 4, 000 to 44, 000 people, or about 55, 000 counting temporary workers and everyone in the suburbs.

In 1911, the One Hundred Thousand Club, reported that Calgary had tripled its size in just two years from 12 square miles to 36 square miles.

The main employers were the CPR and construction–there were more carpenters in Calgary than any other workers–and between 1910-1912 almost $40 million dollars was spent building the new city. The city was growing so fast many people thought it would easily reach 100, 000 people by 1915.

Many people had come only to work and left their families in the east or in Europe. As a result, most did not care about the city’s history or what was happening to it.

n 1912, Calgary had very few parks, especially downtown. The riverbanks were crowded with tumbledown shacks, lumber mills, and garbage dumps, and lumberyards were in the centre of town.

The rail lines crisscrossed the city splitting into jagged sections each with very different types of buildings and businesses.Many of the main traffic routes followed old cattle trails and had not been changed the CPR first arrived making Calgary streets a noisy, crowded, and confusing jumble.

For entertainment, Calgary boasted eight newspapers, twelve movie houses, and three theatres with another two under construction. All the finest merchandise was available in the new city, even the new product, Orange Meat, now called Corn Flakes.Calgary was a bit of a rough frontier city, but its elite still enjoyed themselves in exclusive societies and copied the fashionable life of larger cities.

For more images of Calgary’s historic buildings or period images of 1900 Calgary, visit Postcards from the Past courtesy of the Calgary Public Library.

Slide and swing in parkIn 1912, Thomas Mawson travelled to Canada on a lecture tour that began in Halifax and ended in Victoria. While here, the world famous town planner made a brief stop in Calgary where he gave the speech, “The City on the Plain and How to Make It Beautiful”, to the Canadian Club of Calgary. An entertaining, and gifted speaker, Mawson charmed his audience by appealing its pride, business sense, and desire to impress the rest of the world. After speaking a second time in Calgary, he was hired by the town council for $6,000 on February 4, 1913. In return, he was to provide a plan for Calgary’s rational urban growth into a city of roughly one million people by April of 1914. Almost immediately, the city began using Mawson’s retention to it benefit, promoting itself as the first western city to hire a town planner.

When Mawson’s report, The City of Calgary Past, Present, and Future: A Preliminary Scheme for Controlling the Economic Growth of the City, was delivered in 1914, it was displayed in the Hudson’s Bay Store’s Elizabethan room for everyone to see. Although most of the Report’s plans and drawings were preliminary, they nevertheless display an amazing attention to detail and a great deal of thought concerning the issues facing Calgary and provide an excellent idea of what Mawson planned. One thousand illustrated copies of the report were also made available for public sale.

Mawson’s plan offered extensive suggestions on improving Calgary which it delivered with a strong dose of flattery. He spoke of how his ideas were found in great cities like London and Paris, and of how they would attract new businesses and settlers. Mawson was concerned with how people lived and was heavily influenced by the international Garden City Movement and the City Beautiful Movement. Due to Calgary’s less than ideal living conditions, Mawson Report’s emphasized the ideals of the two movements in its design and how they could solve Calgary’s problems. He then urged Calgary as a young city that did not have to destroy entire neighbourhoods to improve itself to rebuild itself into the ideal city as an example for the rest of the West.

Gardens and Parks

Due to his devotion to the Garden City and City Beautiful Movements, Mawson believed that “[t]he Parks, Public Gardens, and Playgrounds of any city…play a very large part in its civic life…”. He was adamant that ordinary people, not just the wealthy, deserved access to beautiful green spaces and wanted every Calgary home to be located near enough to parks that mothers would let small children go alone. His Report urged city council to make Calgary’s beauty spots public spaces and to appropriate any land too low, steep, or marshy for building to use as public parks. Mawson also wanted the new parks to use local foliage that would survive Calgary’s weather, instead of fragile exotic plants. However, he did recommend the city eventually experiment with foreign plants to discover which ones would thrive in Calgary and add variety to the local selection.


Mawson believed that good town planning was mostly solving traffic problems. This belief made him the ideal designer for central Calgary that even in 1912 was overcrowded and jammed with traffic. Mawson hated the crowded streets and narrow sidewalks that were characteristic of the city and put a great deal of thought into solving Calgary’s congestion and traffic flow problems.

His report recommended the city remove all downtown sidewalks and force businesses to renovate their ground floors to include 10-12ft wide pedestrian arcades like those found at the Hudson’s Bay building. This would widen the streets without demolishing any buildings and help with the congestion. To prevent future congestion problems, Mawson’s report also recommended wide road allowances be given to all new roads or areas where future roads would be needed to allow relatively easy and affordable expansion when needed in the future, and wherever possible, heavily travelled routes were to be widened to allow traffic to flow freely. The report also replaced the grid patterned streets Calgary had been using with a combination of circular and diagonal roads that were designed to provide direct access, constant movement, and increased speed in and out of central Calgary. Three new bridges across the Bow and six across the Elbow as well as direction changes for two existing bridges across the Elbow were also suggested to increase the downtown’s traffic flow and accessibility. These new bridges would also help to create magnificent vistas for Calgary, transforming its layout into one of a world-class city.

Mawson’s report also called for the expansion of Calgary’s public transit system while there was still reasonably affordable land to build on and purchase for future use. In some respects, far ahead of his time in designing Calgary’s downtown, Mawson placed the major stations of Calgary’s three main rail line’s, the CPR, CNR, and Pacific Grand Trunk within the centre Calgary rather than the outskirts to provide reliable rapid transit to and from the city centre without adding to the area’s traffic congestion. The Victoria Park Stampede grounds, already the site of what would become the Calgary Stampede, were also to be serviced by rapid transit.


Surprisingly, considering the internally cosmopolitan world he lived and worked in and his views concerning most of Calgary, Mawson liked many of Calgary’s existing stone buildings, including the law courts and the Knox Presbyterian Church. Nevertheless, his report relocated all the important civic buildings, which undoubtedly would have lead to many such buildings destruction. Like most other cities at the turn-of-the-century, Calgary’s civic buildings were scattered all over the city. Mawson’s plan was to gather them around central squares and unify their styles, shapes, and heights to create focuses for Calgarian’s attention. He believed that great cities needed beautiful views and monumental streets because the artistic and moral effects the Garden City and City Beautiful Movements taught beautiful buildings produced was lost if they were not the centre of attention.

Mawson chose Fourth Street SW and Centre Street as the location for the squares that would display the new civic buildings. They were chosen because they were easy for citizens to reach and because Mawson believed their location would make central Calgary more impressive. Museums, art gallery’s, libraries and government buildings would be arranged in a cultural centre on Fourth St. At the same time, large civic and shopping centre would be placed on Centre St. with the main stations of the CPR and CNR symmetrically placed at each end for visual balance, as well as easy access.

To make the city more visually attractive, factories in or near the city centre, of which there were several and which were causing filth, noise, and overcrowding were relocated to the southeast well away from the downtown new suburbs. By separating of civic and domestic life from lower-class working life in this way, Mawson emphasized his belief in the Garden and City Beautiful ideal that beautiful, peaceful surroundings improved both physical and mental health.

As for less important public buildings like public schools and community centres, Mawson wanted Calgary to group them together and locate them away from churches or any building connected to particular cultures. This was to prevent people belonging to different cultures and religions from flocking together into cultural and religious districts that could become slums, as well as to provide places where all Calgarians regardless of culture or religion could interact. Mawson also believed that by placing schools and community centres together, Calgary could encourage new, unified suburbs with little effort.

Unfortunately, even in 1914, Calgary already had serious problems with its suburbs that had to be addressed before new suburbs could be founded. Particularly troublesome was the monumental issue of urban sprawl. The Mawson Report warned that Calgary was already five to six times larger than what it could provide sewage, water, and roads for cost-effectively, and recommended the city focus on cheaper and easy to service multi-family homes to limit urban sprawl and save money. To supply the new, more efficient suburbs Mawson hoped Calgary would create with necessities, while lessening downtown traffic, shopping centres were to be built in each one. By investing money to make these small shopping districts look high class, the city could then attract a “good” class of shopkeeper and stimulate trade and settlement, further strengthening Calgary’s economy and growth.


Unfortunately, Mawson’s plan was very expensive. In 1914 it would have cost at least $10 million dollars to create Mawson’s vision for the City, a huge amount when you realize that one of Calgary’s largest supermarkets made only $420 a day. Calgary was run by hard-headed businessmen who believed it was city council’s job to make it easy for businesses to make money and Mawson’s very costly plan failed to convince them that it would make the city more money. Then there was the problem of Calgary’s severe financial difficulties. In 1914 , after years of poorly managed budgets and heavy overspending, the city council was struggling to find enough money to even run the city for a year, let alone to completely remake it. The money needed for Mawson’s vision was impossible to come up with and the beginning of World War I in August made money even harder to find.

Nevertheless, although Mawson’s plan was never implemented in Calgary, parts of the city do show his influence. The location of Mewata armouries, for instance, is exactly where Mawson wanted it. He thought putting it at Mewata Park instead of at the mouth of the Elbow would create an impressive view for the end of 11St. SW. He also thought it should be near the park instead of in it to preserve what little park space Calgary had. Not so surprisingly, modern Calgary is in many ways the city Thomas Mawson predicted it would become if his plan was rejected.

Civic CentreThese images are the original hand-drawn and hand-coloured drawings and plans of the Mawson Report, whose exact history is unknown.

Sometime after the Report was given to the city, the drawings were sent to Edmonton where they stayed until 1931. In that year, someone returned the drawings to Calgary, probably by train.

For some reason, after the drawings arrived in Calgary, no one claimed them. After a while, they were most likely put in storage in a CPR warehouse. Time passed, and they were forgotten for nearly 70 years.

Then in 1976, Cary and Louise Lehner, of 629-9thA Street NW in Hillhurst, began renovating their garage. As Cary Lehner tore down the walls, he realized they had old drawings on the inside.

The boards supporting the drawings had been nailed up with the images facing inward and the space filled with wood chips for insulation.

The Lehner’s contacted Bob Batchelder, the University of Calgary’s map librarian, who recognized the missing Mawson drawings.

Sadly, the wood chips had soaked up water and the drawings were badly water damaged and covered with fungus and three different kinds of mold.

The drawings were removed from the garage and brought to the university, but because they were badly damaged they arrived in 38 separate pieces.

To repair and preserve the drawings from more damage, Earnest Ingles, head of the University of Calgary’s Rare Books & Special Collections, sent them to the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa.

At the CCI, the drawings were first removed from their highly acidic pulpboard backing that was weakening the paper. They were then cleaned, restored, remounted, and enclosed in protective Mylar sleeves before being returned to Calgary. One was presented to the City of Calgary’s Planning Department and the rest are now housed in the Canadian Architectural Archives.

We are not certain how Mawson’s drawings ended up in the Lehner’s garage. We do know that the home’s original owner built the garage in 1935 and that he worked for the CPR during the Depression, when everything found new uses.

It is likely that he saw the discarded drawings and needing good, cheap walls for the garage took them because of the board they were mounted on.

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