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Banff is an eclectic mix of architectural styles, reflecting more than a century of people's ideas about what Canadian mountain architecture should be. From severely practical shelters thrown up in the late 1800s to the design-guideline-influenced buildings of today, Banff's structures are a crash course in the history of a tourist town. As you walk around the town, keep an eye out for the dark-blue oval plaques that describe the most historic buildings.
To help with navigation, stop by the Town Hall (100 block Bear Street) or the Info Centre (224 Banff Avenue) and pick up a town map.
The list below shares some very well-known and other more obscure favorites. In many cases, the construction dates are an estimate.
Tanglewood, an undistinguished-looking log cabin set well back from the street in the 200 block of Beaver Street, is one of the earliest Banff structures still in use. It was moved into the brand-new town of Banff in the 1880s from the railway siding by Cascade Mountain that was the original "Banff".
The high-kitsch Luxton Museum, a faux-fort structure on the far side (away from town) of the Bow River bridge, includes a low-roofed log cabin (to the right as you're facing the entrance) that is another of Banff's oldest buildings.
While you're on the far side of the Bow River, take a look at the "Sign of the Goat Indian Trading Post". This was built by Norman Luxton, a Banff pioneer, in the very early years of the 20th century, and is a real glimpse of old Banff.
Still near the bridge, on the downtown side, the "railway pagoda"-style Banff Park Museum was built in 1903 and has been carefully maintained and preserved. A visit to the interior is a must, to admire the beautifully mellowed Douglas Fir woodwork and the clerestory windows that provided light to this public structure in the days before electricity. Look at the roof supports and roof overhangs outside to see how they resemble those found on old railway stations across North America.
There are several buildings in Banff that arrived in town in 1923, but were actually built much earlier than that. They are from Bankhead, a coal-mining town that flourished in the Park between 1903 and 1922. When the mine and its company town closed down, many buildings were moved into neighbouring Banff, pulled by teams of horses or steam tractors. Although many Bankhead houses have since been demolished, you can see a couple of fine examples at the junction of Wolf and Muskrat Streets - the large, dark-brown house on the hill and the cream-coloured house opposite. In the 300 block of Beaver Street, opposite the high school, a twin set of duplexes show you what typical housing was like for the lead hands from the mine. The Bankhead train station was moved up to Tunnel Mountain, and is now part of the Youth Hostel.
The years from 1919 to 1940 brought a lot of construction projects to Banff.
The present Banff Springs Hotel http://www.fairmont.com/banffsprings/ was completed in 1928, after a disastrous fire destroyed the 1888 wooden hotel, and followed the designs of Walter Painter (the central tower) and J.W. Orrock (the rest). It underwent substantial renovations in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s (Bill Marshall of Calgary was the architect for much of the major later work). The exterior is faced with local limestone, which starts out blue-grey and weathers to brown. You could easily spend half a day admiring the public spaces of the hotel - a strange mixture of French chateau, Scottish baronial castle, and overheated architectural imagination! Be sure to visit the graceful Mt. Stephen Hall, the spectacular Riverview Lounge, and the wedding-cake Cascade Ballroom with its lovely glass conservatory. It has been said that the spectacular Czech crystal chandelier at the entrance to the Cascade takes 16 hours of staff time to clean! Near the Mt Stephen Hall, you'll find a spiral staircase made of travertine imported from Manitoba - a close look will reveal fossils in the stair treads. The hotel management may offer tours (although you may have to buy a meal/tour package); inquire, as the tour is well worth it, offering access to rooms that are otherwise closed to the public.
The end of the Bow River bridge is dominated by the Park Administration building and the Cascades of Time gardens. The Admin building was completed in 1936, a depression-era work project, and was substantially renovated and restored in the 1990s. Be sure to visit Canada Place - an exhibit area within the admin building. You don't need to look at the exhibits (which are very good), but it will give you a chance to look up at the beautiful roof interior, which was covered by a dropped acoustic tile ceiling for many years!
Many Banffites consider Gair Lodge (a dark-grey and white cottage at the upper end of Caribou Street), to be the most charming residence in Banff. Built in the 1920s, it is a delightful example of the Arts and Crafts style. The porch was badly damaged by an errant driver in the early 90s, but has been perfectly restored. In the same area and era as Gair Lodge, take a look at the lovely brick house opposite, and especially at the two low wooden structures just uphill from the brick house - they are what remains of the Rocky Mountain School (or Margaret Greenham school), a private girls' school active in Banff in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Standing at the junction of Grizzly and Caribou, you can easily see the "one-room schoolhouse with teacherage" formation of the upper building.
At the upper end of The Banff Centre (a post-secondary institution on the slopes of Tunnel Mountain), be sure to check out the Music and Sound Building. Built in the 1990s, it manages to combine offices, studios, performance halls, and a parkade into a graceful structure that welcomes people in and respects its site.
Downtown, at the junction of Beaver and Wolf, you'll find a very successful example of historic structure re-use. The Banff Fire Hall (architect Ken Hutchison http://www.sahuri.com/ ) took the old 1930s era national parks garage-turned-fire hall, modernized and expanded it, and added several apartments under the sloping roof, all while respecting the feel of the original building. The tower is for hanging fire hoses to dry.
You'll find the most controversial of Banff's modern buildings in the 100 block of Bear Street. The Banff Town Hall (architect Jeremy Sturgess and Vivian Manasc http://www.architecture.ca/firms/stur... ) was completed in the mid-90s. Its log pillars and rock facing nod to the history of architecture in Banff, but its roof lines and building footprint are like nothing else in town. Oddly, the red window frames seem to be the most controversial feature.