The front of the Hart House

The Rich Wrestling History of Calgary’s Hart House

Nestled up in the Patterson Heights neighborhood of Calgary lies an old, large mansion. Surrounded by other luxury homes, the brick mansion provides an amazing view of the city’s skyline. This house was built in 1902, making it one of Calgary’s oldest landmarks. The house has a storied history: it served as a military hospital for wounded soldiers during the First World War, and later operated as an orphanage in 1920. But the house is famous for something else. It was home to the Hart wrestling family for 52 years.

The Hart Family

Almost anyone who lived in Calgary from the 1960s to the 1990s knows who the Hart Family are. Led by patriarch Stu Hart, the family grew to become one of the top professional wrestling families in Canada and the world. Stu and his wife Helen raised 12 children: eight boys and four girls. Each child would be involved with the pro wrestling business in some way or another. Each of the boys either wrestled, booked, or refereed. All four daughters would marry wrestlers. Some of their children would grow up to become wrestlers as well; a few would even wrestle in the WWE. For his achievements, Stu was a made a recipient of the Order of Canada.

A photo of Bret Hart from the 1990s.
Bret “Hitman” Hart. Courtesy IMDb

Stampede Wrestling

From 1948-1984, Stu Hart ran the professional wrestling promotion Stampede Wrestling. It was one of the main promotions in all of Western Canada. The promotion ran shows throughout Alberta, Saskatoon, and into Montana. For many years, the promotion would enjoy success. Arenas in Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, would be sold out with fans eager to take in the excitement. Famous stars like Andrè The Giant would serve stints in the promotion to help draw attendances. Stu also built a strong roster of homegrown talent.

Stampede Wrestling produced one of the earliest televised professional wrestling programs. Today, this program is considered the forerunner to current WWE programming. Stampede’s programming remained one of Calgary’s most popular sports shows, eventually airing in over 50 countries.

Despite initial success, the promotion was steadily losing money by the early 1980s. The death blow came in 1983 when a riot broke out during a match at Calgary’s Ogden Auditorium. As a result, Calgary’s wrestling and boxing commission banned Stampede Wrestling for six months. This events severely drained what was left of Stampede’s finances.

In 1984, Stampede Wrestling was bought by WWF owner Vince McMahon. The new ownership was short lived. Vince sold Stampede back to the Harts in 1985. The family would run the fledging promotion until it closed shop in December 1989. Afterwards, Stampede would be revived on and off again for several years. The promotion finally shut down for good in 2008.

Hitman and the Rocket

The two most famous Hart children are Bret and Owen. During the mid to late 1990s, Bret “Hitman” Hart was the top star of the then World Wrestling Federation. Bret would become even more famous, or infamous, for the 1997 Montreal Screwjob: a ploy by the WWF to “steal the championship belt” from Bret.

Following his sibling, younger brother Owen “the Rocket” was an up-and-coming star in the company. One of the biggest storyline in the WWF in 1990s was the sibling rivalry between Bret and Owen. This rivalry would incorporate their parents, siblings, and in-laws in various matches.

Later in the decade, a wrestling stable would be formed comprising the two brothers and their in-laws. The stable was called The Hart Foundation, and they would be involved in many major feuds. The stable would flaunt their nationalism, often waving a Canadian flag as they entered the arena and denouncing the U.S. and American wrestling fans.

Tragedies

However, tragedy would befall the Hart family. In 1999, Owen would tragically die in a failed stunt during his ring entrance at a WWF show. Three years later, in-law Davey Boy Smith died of a heart attack at age 39. That same year, Bret suffered a stroke in a bicycling accident. With intense physical therapy, he was able to walk and speak again.

Despite these tragedies, the Hart Family is still going strong. Loyal fans remember the family for their great wrestling moments. Owen Hart’s memory is celebrated by millions of wrestling fans. And in 2006, Bret Hart was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. This ensures his status as one of the greatest wrestlers of all time.

The House

Stu bought the house in 1951 for the sum of $25,000. The mansion featured 22 rooms, four fireplaces, five chandeliers from the McDonald Hotel, and a coach house. It was perfect for the large family Stu was planning. Besides the 12 children, the house was home to several vintage Cadillacs and animals, such as dogs, cats, cows, horses, chickens, and even a bear named Terrible Ted who lived under the porch.

The house was also the main headquarters of Stampede Wrestling. In his office, Stu would plan the week’s upcoming matches. If issues arose regarding a match, Stu and his wrestlers would meet at the house to work things out. Helen would also tirelessly work in the office, keeping track of finances, answering phones, and organizing other important documents.

On pay day, wrestlers would drive up to the house to collect their check. And when business was good, Stu would invite most of his roster up to the house for a cookout. There they would eat, drink, and wrestle each other in the basement. Through the years, the house gained a reputation with those in the professional wrestling community.

Outside of professional wrestling, political and entertainment figures would pass through the doors of Hart House, usually during a wedding at the home.

The Dungeon

Stu performing a wrestling move on Bret Hart
Stu and Bret Hart in the Dungeon. Courtesy WWE

The Hart House is most famous for its basement. As soon as Stu bought the house, he set to work expanding the interior. This included the construction of a gym in the basement. Comprising a single room, the gym featured a wrestling mat along with weights and machines. It was a place where Stu could train and wrestle up and coming stars, which he did for 40 years.

The basement was later nicknamed the “Dungeon”. The room became known for the intense training that took place in it. Stu was known as a submission wrestler, and took great pride in “stretching” wrestlers: contorting and stretching a wrestler’s body until they screamed out in pain. The dark, damp atmosphere of the room only added to the Dungeon’s intimidating pressence.

It was in the Dungeon where Bret, Owen, and their brothers learned to wrestle professionally. Besides training his sons, Stu turned the Dungeon into a pro wrestling training school. Many famous wrestlers would learn their craft in the basement, like Jake “the Snake” Roberts. After Stu’s retirement, his sons continued to run the school up until ownership of the home changed hands.

In present day, having trained in the Dungeon carries a certain level of status and distinction. It signalled to others that you survived a gruelling training regimen, and became tougher and resilient because of it. As granddaughter Natalya Neidhart says: “if you could survive the Dungeon, you can survive anything.”

End of an Era

In 2001, Helen passed away. She was followed by her husband Stu when he passed in 2003. After the death of their parents, the Hart children debated what to do with their childhood home. There were talks of turning the house into a museum or a bed and breakfast. However, these would changes would result in the house losing its protective status. The Harts final made the difficult decision of putting the home on the market. Several tours of the home were given to prospective buyers. But no one seemed interested in buying the historic home.

The following years found the house in jeopardy. In 2006, preservation plans ended with a tied city council vote. This left the house in danger of demolition. Then in 2007, a revised plan called for restorations to be done on the house. Thirteen new townhomes were also constructed on the surrounding grounds. However, the restorations did not happen, and three years later the house was put up for sale for $5 million and an associated development permit. No offer was received. Finally in 2012, the City of Calgary designated the Hart House a municipal heritage site. The arrangement also saw nine houses with secondary suites built on the property.

As of 2017, the house has been restored and available for rent at $10,000 a month. 

Calgary Icons

A picture of Stu Hart with his  eight sons.
Stu Hart with his sons. Courtesy Kayfabe Today

Some may wonder why the Hart House is so important. After all, professional wrestling is a somewhat niche sport, and it doesn’t garner as many fans as the other professional sports (namely hockey) do in Calgary. However, the Hart’s were and remain important representatives of the city. Arguably, the Hart’s have brought as much exposure to Calgary as the Calgary Flames have.

The Bret and Owen wrestled in the WWF during the 1980s and 1990s. This is era is considered the boom period for the company; the era with the most fans watching or attending events. And throughout their run, the Hart’s were always billed from Calgary, Alberta Canada.

This is an important distinction. Often times, wrestlers, names and origins would be continually altered to align with their character’s persona. But not the Hart’s. Bret and Owen would always be billed as proud Calgarians. When Bret Hart became WWF champion in the 1990s, his connection with Calgary became even bigger. WWF even hosted a pay-per-view event in Calgary during the 1997 Stampede. The Hart’s were rightfully featured in the main event, receiving a hero’s welcome in their hometown.  

This strong connection to their hometown ensured the Hart’s were fan favourites not only in Calgary, but in Canada as well. In some ways, the Hart’s helped to put Calgary on the map. Whenever you discuss the history of Calgary, the Harts have to be in it. And the Hart House is where it all began. It’s a symbol to the success of the Canada’s wrestling family.

The Hart House Today

Today, the Hart House still lies at the top of Patterson Heights. The house was once visible to drivers heading down the highway towards Banff. Now it is hidden by the numerous homes and condos built in the surrounding area. While it is not open to the public, fans can drive or bike up to the neighbourhood and snap a picture of the mansion from the outside. Other wrestling figures have travelled to the house to pay homage to the hallowed home.

While the house remains a municipal heritage site, I hope Calgary will eventually turn the Hart House into a museum. The Hart House is not only a part of Calgary history, it’s a part of Canadian history as well.

A current photo of the Hart House.
Hart House as it stands today. Courtesy Pinterest

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