When Diane McGowan tells fellow Winnipeggers that she works at St. Mary's Academy, she often gets the same reaction.
"I have people tell me all the time, 'I've always wanted to see inside,'" says the director of development at the private Catholic girls' school.
The storied institution on Wellington Crescent, with its grounds bordered by Academy Road, Stafford Street and Kingsway, is a landmark that opened in 1903. Its history in previous locations dates back to 1869, making it the oldest continuously operating independent school in Manitoba.
If you'd like to stroll the hallways on a self-guided tour and explore some of the most venerable -- and newest -- parts of the school, you'll get the chance on Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.
St. Mary's is one of 13 buildings participating for the first time in this weekend's Doors Open Winnipeg. The annual event organized by Heritage Winnipeg is a free open house for intriguing buildings, museums and historic sites.
Some locations are on view both Saturday and Sunday. Some, like St. Mary's, are open just one day.
At St. Mary's, historical handouts will be provided and alumni will be spread throughout the on-view areas to answer questions. One room will display artifacts such as building blueprints and early accounting records.
"We've got lists of all the students . . . and how they paid their tuition -- in potatoes or chickens or money," says school director Sister Susan Wikeem.
Some hallways are lined with historical photos. They capture decades of school life, from long-ago glee-club productions to nuns paddling a canoe on the grounds during the 1950 flood.
The school had one addition in 1909, another in 1964, and last year unveiled its latest expansion, including a new library, fitness room and fine-arts studio.
When the Sisters of the Holy Names first had the forested land cleared to erect the school on Wellington Crescent, it was so far from downtown that it was considered "out in the bush." Some questioned the nuns' judgment in choosing such a remote location. But the school anchored the area and helped draw homebuyers to the coming district of Crescentwood.
Nuns lived at the school until 1999. When Wikeem was a student, during the crowded era of 1960 to '63, many of the nuns on the teaching staff actually slept in their workspaces. "There were kind of Murphy beds in the classrooms," she remembers.
Because of safety and security concerns, the school is not opening up areas such as the top floor, where a legendary staircase leads to the domed room topped on its roof with an iconic cross.
But visitors can still drink in the grandeur of the 1903 building. Its character features include schoolhouse lights suspended on long chains, ornate ceiling medallions and mouldings, built-in oak cabinets with glass fronts, vintage décor pieces such as plant stands, and classroom doors with transom windows operated by still-functioning levers.
On the second floor, the most impressive area has pillars topped with elaborate plasterwork. An alcove near a stained-glass window, known for generations as the Cosy Corner, is furnished with ornately carved chairs and tables. A grandfather clock, still chiming away, was donated by alumni in 1915. A bust of the Virgin Mary dates from 1940.
The administration wouldn't dare alter these touchstones, Wikeem says. "As soon as we start to tell our alumni that we're renovating or doing upgrades, they all ask, 'You're not changing the Cosy Corner?'"
The current boardroom was once a parlour where students who boarded would receive company. It still has vintage chandeliers and lamps, an inlaid hardwood floor and many antiques.
And some classrooms still have the classic wooden student desks with hinged tops.
"I'm sure some of the teachers' desks are 100 years old," McGowan says. "We don't fix it if it ain't broke."
More doors open
The eighth annual Doors Open Winnipeg rolls out the welcome mat at 77 buildings and sites this weekend, compared to 54 last year. The free event, staffed by hundreds of volunteers, is the largest held yet by Heritage Winnipeg.
The weekend generally racks up 20,000 to 30,000 site visits. Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg, calls it a "Get to know your city" weekend where visitors can appreciate both architecture and history.
This year's diverse lineup includes five walking tours, as well as banks, churches, schools, warehouses, heritage residences, other unique sites and about 16 museums, which waive their admission charges. Not every structure is historic. You can take a guided tour, for instance, of the new Manitoba Hydro Place or the MTS Centre.
Featured buildings are located across the city. Many offer guided tours. Some require pre-registration. Not all venues are open both Saturday and Sunday, so check in advance.
A new Doors Open awards program allows the public to vote in five categories: best restoration, tour, architecture, overall experience and hidden gem. Ballots are at all sites.
Also new this year, storytellers will be on hand at the Aboriginal Centre of Winnipeg (former CPR station), Artspace, the St. Boniface Museum and the Via Rail Station to share the stories behind the buildings. Some sites offer entertainment, such as the Winnipeg Mandolin Orchestra at the Ukrainian Labour Temple.
The Doors Open guide ran as an insert in the Free Press on Thursday. Complete information is also at www.doorsopenwinnipeg.ca