Winnipeg in the 1890s was a bustling city of 30,000 people. Horse-drawn carriages dodged new electric trolley cars as pedestrians click-clacked along oak-plank boardwalks lining the sides of wide, mud-packed streets.
In residential areas, the tradition of planting boulevard trees was initiated to beautify the featureless prairie city. Many of the 12,000 elm trees planted in that first decade were located in the Hudson's Bay Company Reserve, a parcel of land surrounding Upper Fort Garry, retained by HBC as payment for surrendering Rupert's Land in 1870.
Schools and churches were built across the reserve to lure residential development and Broadway, the area's main thoroughfare, was lined with nearly 900 elm trees. These efforts proved successful in transforming the barren land into the city's first distinguishable neighbourhood, home to Winnipeg's wealthiest and most prominent citizens.
One such citizen was Sir Hugh John Macdonald, who would build his Victorian mansion in 1895 on Carlton Street, lined with 324 of those new elm trees. The son of Canada's first prime minister, Macdonald came to Winnipeg to open a law practice with Stewart Tupper, the son of Canada's sixth prime minister.
He was a man with a formidable resumé that included such titles as federal cabinet minister, Manitoba premier, attorney general, police magistrate, captain in the Winnipeg Rifles (serving at Batoche during the Riel Rebellion), founding board member of the St. Charles Country Club and Winnipeg Foundation and early president of the Manitoba Club.
Macdonald's spectacular mansion, known as Dalnavert House, would be designed by Charles Wheeler, the architect responsible for the majestic Holy Trinity Church (beside the MTS Centre). It would cost $10,500 to construct (10 times the value of an average home) and would incorporate the finest materials and most modern technologies.
Only the 16th home in the city to have electricity, it would also be one of the first with indoor plumbing and central heating. Upon its completion, the Winnipeg Tribune described it as "the perfect home" and nearly a century later, the Canadian Antiques and Fine Arts Society hailed it as "one of the finest examples of Victorian domestic architecture in North America."
After Macdonald's death in 1929, his wife sold the mansion and it was transformed into a boarding house with no fewer than 17 individual apartments. Through the decades, evidence of the old neighbourhood began to disappear, as elegant Victorian homes were replaced by modern, rectangular apartment blocks.
In 1970, Dalnavert itself was slated to be demolished to make way for a 15-storey highrise. With money raised in large part from a television bingo, the Manitoba Historical Society came to its rescue and negotiated its purchase. They would undertake an extensive three-year restoration process, removing up to 12 layers of wallpaper and 14 layers of paint, repairing woodwork and reconstructing walls, returning the grand home to its 1895 splendour. Coinciding with the city's centennial celebration in 1974, Dalnavert opened as a museum that would allow visitors to immerse themselves in the way of life of Winnipeg's early pioneers.
Designed by Bridgman Collaborative Architecture in 2005, an award-winning visitors centre was added as a sweeping backdrop to the mansion, providing the facility with office space, meeting rooms and a gift shop. Built with recycled materials and geothermal heating, the project would make Dalnavert the first environmentally sustainable national historic building in Canada.
Today, facing government cutbacks and fundraising challenges, Dalnavert has been forced to quietly shut its ornately carved oak doors. With an uncertain future, the mansion faces the fiscal obstacles that are shared by most of Winnipeg's more than 40 local museums and galleries.
In our modern society, value is often measured exclusively by factors such as economic growth and fiscal wealth. In this climate, museums find it difficult to demonstrate their economic merit to those able to provide support. Justifying evidence of worth requires organizations to sell their intrinsic value, beyond annual revenues, to the community. The traditional role of museums is as a communal archive and vehicle for cultural expression.
Identifying a broader mandate that includes more holistic values such as establishing a sense of place, community awareness and civic identity, as well as fostering personal growth, education and public participation, begins to establish the case museums add to the quality of life and vitality of their communities. These benefits cannot easily be measured monetarily, but when considering the composition of a healthy, modern city with a vibrant economy, an enlightened, enriched and engaged population must be valued as a vital component.
The much-celebrated "creative economy" is based on the concept of economic growth built through the transfer and pollination of ideas across social and cultural barriers. Museums enable this interaction as places of organic exchange, networking and discussion.
They are an archive of past ideas that can inspire new ideas for the future, adding to the economic growth and health of a community in the long term.
As we consider the future of our local museums and evaluate the role they play in our community, it is important to value them beyond their gate receipts and consider their intrinsic contributions to our city.
With anonymous car suburbs replacing human-scale neighbourhoods, and television and the Internet displacing social engagement as our primary source of entertainment, a strong sense of community has diminished in our modern city.
Museums such as Dalnavert allow us to immerse ourselves in ideas that cannot be experienced by reading Wikipedia or watching the Discovery Channel. They celebrate our collective experience and shared values, promoting the human engagement that bonds us as a community across social, generational and cultural divides. Perhaps most importantly, local museums inspire creativity and encourage the new ideas that will grow our economy, enhance our quality of life and move our city forward in the future.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.