City Beautiful

How architecture shaped Winnipeg's DNA

By Randy Turner

Part II: Coming of age

They called it the Gingerbread City Hall. Actually, they called it a lot of things: ugly, amusing, majestic, a monstrosity, a "Victorian fantasy".

Winnipeg's second city hall, a storybook structure erected in 1886, was the pride of a fledgling prairie metropolis wannabe. Designed by brothers Charles A. and Earl W. Barber, the building design culminated with a central clock tower that rose above four surrounding turrets, with an outer coating of red brick with cream stone and terracotta trim. The eclectic nature of the building, according to descriptions, was Romanesque, slightly Islamic, with a flavour of Eastern European.

In other words, it was a bit of a beautiful mess.

Years ago, British architectural historian Alec Clifton-Taylor, in assessing the structure, sniffed, "It was built at a time when artistic taste all over the world reached an unbelievable low."

Perhaps, but it was also built, for a price tag just shy of $40,000, at a time when Winnipeg was just beginning to dream of a future beyond its meager beginnings. The hall's construction was at the cusp of the city's population explosion between the 1880s and early 1900s, making it perhaps the first brick-and-mortar symbol of a city's lofty pretensions.

It was not only a building of its time, but also of its place.

"That was the encyclopedic idea of the world at the time. We don't do that anymore," said Wins Bridgman, the founder of BridgmanCollaborative Architecture. "In the 19th century, people would create gardens that had greenhouses with plants from every part of the world. You would do that in such a way that you would be able to say, 'I brought the entire world here.' And it related in Winnipeg because we were sending wheat all over the world and we were able to get goods from all over the world to come back to us. It was quite a cosmopolitan city."

But flash forward to the late 1950s — the Gingerbread City Hall had aged into a relic of the Great Depression and two world wars that stunted economic growth in Winnipeg for decades. The windows leaked wind and the roof leaked rain. The doors in some of the turrets were — not unlike Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory — three- and four-feet tall.

Indeed, then mayor Steve Juba wasn't a fan of city hall or the adjacent Market Square, which for decades had been home to kiosks and shops selling everything from butchered animals to live poultry to garden vegetables.

"I don't," Juba was once said to utter, "want any @#$@# chicken farmers where I work."

Fair enough. Buildings can take on human qualities. They get old, and some age better than others. And Mayor Juba, with a flair for the dramatic, would personally provide tours where he would actually shake the city hall rafters. He would inform visitors of the bones of a billy goat in the tower (believed to be left by pranksters) that could not be removed because the floor boards wouldn't bear the weight of a man.

Juba would tell reporters, only half joking, that he had taken out an extra insurance policy should the clock tower, which hadn't kept time since the 1940s, collapse on his desk.

Meanwhile, as the future of Winnipeg's city hall was being debated, there was a series of developments — globally, nationally and locally — that would combine to change the face of Winnipeg architecture well into the 21st century. It would be the most dramatic evolution of urban landscape since the city's construction apex of the early 1900s.

First, the soldiers came home. The young men back from Europe had families, made babies, and flooded into the swelling suburbs. Over a 30-year period, from 1941 to 1971,  the city's population grew from 297,739 to 535,480.

By the mid-1960s, the children of the 1940s were coming of age. So was Canada, for that matter. The war effort had given Canada a new-found prestige on the world stage and the nation was shedding the colonial apron strings of the British Empire at the same time as it was celebrating its 100th birthday in 1967.

There was this national pride, the feeling that we had entered the big leagues.Serena Keshavjee, University of Winnipeg associate professor of art history.

In 1957, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1967, Montreal hosted the World's Fair (Expo 67), itself considered a triumph of modern architecture.

This was also the time of Trudeaumania, when a dashing cosmo-politician who embodied a new era of Canadiana came to power. Young. Confident. A man of the world.

"There was this national pride, the feeling that we had entered the big leagues," University of Winnipeg art history associate professor Serena Keshavjee said. "Canada was an important international country, a world player."

It was a chapter Étienne Gaboury remembers well. Just in his early 30s, the prodigy of Winnipeg's architectural community had already seen four of his projects nominated for prestigious Massey Awards. Gaboury subsequently earned a membership on the Expo Architectural Design committee, where he had a front row seat to a nation's coming out party.

"Canada had come of age," Gaboury, now 84, recalled. "And not only come of age, but showed all of its diversity and creative genius. We'd always been seen as the boondocks. You know, what could come out of Canada? Well, Expo 67 was certainly a demonstration of the depth of our abilities and talent."

Gaboury was only beginning to display his talent, however. Over the next half century, he would leave his artistic mark on Winnipeg churches, civic buildings, schools and now indelible landmarks such as the Precious Blood Church in St. Boniface, the Royal Canadian Mint and the Esplanade Riel.

Canada had not only come of age, but showed all of its diversity and creative genius.Étienne Gaboury, acclaimed Winnipeg architect

Which brings us back to the Gingerbread City Hall. It was not young. It did not symbolize progress. What once represented "the unbridled dynamism" of a city was now — a lifetime later — frowned upon as a tottering, obsolete eyesore that literally had skeletons in its closets.

So we come to the second architectural evolution of the mid-20th century: The rise of modernism, combined with the absence of the heritage values that are now commonplace. Any notion of preservation when it came to decaying buildings was lost in the thirst for shedding the past. Not just in places like a prairie Canadian burgh, but across North America, which itself was experiencing its own societal awakening.

"It was the ethic of the time. They didn't see the value in the old," said Brent Bellamy, an architect and creative director with Winnipeg's Number TEN Architectural Group. "They were coming out of the war and everybody was looking for the modern way. The car was taking over. It (the old city hall) represented the negative things of the two world wars and the Depression to them. It was looking forward. We're coming out of this horrible 50-year period. That's what happened all across the world. They just clean-swept everything. It was a movement."

Added architectural historian Murray Peterson: "It was kind of a search of an identity. And in Winnipeg it was a search for something to call Winnipeg. There was a determination to define ourselves through art and architecture.

"As a country coming out of the war and going into the early 1960s it was, like, wow. I mean, we won. Lots of babies. An electric stove and egg beater. All of that was ahead of them."

For the record, Juba wasn't alone when it came to his distaste for city hall. When a plebiscite was held on the fate of the Gingerbread structure, about 70 per cent voted for the wrecking ball. One resident, Mr. E.S.P. Parkes, wrote Juba personally to request that the new city hall take the shape of the maple leaf.

"I am quite confident it would be a second to none affair," Parkes scribbled by hand, "the marvel of the continent."

Something new, something Canadian.

"It was reflective of Canada as a whole; a young country that meets the world," offered Susan Algie, executive director of the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation. "Canada was really entering the world stage, politically and economically. It was reflected in Winnipeg, too. Everybody had this new optimism and architecture had the opportunity to flourish."

Old architecture? Not so much. In other major Canadian cities, such as Toronto and Montreal, vast acres of historical districts were leveled without remorse.

In 1962, the Gingerbread city hall was demolished. In 1964, some $8.2 million later, the current city hall was officially opened by a triumphant Mayor Juba, who presumably no longer needed that extra insurance policy.

The mayor called the new city hall "a fitting shrine for commerce" that "reflects the character and taste of the people of Winnipeg".

An editorial on the front page of the Winnipeg Free Press was equally impressed, noting, "Compared to the ancient crumbling, nasty old gingerbread structure that was the old city hall, who can complain?"

To this day, the modernist element in Winnipeg is self-evident, with many structures falling into the "brutalist modernism" classification. The core buildings, of course, are in the city hall precinct, including the Centennial Concert Hall and Manitoba Planetarium, the Public Safety Building and, further afield, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Royal Canadian Mint and recently demolished Winnipeg International Airport.

Unlike the often ostentatiously adorned structures of the early 1900s, the modernist style of the 1960s and 1970s emphasized function over facade.

"It was a more streamlined style," Algie noted. "Not as many obvious decorations. In Manitoba and Winnipeg, there was a lot of attention paid to the prairie light. It came into play with the exterior of the buildings quite a bit. They played with shadow.

"It was seem like a plainer and simpler design, but there was a lot of innovation in the technology of the building and the materials that they chose. It's not as obvious. More hidden away."

For example, the ridge system of city hall or the 45 eyelid concrete window covers on the concert hall, the latter of which has been described by the WAF's extensive collection of Winnipeg architecture as "an example of the modernist exploitation of the plastic possibilities of concrete."

Algie understands that over a half-century later, the working remnants of the modernist movement may be viewed as outdated. Or even bulky distant cousins of Eastern Bloc ancestry. But she would also strenuously disagree.

Examples of prominent modernism buildings

Winnipeg Art Gallery
300 Memorial Boulevard

Date opened
1971
Architect
Gustavo da Roza, firm Number TEN Architects.
Construction cost
$4.5 million
Fact
Da Roza, who at the time was on faculty at the U of M's School of Architecture, had his design picked from 109 entries. Canadian Architect was critical of the WAG as being a retreat for the initiated, but allowed that the clean shape of the structure had "clear definition, reinforced by a sharp modeling of tapered walls, that reads well in the bright Manitoba sunlight." The building also utilized "load bearing walls of Manitoba limestone to affirm and crystallize the character of (the) northern prairie environment". It's total indoor space is 120,000 square feet, with 26,000 dedicated to exhibition space.

(Henry Kalen / University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections)

Worker's Compensation Board of Manitoba (formerly Monarch Life)
333 Broadway

Date opened
1971
Architect
Smith Carter
Construction cost
Over $4 million
Fact
Internationally recognized as one of Manitoba's landmark modernist buildings. A finalist for the Massey medal of architecture, bleachers were actually constructed for the public and clients to observe construction. Some 50 tonnes of stainless steel were used at a cost of $250,000. Designed to sit on a dark pedestal of smooth marble, the concrete and steel building rises six storeys above Broadway. The front (south) and back (north) facades are nearly identical. The upper floors are clad in smooth-cut Tyndall limestone and grey granite. The facades are divided into bays by plain columns that rise the entire height of the building.

(Boris Minkevich / Winnipeg Free Press)

Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
174 Market Ave.

Date opened
1970
Architect
Waisman Ross Blankstein
Construction cost
$2.5 million
Fact
The 785-seat stadium, of Brutalist style with extensive exposed concrete, was designed to reflect the roughness of the turn-of-the-century warehouse design. Waisman stated: "Nowhere were there to be grand staircases, marble or chintz. The feeling all along was to make people feel as comfortable in jeans as they might be in a tuxedo". The building was named a National Historic Site in 2009.

(Henry Kalen / University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections)

Winnipeg Civic Centre (City Hall)
510 Main Street

Date opened
1964
Architect
David Thordarson and Bernard Brown, firm Green Blankstein Russell
Construction cost
$8.2 million
Fact
The winning design was selected from over 200 applications. The Council Chamber building sits upon a podium of polished, charcoal-coloured, Quebec granite. The interior of the building is treated with Tyndall stone throughout, the floors being of a rich charcoal terrazzo. Extensive use of interior glass, clerestory windows and open interior volumes grants the building a remarkable sense of openness and clarity. The two buildings of the civic complex are connected by a tunnel underneath the plaza.

(Henry Kalen / University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections)

Centennial Concert Hall
555 Main St.

Date opened
1968
Architect
Green Blankstein Russell, Moody Moore, Smith Carter Searle
Construction cost
$8 million
Fact
The 23,506-square-foot hall is the primary home of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and hosts performances by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. The exterior design presents a balance of orthogonal lines and angles, glass and masonry, light cream and dark charcoal tones. The distinctive element of the design is the set of forty-five eyelid-like concrete window covers. The unique awnings are an example of the modernist exploitation of the plastic possibilities of concrete – here by means of linking sections of precast material.

(Henry Kalen / University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections)

John A. Russell Building
84 Curry Place, University of Manitoba

Date opened
1959
Architect
Smith Cart Katelnikoff
Construction cost
N/A
Fact
One of the most influential works of modernist architecture in Winnipeg. The design was inspired by the leading modern schools: the Bauhaus buildings in Dessau by Walter Gropius and the Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The form of the building is simple and classical. The building has an introspective focus – instead of concentrating on views outward on campus, the entire structure centres around a two-storey glazed courtyard.

(Boris Minkevich / Winnipeg Free Press)

Precious Blood Church
200 Kenny St.

Date opened
1968
Architect
Étienne Gaboury
Construction cost
$397,000
Fact
One of Gaboury's most identifiable work, along with the Esplanade Riel and Royal Canadian Mint. Lauded as an "outstanding example of Canadian regionalism" by Architect Review (Nov. 1965). The structure includes a subtle teepee shape as a cultural Metis parish reference. Limited glazing and a hooded western-facing stained glass demonstrated Gaboury's sensitivity to Winnipeg's severe climate and low-angled winter sun.

(Melissa Tait / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I love modernism," Algie said. "I like the geometrics and cleanness of it. I like what it says about the era it came in. They're very functional buildings."

"All of it is learning to appreciate different styles," she added. "Each has its merit. You don't have to pick just one. You can enjoy the evolution of buildings over time and what it tells you about how they were part of their own time and place."

Where else in Canada, or the world, Algie argued, can you see modernist architecture "cheek-to-jowl" with heritage buildings, as can be found in Winnipeg's city centre?

"The thing in Winnipeg that is so wonderful is that we have examples from many different eras," she said. "City Hall is located right within the warehouse district. And they work together. They don't intrude upon each other."

But the true story behind modernism in Winnipeg doesn't begin in the 1950s. Not really. Because this city wasn't just a spectator to the modernism movement, it was a catalyst. Modernism might not have been born in Winnipeg, but it was nurtured by the city – to this day, in fact.

And it all began with one man from New Jersey, and his name, fittingly, adorns a building on the University of Manitoba campus that was built in an era he helped define: John A. Russell.

Mel Michener was always fascinated by construction. As a boy, he was forever wanting to see how things were built.

Or,  he says now, "how things fit together."

As Michener speaks, he clasps his fingers together. He's 84 years old now, semi-retired, but still comes to the firm he co-founded in 1954 with partner Gerald Libling. Now LM Architectural Group, the Market Avenue space is filled with dozens of young architects designing the new Selkirk General Hospital or grand ballroom of the renovated Winnipeg Convention Centre.

But when Michener was just 16, fresh out of St. Paul's High School, he was attending his first lecture in architecture at the University of Manitoba. His professor, John A. Russell, made a point of addressing his teenage students at that initial meeting. Recalled Michener: "He (Russell) said he'd never seen anybody in his class out of kindergarten."

Michener smiles at the thought. After all, it was almost 70 years ago.

It was a good-natured jab. But while Michener was just an adolescent, he was surrounded by fellow students who, in 1946, were Second World War veterans. Many had been to Europe and were fighting Nazis and freeing Europe while Michener was in grade school.

The veterans took to Michener as though he was a little brother, which didn't stop them from sneaking him into pubs, covering him in a large trench coat, and then goading the bartender, "You're not going to serve beer to him, are you?"

The bartender usually did.

To be young in Winnipeg at that time...
we had more ideas than we could ever build. It was exciting.Mel Michener (right), Winnipeg architect

These were the first architectural recruits of John Russell, who had arrived in Winnipeg in 1928 with a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The native of Hinsdale, New Hampshire, became director of the U of M's School of Architecture in 1946, Michener's freshman year. By 1963, Russell was the dean of architecture.

During his tenure, Russell had developed the school into a state-of-the-art program "that was one of the cutting-edge institutions of architecture in North America and the world," said Algie.

Russell was at the forefront of the modernist movement. He recruited lecturers and faculty members from abroad and the United States. He was teaching landscaping architecture before it was even in most books.

"He was a gentleman in both meanings of the word," Michener recalled. "Very independent minded."

Russell encouraged diversity of opinion. Michener said the dean would intentionally hire teachers with widely differing philosophies.

"Some of them hated each other's guts," Michener said with a chuckle. "And that wasn't by accident that they were in the same school with offices next to one another. Russell thought that a difference of opinion created a stronger faculty."

Russell was somewhat of a paradox. He was a devoted pacifist, born in 1907, who lived largely in a time of war. And despite being as "American as apple pie," as Michener noted, the professor became a disciple of the modernist movement at a time, post Second World War, when it was widely considered a communist and subversive style that originated in Eastern Europe.

"He embraced the new," Michener said. "Not just architecture but art, sculpture, music...."

In the book Winnipeg Modern, edited by Serena Keshavjee, Russell theorized that modernist architecture was a reaction against revival architecture, such as Greek and Roman styles, that dominated Winnipeg's buildings of the early 1900s.

"The best architecture today is characterized by clarity and order in its design," Russell said, "by sound structural expression, by simplicity of inner space... by dignity of proportion and by a unity of the whole. It no longer has to struggle to free itself from the curious academicism of the early years of our century when much of the art on this continent was suffering from an eclectic 'hangover' induced by too many stylistic revivals in the nineteenth century."

Russell was a product of the 20th century. Yet he was very much a renaissance man. He taught his students — such as Michener and Gaboury — that their life's work shouldn't be confined to blueprints. Russell became a prominent member of the Winnipeg arts community, designing sets for the Winnipeg Ballet (now Royal Winnipeg Ballet) and the Winnipeg Little Theatre, the predecessor of the Manitoba Theatre Centre.

Later, Russell became director and president of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. He was on the advisory committee for the airports constructed in Toronto, Winnipeg and Edmonton in the 1960s that were specifically designed in a modernist style to announce to the world that Canada had entered the "jet age".

"He (Russell) felt it wasn't enough to be an architect," Algie said. "He thought it was important to give back to the community."

Russell's school spawned a generation of proteges who established the firms that became the foundation of Winnipeg's architectural community: Smith Carter (now Architecture 49) Waisman Ross (Number TEN), Moody Moore (now MMP) and Libling Michener (now LM).

Said Algie: "You had all these young Turks that were graduating. They set up their own firms and started designing."

And so the drafting tables were set. Winnipeg was a confluence of 1960s' nation-building, a universal desire to create a new future, a new wave of homegrown modernist architects and — perhaps most importantly — the means with which to express those collective desires.

Canada's centennial was 1967. Manitoba's centennial was 1970 and the city's was 1973. Happy birthday to us. For a decade, federal, provincial and city coffers simultaneously opened to trigger a windfall of civic construction: City Hall, the Public Safety Building, the Convention Centre, the Winnipeg International Airport, the Manitoba Theatre Centre, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Manitoba Museum, the Royal Canadian Mint.

"We got some freedom," Michener said. "We got some money. Not a lot, but we were going to make a new kind of city."

The No. 1 priority of civic leaders? "For God's sake, don't make this thing look like something in Toronto or something in Winnipeg ten years ago," Michener recalled. "They wanted something new, something with character.

"To be young in Winnipeg at that time... we had more ideas than we could ever build. It was exciting."

Meanwhile, the implementation of skywalks and underground passage ways into building designs became common place. After all, if man could walk on the surface of the moon, Winnipeg pedestrians should be able to move freely downtown in the deep of winter without requiring a space suit, right?

"We're now entering the space age," Juba boasted in the Winnipeg Tribune in the summer of 1969. "We are going to live in an artificial community... a climatically controlled downtown."

Or course, the landmark decision to force the Portage and Main intersection underground to pedestrians was a manifestation of a futuristic vision where Winnipeggers could work, shop and be entertained  — if they so chose — in the friendly confines of a sheltered architectural colony.

Little wonder the gingerbread structure was considered too ancient for these nationalist jet-setters.

"People always lament that building being torn down without actually remembering how ugly it was," Keshavjee said. "However, we'd never tear down that building today. When that building was torn down nobody cared about Victorian buildings. They represented the past. People wanted something completely new and modern."

Further, Keshavjee said Juba and then Premier Duff Roblin (1958-1968) had serious concerns Winnipeg was experiencing the same urban decay in other Midwestern North American cities such as Buffalo and Detroit. "They wanted to use architecture to help change the (city's) fortunes," Keshavjee said. "They were really panicking about that."

Interestingly, Roblin, whose lasting legacy for Winnipeggers would be a ditch constructed around the city perimeter, was equally concerned the city's core would devolve into "a 'donut' with a fleshy body of industry, business and commerce ringing a corroded city centre," according to the Winnipeg Tribune in December 1963.

In the mid-1960s, city hall — at the urging of Roblin — commissioned a study called City of Winnipeg-Cultural Centre-Renewal Scheme, which had proposals that would have required leveling the Exchange District, where (according to the study) 78 per cent of the buildings were in "poor or very bad condition." Another common description of the area surrounding the new City Hall (1964) and Concert Hall (1967) was "blighted."

Architects drafted preliminary designs that would have seen the Exchange District razed. Indeed, those visions included artistic renderings where Winnipeg's riverfront looked more like Miami Beach, with marinas, restaurants and residential high rises along a "riverside expressway".

Along with an entertainment component, it would have included an urban park that would be "the centre of exciting leisure activity in Winnipeg, particularly if the setting is one where the highest international standards of urban design are exhibited."

The proposal even called for a new bridge to span across the Red River into St. Boniface, an extension of Bannatyne Avenue.

In fact, the only reason the current Exchange District even exists is because the development scheme couldn't be sold to private developers of the day. That alternative future is not lost on architects like Brent Bellamy, whose spacious and renovated office building at Number TEN on Bannatyne Avenue would have been a memory.

"It was a horrible thing, generally," Bellamy said, of the building purge that swept North America in the 1960s and '70s. "But luckily we moved in Winnipeg so slowly all we got was city hall and the concert hall, that precinct. We dodged a bullet only because of slow growth."

But sentimentality for buildings, no matter how grand their past or how rich in heritage value, is a matter of perspective. For example, it's possible that a younger constituency who didn't shed a tear when the old, abandoned Eaton's Building was sacrificed for the newly minted MTS Centre, now home for the National Hockey League's Winnipeg Jets, might today see an old black-and-white photo of the Gingerbread City Hall and wonder how such a regal architectural artifact could have been so blithely pounded into rubble.

The passage of time can be funny that way. Unsentimental. Even uncaring.

"The same mindset happened to MTS Centre, when Eaton's came down," former city heritage planner Giles Bugailiskis said. "The attitude was 'This was a failure of a building, a business. We don't want this vacant building sitting on Portage Avenue that will never be used. What can we put in its place that will give a sense of a progressive city'?"

Then came the resurrection of the Jets and the city's return to the NHL — in itself considered a bellwether of community prosperity and prestige. The images of grandmothers holding hands around the Eaton's building — what to them was a priceless city landmark — simply faded with the passing of both time and, now, the likes of Jets captain Andrew Ladd.

For Randy Rostecki, the city's walking encyclopedia of architectural landscape (whose business card reads: Historical Consultant), the demise of the gingerbread building was not a fairy-tale ending in the least.

"It showed the contempt the buildings were held with by that generation," said Rostecki, who has spent decades heavily involved in Winnipeg's heritage community. "They were old, obsolete. If you lived in an old building, you were poor. It was an urban renewal mentality. When they were not developing vacant lots, they were plowing buildings down.

"To me, a lot of progress stinks. A lot of it is based on greed. I'm not anti-progress but the way it's practised in many cases leaves a lot to be desired. Buildings are cultural artifacts. They speak to what's going on in society at a certain period of time."

Added Bugailiskis: "There are buildings that were quite significant in Winnipeg. They just got torn down and nobody remembers them. You kind of forget what the city looked like."

Key Winnipeg buildings that have been demolished.

Gingerbread City Hall
510 Main St.

Date open
1886-1961
Feature
It was a 'Victorian fantasy', complete with turrets and picturesque clock, that captured the optimism of Winnipeg in the late 1800s.

Winnipeg Post Office
236 Portage Ave.

Date open
1908-1962
Feature
Boasted the Manitoba Free Press in 1906: 'Not in all western Canada is there to be found such a magnificent federal government building as that... is now being completed in Winnipeg.'

Royal Alexandra Hotel
191 Higgins Ave.

Date open
1906-1971
Feature
Considered one of Western Canada's most opulent 20th-century hotels.

Child's Building
211 Portage Ave.

Date open
1909-1988
Feature
It was 'trapezoidal shaped' because of the odd lot shapes around Portage and Main. When completed, it was Winnipeg's tallest structure. Its terra cotta exterior cladding was specially attached to withstand the high winds of the windy corner.

Bank of Toronto
215 Portage Ave.

Date open
1951-1990
Feature
It was a rare Art Deco Style building.

Empire Hotel
171 Main St.

Date open
1881-1981
Feature
Several bays of the intricate metal exterior have been restored and rebuilt at the Franco-Manitobain Cultural Centre on Provencher Boulevard.

Capitol Theatre
313 Donald St.

Date open
1920-2002
Feature
It was one of Winnipeg's most opulent movie palaces. Two of the original plaster decorative elements are now restored in the lobby of Pantages Theatre on Market Avenue.

Robert H. Smith School
500 Kingsway

Date open
1919-1992
Feature
It was one of several one-story 'temporary' school buildings constructed after the First World War to address changing populations in suburbs around the city.

They are fallen comrades: The old Winnipeg Post Office (1908-1958), Gingerbread City Hall (1886-1961), the Empire Hotel (1882-1981), the Capitol Theatre (1920-2002), and the Royal Alexandra (1906-1971), among others.

But few steel and brick structures, if any, ever rivaled the Eaton's Building as a city touchstone. When the five-storey, red brick monument to Winnipeg's untamed commercial sanguinity opened in 1905, it heralded the second coming of Timothy Eaton with a headline that blared: Canadian Napoleon of Retail Commerce Reaches the Capital. By 1919, Eaton's covered 21 acres and employed over 8,000 people.

In 2002, the Red Lady was abandoned. Before construction began on the MTS Centre, Rostecki would often take a perch in a nearby indoor parking lot to watch the demolition of the Eaton's building. For old time sake.

He's not bitter, really, or necessarily nostalgic. Rostecki understands the ebbs and flows of a city's development; what he calls "the constant process of change".

"But," he asked, "does the generation wanting to leave its mark have to destroy the marks of another generation? That's my question. There's signs of life. I agree with that. But does that mean some other life has to come down?"

Bellamy has a different take; how, in effect, the Eaton's building that had defined Winnipeg for the previous century "sort of gave her life to define Winnipeg for the next hundred years".

Even if the MTS Centre won't be around when the evolution it represented continues unabated. When asked if the offspring of current Winnipeg Jets fans will be demanding a new arena in another 50 years, Rostecki just scoffed. "Try 25 (years)," he said. "I'm not kidding."

To this day, the legacy of the modernist architectural period in Winnipeg remains both distinct and omnipresent. Not just in the plethora of civic buildings erected during the gravy years of centennials, but stretching out to the churches, schools and fire halls that were built for the flood of post-war Baby Boomers.

If you've eaten at Winnipeg's iconic Rae and Jerry's Steakhouse, you've experienced modernist architecture. Or driven through Silver Heights in St. James, or Windsor Park and suburbs of St. Boniface.

"That was developed as a whole so the office buildings, the apartment blocks, the shopping centre and houses...everything was designed to create this wonderful new place to live with all of the services intact in that same sort of style."

In fact, in the early 1970s, developers trumpeted a development called Berkshire Park, in what was then St. Boniface (now Windsor Park) that was to be designed by Gaboury, a testament to the cache of architects at the time - when pre-Unicity St. Boniface alone grew in population from 26,342 in 1951 to 45,370 in 1969.

"It was truly a unique time in the city's history, and you can see it in the architecture," Algie said. "You can see it in the downtown but in Winnipeg we also have these tremendous modernist suburbs with their comforting schools and churches and that's stretched throughout the city. And those buildings are all still in use. Of course, the Concert Hall and City Hall are dramatic. We know them better as landmarks. But there's a whole range of buildings."

Such is the legacy of Winnipeg modernism: If the explosion of the 1900s was about the rush to establish Winnipeg as the next Chicago or New York, the post-Second World War facelift was far more inward looking. It was a period defined by community and its citizens, not pomp or profit.

"It really was an era of public investment in architecture, in substantial buildings," Algie said. "And they hired the leading local architects of the day to design them."

Indeed, it was the students of John A. Russell, having established their own firms in the city, who laid the blueprints for Winnipeg's modernist renewal.

And many were determined to leave their architectural footprints.

When Gaboury was tasked to build the Mint, for example, his design was challenged by architects who wanted a non-committal industrial building that produced coins. "No, no, no," Gaboury balked. "This is the Royal Mint of Canada" and what the structure represents, its function, demanded attention.

"Every building, I make a statement," Gaboury said. "You have to make a statement. Every building is a metaphor... has a meaning."

Gaboury, too, insisted that there is a moment "when architecture becomes art. It should change you fundamentally. It should make you a better person. To me, that's the power of art."

Yet for decades in Winnipeg, ever since Steve Juba and civic and business leaders were demanding "something new, something with character",  there was a distinct lack of either. In fact, Bellamy said the first civic project in years that provided more aesthetically than simple function was Gaboury's Esplanade Riel walking bridge over the Red River.

The bridge opened in 2004. And since it was a public project in Winnipeg, the critics were in full throat. As with the downtown baseball park, The Forks or construction of the MTS Centre.

Gaboury shrugged. Hey, it wasn't like the artist wasn't looking for controversy, to push a few buttons. Yet when any major televised event has been held in Winnipeg the scene-setting shot invariably features Gaboury's spider-web design of the Esplanade in the skyline.

"The point is, if you do something, you have to stick your neck out and do it," he said. "You have to fight for it. You have to have some sense of where you want to go and what you want to achieve."

In the '60s, Gaboury concluded, architecture was — to quote the vernacular of the time — quite hip. Architects were the stuff of popular culture, on the cover of magazines. Their visions, and how those visions could transform a city or speak to (and for) its citizens was an unspoken understanding in society.

After all, the concept of City Beautiful has been an eternal principle of architecture since the pyramids. Since Versailles. Since the Manitoba Legislative Building.

"Is it possible we can generate pride in the city, pride via awareness of all the beautiful things we have?" Gaboury asked. "To me, that would be a subtle but powerful means of assuring this regeneration. People wouldn't accept mediocrity and would want higher and higher standards. If we can get that frame of mind of how we're evolving and how we're continuing to evolve...."

Gaboury let the sentence hang. It sounded more like a question, in fact.

You can feel the confidence. For a city like Winnipeg, that's important.Brent Bellamy, senior architect, Number TEN Architectural Group

But look around. The skyline of Winnipeg is changing again. The list of structures over the past decade notably includes a new $585-million airport, a new arena, a new football stadium, renovations to the Convention Centre, the expansion of Red River College downtown, the additions to the University of Winnipeg and — the pièce de résistance — the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

"You can feel the confidence," Bellamy said. "For a city like Winnipeg, that's important. We have such an image issue. I mean, what's Winnipeg known for — lousy weather, mosquitoes, floods and crime. Whether that's all true or not, that's our self-image."

Actually, it's ironic, even slightly unsettling, to contemplate how the descendents of those audacious Winnipeg dreamers of 1912 ever managed to develop an inferiority complex. It's clear that years of architectural and agricultural droughts - and the constant struggle to remain vibrant as a relatively isolated prairie city - have taken their toll.

Or maybe those economic depressions, World Wars and Panama Canals and the loss of a beloved NHL team have only forged a lingering determination to at least strive for the unattainable goals of this city's forefathers.

Because in 1912, the answer to Gaboury's open ended thought - "If we can get in that frame of mind of how we're evolving and how we're continuing to evolve..." - would have come in the form of an opulent, Tyndall-lined testament to the future. In 1968, the same question would be answered with a clean, open-spaced (also Tyndall-lined) structure of brutal modernism, showing the world that Winnipeg, too, was coming of age.

And what is the future now?

Perhaps, a Gingerbread House befitting the 21st century.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

< Part I Part III > © Winnipeg Free Press Credits

Writer: Randy Turner
Multimedia and archival research: Melissa Tait
Digital design: Rob Rodgers
Art director: Gordon Preece
Project editor: Scott Gibbons

Contributors: Frank Albo, Mike Aporius, Eric Bailey, Brent Bellamy, Andrew Burton, Wendy Sawatzky, Tyler Walsh, and Karen Wiecek.
Special thanks to the staff at the Archives of Manitoba, City of Winnipeg Archives, the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, City of Winnipeg Planning, Property and Development, Société historique de Saint-Boniface Archives and Winnipeg Architecture Foundation.