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WHEN consultant Joan Blight meets with clients at her vintage apartment condo in Fort Rouge, it's sometimes difficult to concentrate on business.

Visitors tend to gape at the dark oak panels that adorn the dining-room walls and criss-cross its 10-foot ceiling, the two functioning wood-burning fireplaces, the massive pocket door that separates the library from the dining room, and the elegant French doors that lead to the brick-and-limestone sunroom.

Six years ago, Blight went shopping for an older house, but fell in love with the Wardlow Apartments, a three-storey block with only six grand suites, each measuring more than 1,700 square feet.

The suite she bought, which feels as spacious as a house, features a built-in china cabinet with original brass fittings, stylish century-old light fixtures, and decorative leaded-glass library windows.

"I feel very comfortable in an old space," says the professional fundraiser. "There's the whole matter of character ... the combination of textures ... the feel, the ambience."

Situated at the southwest corner of Wardlaw Avenue and Nassau Street, the Wardlow (the "o" is in the name as it's carved over the entrance) was built in 1905 as a luxury block for wealthy tenants, complete with a maid's room in every unit. (There's a small hole in Blight's dining-room floor where there was once a buzzer for summoning servants.) The original rent was a then-steep $85 per month.

Today, the yellowish brick building is one of Winnipeg's treasures of apartment architecture. Converted to condominiums in 1981, it is a city-designated heritage structure.

"It's a very special kind of building, and very beautifully done," says architect Wins Bridgman, who assigned a University of Manitoba architecture class to do a project on it. "The limestone, the stairway, the woodwork in the units themselves, are spectacular. That building will last indefinitely, because it is made so well."

The original owner was William Hespeler, a prominent citizen who oversaw the immigration of more than 7,000 Mennonite settlers from Russia to Canada.

The block was one of the first Winnipeg projects by American-born architect John Danley Atchison, who opened an office here in 1905 after practising in the architectural hotbed of Chicago. Atchison went on to design many significant Winnipeg buildings, including the Boyd, Curry, Carlton and Bank of Hamilton buildings, and the School for the Deaf in Tuxedo.

The Wardlow is an excellent example of the Prairie School of architecture, introduced by Frank Lloyd Wright at the turn of the 20th century in response to the wide-open spaces of the American Midwest. On the exterior the Prairie School style emphasizes the horizontal, with windows grouped to form horizontal bands, low-pitched roofs with heavy overhanging eaves, and minimal ornamentation.

Inside, the lobby features a terrazzo floor, oak wainscoting and marble baseboards. The suites' roomy floor plans were considered modern, because of their openness and the absence of a long, dark, narrow hallway. Placing the living room and dining room on either side of a large reception hall made for a vast, continuous space that was -- and still is -- ideal for entertaining.

Bob Mathieson, who bought his Wardlow condo with wife Bev six years ago and furnished it with a wealth of antiques, is professionally involved in heritage restoration as vice-president of design and construction for Shelter Canadian Properties. Under his guidance, $200 of each resident's monthly condo fees goes into a heritage fund to finance maintenance projects such as underpinning foundations and repairing masonry. Some of the work has been supported with provincial heritage grants.

Blight says her acquaintances in Toronto and New York are amazed that such an exquisite historic apartment can still be purchased in Winnipeg for around $150,000.

Bridgman notes that the breathtaking Highgate Apartments, built in 1912 and also converted to condominiums, are just a half-block west at 626 Wardlaw Ave.

"I walk back and forth between those two all the time," says the architect. "There was a very sophisticated interest (100 years ago) in mixing residential and apartment buildings together. The apartment buildings had to work at a residential scale, and they did that very successfully."

Historical information courtesy of the City of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 28, 2004 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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