Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Polishing a gem

New owners of grand old Portage Avenue building have big plans, now that it has been added to the city's historic list

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TWO pudgy cherubs who have gazed down at Winnipeg pedestrians since 1909 will likely get a bath and a patch-up before their 100th birthday. The winged babes adorn the Oldfield, Kirby and Gardner Building (later the North West Trust Building), located at 234 Portage Ave. between Fort and Garry streets. The grand structure was officially added to the city's historic buildings list on Oct. 5. The move paves the way for its ornate façade to be cleaned and repaired, and for the vacant site to be reborn with residential and commercial occupants.

"It's a first step," says Michel Fillion, who bought the structure with a business partner last April, after the Canadian Western Bank moved out.

The reason for pursuing the historic designation, he says, "is just to be able to get some grants."

Fillion, a Franco-Manitoban who grew up in St. Joseph, is reticent about discussing the building. But he says he's interested in heritage -- an interest that bloomed when he worked for four summers at the St. Joseph Museum.

Fillion says he'll apply for provincial and federal grants, as well as municipal tax credits, to help restore and convert the venerable real estate, insurance and investment palace -- and later bank -- into a mix of residential and commercial space.

He's seeking a commercial tenant for the main floor, which features a marble staircase and ornate brass doors. He hopes to build one or two rental apartments in the basement, mixed with some office space, and one apartment on the upper level, again combined with offices.

Even with the two weighty columns that flank the doorway, the two-storey Neo-Classical edifice is easy to overlook. It sits right at the busy Portage and Fort eastbound bus stop. And it's sandwiched between two heavy concrete structures, the Canadian Western Bank to the east and Dreman Place and Parkade to the west, which has a Second Cup outlet at street level.

Old photographs show that it was once part of an imposing downtown block that included the magnificent Main Post Office (where Dreman Place is today).

The architect for the Oldfield, Kirby and Gardner headquarters was Chicago-trained John D. Atchison. His long list of significant Winnipeg projects includes the Boyd, Curry, Carlton and Bank of Hamilton buildings.

The city's research report on the building says it boasts "one of Portage Avenue's most distinctive facades." The showy carved tops of the columns feature "acanthus leaves, caulicoli... and stylized acanthus flowers." The cream-coloured facade, featured in the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation's Terra Cotta Tour booklet, boasts unusual cream-and-green terra cotta (fired clay) floral designs.

The pediment (triangular top of the façade) is extraordinarily ornate, its terra cotta embellishments including the two cherubs, who support a medallion engraved with "Established 1881," along with sheaves of grain and garlands of flowers, fruit and vegetables. All this ornamentation was manufactured in Chicago by the American Terra Cotta Company.

It's believed that the fireproofing qualities of the terra cotta helped to save the building when, in 1955, fire destroyed the Huron and Erie Building next door to the east.

If Fillion succeeds in obtaining grants, he hopes a restoration of the façade can begin next spring -- an undertaking that will cost close to $100,000.

"It doesn't show, but it actually needs quite a bit of repair," he says about the much-admired terra cotta.

The original interior elements he plans to restore include a huge skylight that was largely closed up in 1935. "It was meant to light up the whole building," he says.

Historical information courtesy of the City of Winnipeg and the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 9, 2004 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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