Rev. Charles Gordon, a.k.a. adventure novelist Ralph Connor, had passed away at age 77. Under the headline Pen Is Stilled, the lengthy obituary began, "Winnipeg lost its most famous citizen..."
Today, relatively few Manitobans know about the teetotaller Presbyterian minister and social activist who was also a millionaire author of rugged fiction. But the University Women's Club (UWC) of Winnipeg, the organization that rescued Gordon's 23-room mansion from demolition and preserves it, wants to spread the word about his extraordinary life.
"It's a Canadian story," says club member Muriel Aboul-Atta. "It's our heritage. We're starting to discover our heroes."
This month, two major events at Ralph Connor House, 54 West Gate, will focus attention on the man, his legacy and his still-magnificent home.
On May 12, a who's who of the local historical community is expected to attend the unveiling of a bronze plaque on the lawn. It marks the official designation of the 1914 Jacobean Revival-style residence as a provincial heritage site. The designation paves the way for much-needed conservation grants, and for the pursuit of national heritage status.
Gordon, an influential advocate for labour, church unity and international peace, as well as an author and orator, has already been recognized by Heritage Canada as a "person of national historic significance."
May 25 marks the launch of a new book, 54 West Gate: Stories of Ralph Connor House. It traces the history of the grand three-storey home on the bank of the Assiniboine River. Aboul-Atta and five other retired Winnipeg women -- members of the house conservation committee -- have spent more than two years researching and compiling the book.
It will sell for $25 at McNally Robinson bookstores. Proceeds from the 2,000 copies will support the preservation of the house, which retains virtually all its original character.
Tucked away in the enclave of Armstrong's Point, the house remains a busy spot for UWC activities such as bridge, teas, lunches and lectures. It's frequently rented out for weddings and meetings. It has served as a set for movies such as A Bear Named Winnie, where it doubled as a hospital visited by the bear.
Last year, the 300-member UWC established the charitable Friends of Ralph Connor House, which the public can join. It needs to raise $1.5 million to upgrade the building's fire safety with sprinklers, and install an elevator for accessibility.
The red brick and stone structure cost $50,000 in 1914 -- the equivalent of more than $800,000 today.
It boasts stately rooms with beamed ceilings, oak and mahogany panelling, leaded-glass windows, two gracious sunrooms, five bathrooms, even an early central vacuum system. Gordon's handsome study features a unique fireplace with reproduced Moravian tiles depicting biblical scenes. A downstairs lounge has a similar fireplace, with tiles celebrating the manly habit of smoking.
"As a minister, he could not afford this kind of house," points out committee member Dianne Jackman. He became rich as one of the bestselling authors of the early 20th century, under his "Ralph Connor" pen name. His 24 action-filled novels include Black Rock (1898), The Sky Pilot (1899) and The Man from Glengarry (1901).
"Teddy Roosevelt was a big fan of his," says Aboul-Atta. Gordon's papers also include correspondence with movie director Cecil B. DeMille and U.S. president Woodrow Wilson.
The book captures memories and photos of family life at the house, where the Gordons raised seven lively children. "They never knew how many people were coming for dinner," says Jackman.
Gordon grandchildren with a literary bent include Toronto mystery writer Alison Gordon and Ottawa Citizen columnist Charles Gordon. Grandchildren who are well known locally include United Way president Susan Lewis and retired University of Manitoba dean of architecture Michael Cox.
The mansion is as fascinating as the clubhouse of a nearly 100-year-old women's organization as it is as the Gordon residence. The club first leased the house soon after Gordon's death, and bought it from the city in 1945 for $7,000. Today, the third floor is a huge apartment rented by two artists. There's a waiting list of Winnipeggers eager to take over the suite if it ever becomes available.
As Gordon family members have passed on, a number of antiques that were original to the house have been returned. "The china cabinet and buffet were separated for over 60 years, and now they're together again," says a committee member. Members of the UWC, who have included some of the city's most influential women, have also bequeathed all kinds of furniture, art and china to the club.
In fact, the club accumulates so much vintage-Winnipeg stuff that it's having yet another event this month: a garage sale at the house on May 14 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
For more information on the University Women's Club of Winnipeg, Ralph Connor House and the forthcoming book, visit www.uwc-wpg.mb.ca or call 954-7880.
PHOTO WAYNE GLOWACKI/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS