Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Dwellings of the past, present

Library exhibits traces history of housing in Winnipeg

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WHILE our city may have grown by leaps and bounds and technology has drastically changed our world, some things just haven't changed in the last 100 years. Urban sprawl and the debate on creating suburbs were issues that city officials were dealing with back at the turn of the last century.

Those issues and more are the subject of a new exhibit that was unveiled at the newly-opened Millennium Library on Friday. "Housing in 20th Century Winnipeg" is a unique exhibit of Winnipeg's housing history, featuring stories and photographs from the early 1900s on. If you're an avid history buff or just want to learn more about the history of Winnipeg's housing, it's something you won't want to miss.

The 17-panel display was originally commissioned by the Winnipeg Real Estate Board to commemorate its 100th anniversary in 2003. The WREB turned 100 years old on March 18, 2003, making it the first real estate board in the country to reach this milestone.

To celebrate its centennial, the WREB contracted David Burley, a history professor at the University of Winnipeg, to put the exhibit together. A graduate of McMaster University, Burley's interest in housing is well entrenched. He spent nearly a decade as a carpenter's apprentice, house renovator and an apartment building caretaker before entering academia.

Not only did Burley uncover and gather a wealth of photographs to depict Winnipeg's history over the last 100 years, he wrote engaging stories that take the reader back in history to understand what was going on in each era. He worked alongside Candace Hogue, a professional curator and display designer, to come up with an interesting and unique exhibit.

The housing exhibit takes people on a journey back through time. Various themes and issues are explored, many of which still exist today. One of the major themes that Burley explored was the issue of the city, or inner city, versus the suburb. He looked at how the expansion of suburban housing affected older areas of the city.

"As early as 1920, city officials were observing that the residential areas in the central part of the city were declining and attributed it to people moving to the suburbs," Burley says. "It's interesting they made that association so early."

Believe it or not, Elmwood, Wolseley and Crescentwood were all once recognized as suburbs. Those are a very far cry from proposed new suburbs like Waverley West.

Considered to be Winnipeg's first suburb that was planned on a large scale, Crescentwood was introduced with a number of stipulations attached. Conditions required houses to be set well back from the street, with minimum construction costs of $10,000 on houses built on 300-foot lots. While they may have seemed restrictive at the time, the building conditions resulted in the creation of one of the city's most beautiful neighbourhoods that has stood the test of time.

In conducting his research, Burley also discovered some unique pieces of Winnipeg's housing history. Who knew that a shantytown used to be situated on the site where Grant Park Shopping Centre is today?

Rooster Town was a squatter settlement comprised of shacks with no running water, sewer or other services. Many people with modest or low incomes, who couldn't afford to live in the city's centre, moved out to the edges of the city where land was cheaper.

"While there were the up-market Crescentwood developments, there were working people areas that were largely unplanned developments," Burley explains.

One of the major problems with Winnipeg's housing in the early 1900s was that the homes built downtown were designed for people with substantial incomes. Homes like Dalnavert, which was built for Sir Hugh John Macdonald, the premier of Manitoba in 1900, were too expensive for other people to buy when the original owners moved out. As a result, many of Winnipeg's finest residences were converted into rooming houses and apartments.

"Winnipeg's downtown had the wrong kind of housing stock for people to move into," notes Burley.

Originally on display at the Home Show and the University of Winnipeg during the WREB's centennial celebrations in 2003, the housing exhibit now has a permanent home at the impressive new Millennium Library. It is housed appropriately on the third floor in the Local History Room, a place where you can explore Winnipeg and Manitoba history.

Burley says he hopes the housing exhibit will inspire others to learn more about our city's unique and interesting history.

"One of the things I discovered was that there is a whole lot more to discover," he says. "I shall be pleased if this exhibition leads people to view the city's houses and streets with an inquiring eye and to explore the history more fully."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 27, 2005 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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