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Fine building that shouldn't have been

Carberry bank likely built in error

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Carberry Mayor Wayne Blair on a gutted floor in an abandoned heritage building.

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Carberry Mayor Wayne Blair on a gutted floor in an abandoned heritage building.

CARBERRY -- Accidents do happen, and in the case of Carberry a century ago, the accident was a palatial, three-storey bank building.

The Union Bank of Canada wanted to build a signature bank in 1902, but not here. Somehow the plans and materials wound up in Carberry, instead of either Winnipeg, or "down East," depending on who's telling the story.

Construction went ahead before anyone figured out Carberry was just a regular two-horse town, not the metropolis the Union Bank was banking on. The result was a majestic, landmark building in the Classical Revival style in downtown Carberry. It was even designed by famed architect George Creeford Brown, whose credits include the Masonic Temple on Donald Street and Wesley Hall at University of Winnipeg.

You'd be surprised how many heritage buildings there are in Carberry -- its downtown stood in for Main Street scenes in the Aaron Johnson movie, For the Moment, starring Russell Crowe. In fact, its entire two-block downtown has been declared a Provincial Heritage District, the only such declaration in Manitoba.

The bank and other heritage buildings will be on display at the First Annual Carberry Heritage Festival on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 9-10.

Actually, Carberry, 50 kilometres east of Brandon, is wall-to-wall-to-wall-to-wall heritage buildings -- literally. For two blocks, nearly all the buildings, built in the early 1900s, share a wall with their neighbours. The thinking seemed to be, why build two walls when you could just build one and share? On one block, 11 buildings are sandwiched together like a long condo. (An exception is the aforementioned bank building. Wonder why?)

"You can't take a wall out because your neighbour needs it," said Penny Shaw, the town archivist for eight years up until last year.

Shaw believes it was just "by chance" that Carberry wound up with its bounty of heritage buildings. "The buildings were just here and nobody could afford to replace them." Carberry's downtown was originally all wood buildings, but several fires changed that. "So they built this train of buildings out of bricks, and there have been no fires since."

Some of the buildings, like the Magic Bean Cafe, have a trap door to the basement. Many have two front doors, one for customers and one for owners to access their second-storey living quarters.

Some buildings have succumbed to stucco, however. The stucco is chipped off the side of the downtown grocery to reveal the original owner: Andy Robertson, Furniture, Wholesale and Retail, Pianos, Organs, Sewing Machines, Wallpaper. "And he was also the undertaker," said Shaw.

Unlike some local councils that are in a rush to tear down old buildings, Carberry's council led by Mayor Wayne Blair sets aside funds annually to match private restoration spending of up to $3,000 per year. The town has been recognized by the Association of Manitoba Municipalities for its heritage preservation. Three downtown buildings have been privately restored in recent years and five more are in the process.

Blair is one of those who believes the Union Bank building was a mistake. It is oversized, and overly extravagant, for such a small community that might have numbered 1,000 residents a century ago.

Also the fact the Union Bank imported brick for the facade, in a region renowned for its brick manufacturing with the nearby Carberry sandhills, seem to cinch the local theory that someone made a booboo building it here.

The interior is rich with oak panelling and staircases, and half a dozen fireplaces. There were even offices in the basement of the building that is heated with radiated steam. The bank was on the main floor and the manager and his family lived on the second flood, which also had a small dance floor and reception area.

The Royal Bank took over the building in 1925 and it later became the Bank of Montreal. A private owner purchased it for salvage, stripping the interior. Later, a young web designer from the United States used his inheritance and bought it online. He moved in but his business failed. His uncle, a Texas millionaire, now owns it but it has sat vacant for several years.

Carberry is also home to the Seton Centre, a lovely tribute to a former resident, the naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, which fits into the "world's small museum" category. It also has a garden in the back with clearly signed native grasses and wild flowers.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2013 A6


Updated on Friday, August 2, 2013 at 6:03 PM CDT: corrects Donald Avenue to Donald Street

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