Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Historic Dalnavert shuttered

Volunteers shocked to learn of closure of Victorian-era home

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John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press

Dalnavert Museum. The long-running museum may be closing.

Quietly and without notice, Dalnavert Museum was closed over the Labour Day weekend.

And its devoted army of volunteers worries it may never reopen.

The Victorian-era home at 61 Carlton St., lovingly restored for $500,000 in the 1970s, seems to have fallen out of public favour, despite Christmas and Halloween tours that once drew hundreds through its historic doors.

When the front doors were locked this fall, few noticed. The website for the national historic site remained up and running, and the Manitoba Historical Society only notified volunteers of the decision as they showed up for their shifts.

Dalnavert, one of Winnipeg's finest examples of Queen Anne Revival architecture, is the restored 1895 home of Hugh John Macdonald, son of Canada's first prime minister, John A. Macdonald. During his career, the younger Macdonald was premier of Manitoba and later police magistrate for Winnipeg.

By Halloween, the president of the society conceded the jewel of the city's Victorian-era architecture faced an uncertain future in the 21st century.

"We're hitting the reset button," society president James Kostuchuk said.

Dalnavert is much more than the former home of a former premier. It is a treasure house of Winnipeg's 19th-century history: of its architecture and its ambition, of immigration, urbanization and modernization. It warehouses a history of photography, electricity, the family and class relations. I am heartbroken to see this place, lovingly and expertly restored 40 years ago, die a second death.

-Vanessa Warne, associate English professor, University of Manitoba and Dalnavert volunteer.

"We're looking at the role the house will play in our organization, and we haven't made any decisions."

In an interview from his Portage la Prairie home, the history teacher said the focus for the MHS is shifting outside Winnipeg to rural history sites, and the bottom line is the century-old home of a prime minister's son is a financial liability.

"Dalnavert is the single biggest expense that we have," he said, estimating the annual upkeep at $100,000.

Nothing has been ruled out, including selling the property to a private owner.

The national historic designation could limit its resale options, but that's not something the society has looked into yet, he said.

Parks Canada hadn't answered questions by email or phone call by week's end.

Kostuchuk said the museum's biggest supporters are its volunteers, who've devoted countless hours over the years, running tours, answering phones, taking inventory of antiques and artifacts and decorating the house to look like it's still a family home.

"I've met with some of the volunteers and they have a great interest... And I told them, there's no decision made on the house, but given the circumstances -- no manager in the house and the time of the year -- it didn't seem to be sensible at this time to keep it open."

That hit a decidedly sour note.

One after another, volunteers spoke out Friday, angry over how the closure's been handled and the fact the museum is closed to the public.

English professor Vanessa Warne, a volunteer for three years, is a de facto spokeswoman for the group and she makes no bones about how they feel: It's the end of Dalnavert.

"I care that we are losing an entire cultural history that shows how people lived at such a formative period in Winnipeg's history. I understand that Winnipeggers are putting their money into Jets season tickets, but 40 years ago Winnipeggers broke themselves to get this place open, and now you can read a book about 19th-century Winnipeg. But to smell it, to feel it, to walk up the carpeted stairs in a home from that period? We'll never get that back."

Volunteer Inés Bonacossa said after years of working out of love for the house, she didn't get any notice at all the place was closing.

Shortly after the curator went on maternity leave at the end of the summer, Bonacossa showed up for a shift, only to find the door locked. "The administrator answered the bell and said 'Oh, the museum is temporarily closed.' That's how I found out. It was pretty awful."

Another longtime volunteer, Calla Lofvendahl, said she's disappointed and angry. "We've been left in the dark. I was informed my services were not required the day before my shift. We knew there were issues. Attendance has been unpredictable... (but) I've fallen in love with the house. What's going to happen to it?"

More than one volunteer cited the withdrawal of a $100,000 annual grant from a wealthy donor as the final blow, something the society won't comment on.

In the end, the society might have won the support of volunteers by treating them and the house better at the end.

"The way this is being handled is like kicking a corpse. We're talking about generations of volunteers. Surely, we could acknowledge them. They (the society) could have had an event where people could come and say a final goodbye to Dalnavert... This place isn't getting a proper funeral," Warne said.

The society is taking the winter to decide how or if Dalnavert might fit into a larger restructuring, but even the president said there are wider worries about the museum.

"You have to look at the balance... small theatres and museums don't make money. They cost money," Kostuchuk said. Attendance across North America is trending down by 20 per cent or more as smaller historical sites fall out of fashion.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 2, 2013 A15

History

Updated on Saturday, November 2, 2013 at 12:57 PM CDT: fixed cutlines

1:01 PM: added slideshow

1:08 PM: added colour photos

2:39 PM: Aesthetic tweaks

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