When I first came to Winnipeg in the 1960s, the downtown streets were lined with large, three-storey houses. Once the homes of upper-middle-class families, they had become rooming houses. Then they were gone, demolished to make way for highrise apartment blocks and surface parking lots. Of those that remained, only one, at 61 Carlton St., retained the grandeur of an earlier era. Sometimes as I passed by on Broadway, I would look at this red-brick remnant of the past and think, "I must go there."
And so I did, in April 2000, in response to an ad for volunteers. I stayed for 13 years.
Over the years I came to know every nook and cranny, every platter and pot in this century-old house, which had been so meticulously restored by the Manitoba Historical Society in the early 1970s.
I also came to know the family that had lived there --the Hugh John Macdonalds --with all their virtues, foibles and eccentricities. I read letters and scanned newspapers of the time for details about their lives. My tour became increasing anecdotal as I strove to bring them metaphorically to life. Is there a faint whiff of pipe smoke in Hugh John's study? Was that the tinkle of spoons on teacups from the parlour? Did some essence of past lives remain in the shadowy, curtained rooms?
Christmas at Dalnavert was magic. Every room downstairs was decorated in Victorian style, with fir boughs and holly. The tree was a real fir with real candles that were, of course, never lit. Somewhere on the tree, a glass pickle was hidden. Traditionally, the child who found it first earned an extra gift.
Then there was Dickens. For years, actor Richard Hurst read A Christmas Carol -- originally in the attic, lit only by a single reading lamp beside the artist. As he dramatized the story, the characters stepped off the page and took their places among us. In later years, the reading took place in the new exhibition hall. If, during the reading, one glanced back through the glass wall to the house, where snow and icicles hung on the eaves and every window was ablaze, it was as if one had stepped back in time. The Macdonalds were having a party.
Most of Winnipeg's grand mansions, such as Ravenscourt and Kilmorie, are gone, victims of the Depression or floods, or sold for taxes or to make way for development. The ones that remain such as Ralph Connor House and Dalnavert are treasures to be cherished.
Dalnavert has been closed to the public since September. Its future is uncertain.
When I first wrote a column for Our Winnipeg, it began as a tribute to the Bunn's Creek Trail and ended as a eulogy for a beloved dog. I hope this is not a eulogy for a beloved house.
My thanks to Ron Robinson, Celeste Sansregret, and Gord Tanner, who also did wonderful readings of A Christmas Carol after Richard Hurst was no longer available.
Mary Steinhoff was a tour guide at the Dalnavert Museum from 2000 until 2013, when the museum shut its doors.