Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Heritage razed for art?

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One quite positive development in Canada over the last 40 years has been our growing awareness of our significant built heritage. This has been reflected in our greater willingness to consider, pursue and confer heritage designations on sites and buildings right across the country.

In Canada, the assessment and designation of heritage buildings reflects the distribution of political authority across the country. At the national and provincial levels, such decisions are made by the ministers of heritage acting on the recommendations of, respectively, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada and, here, the Manitoba Heritage Council.

In Winnipeg, city council makes the decision -- notionally on the advice of the Historic Buildings Committee, though all-too-frequently despite it.

One aspect of this, however, has been somewhat anomalous: though these advisory bodies are empowered to assess and make recommendations about buildings generally, they cannot, with few exceptions, assess or make recommendations about properties owned by governments or, as in the case of universities, institutions effectively controlled by governments.

In practice this anomaly may not always matter for, with greater heritage consciousness, most governments and universities have been conscientious about maintaining and protecting properties of which they rightly see themselves as stewards. Both the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg have demonstrated this, particularly with respect to their very oldest buildings.

We are about to see a case, however, which might suggest that self-regulation is not always good enough. There is, at the Fort Garry campus of the University of Manitoba, a small building of some significance now facing imminent demolition. The so-called "Practice House" built in 1939 has, in recent years, been the home of the university's alumni association, but it has a more interesting history.

The Practice House was built for the express purpose of providing home economics students with the day-to-day practice of running a household and improving their skills on many fronts -- one of which was the care of the "Practice House baby," for many years provided -- remarkably -- by the child welfare system.

As the University's Bulletin recently pointed out, this unique training phenomenon was immortalized in Carol Shields' novel The Republic of Love in which the hero, a former "practice baby" is introduced to readers this way: "As a baby, Tom Avery had 27 mothers." Ironically, through the installation of a commemorative plaque, the university itself has acknowledged the house's unusual significance.

In addition to its singular history as a university building, it is architecturally appealing. It is the only campus building in the Georgian style and may be one of the very few examples of that style in the city of Winnipeg.

The plan is to demolish this building and erect a new, larger one for the school of art, most of which is to be relocated into Tache Hall to the west.

That a beautiful and celebrated building is to be destroyed for the sake of art adds a delicious touch of irony to the story, but the greater one is that, apparently, in this vast sprawling campus, there is no other site suitable for this new building -- not even adjacent to the Practice House.

It is not the outside world's responsibility to tell the university where to locate new buildings, but the destruction of an existing one -- of probable heritage significance were it assessed on grounds other than the utility of its site -- is.

Obviously, there will be different opinions, perhaps even within the university's central administration, on whether the house merits heritage status. But there are opinions, and there are opinions.

The whole point of independent heritage assessments is that, on this as on many matters, some opinions carry more weight than others because they are rooted in specialized skills, knowledge and experience.

That, indeed, is essential to the raison d'etre of a university; and, across the country, university people play -- and are expected to play -- important roles in national and local heritage assessments. Since universities themselves have become significant guardians of Canada's heritage, is it not time for universities to join the wider community and establish heritage advisory committees? Otherwise, the question faced is the ancient one: who guards the guardians?

William Neville, a Winnipeg writer, was the 2006 recipient of the Leger Medal for lifetime service to Canada in the field of heritage conservation.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 14, 2009 A10

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