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History around every corner

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When the Shanghai restaurant building got a death notice from city council, I wanted to know more about how this town protects its heritage. I called people who know this stuff and repeatedly was pointed in the same direction.

Randy Rostecki was a history student in the early 1970s when he got involved with a small, vocal group of activists appalled at the way everything old was heading for the rubble heap as a booming Winnipeg saw Portage and Main reincarnated in towering steel and glass.

Rostecki helped write what became the City of Winnipeg inventory list, the litany of some (now) 600 buildings, their addresses, provenance and architectural features. The list, meant to be temporary, was city council's first heritage manual of sorts. It is a starting point to guide councillors who designate buildings for protection. If approved, the building is transferred to city hall's conservation list, which prohibits demolition.

That's the working theory.

If the Shanghai is facing a date with the wrecker's ball even though it was "protected," there's got to be a lot of unrecognized heritage out there.

On what passes for a mild day in Winnipeg's winter, Rostecki and I take a ride. We start out for Main Street and the oldest parts of town. We stop almost immediately, on Selkirk Avenue. Rostecki grew up on Redwood and he traces his childhood among the shops and services of the street once heady with immigrant expectations.

We park at Arlington and Selkirk, in front of the former Merchants Bank branch at 804 Selkirk. The Montreal-based bank arrived in Winnipeg in 1872 and was one of the first, Rostecki says, to move into neighbourhoods where most people scrimped.

"They were different because they catered a lot to working people. They saw margins in working people's accounts."

The arrival of a bank marks a neighbourhood's maturity, when a critical mass of people with common interests sets roots and become a community.

"Selkirk originally wasn't a business street," Rostecki notes, pointing to surviving houses among the store fronts. "As it became more ethnicized, it developed into the Main Street of the North End."

Nearby are other commercial two- and three-storey structures, modest but solid, built of brick, neat and proud in unpretentious symmetry.

And then there's the Budnik Block. Built between 1911 to 1929, each addition added a layer of restrained but evident pride and optimism to the corner of Selkirk and MacGregor. Onufrey Budnik (or Budnyk) clearly believed the bustling street had a future. Its upper windows are framed with handsome cream-coloured surrounds, prominent sills and its metal cornice is ornamented by dentils. It remained in the family until the mid-1980s.

The Budnik building is among five in its block built between 1911 and 1914 that are on the city's inventory list. Except for the Steiman Block (Merchants Hotel), at 541 Selkirk, they are remarkably similar.

There are others like them, but they have escaped official notice. Individual buildings must pass the test of significance to a community's environment, history and architecture to get designated. But this neighbourhood's heritage is told by its streetscape -- that is, the totality of the built environment that encompasses the story of an age.

When the houses go up, churches aren't far behind. A block or so away, at Manitoba and Mackenzie, is the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, one of the first Slavic orthodox churches to arrive here, built in 1904. With its onion dome and wood-frame structure -- and a free-standing bell tower in the churchyard -- it is clearly the work of a small community pooling its pennies. "They were poor congregations and they built what they could afford," Rostecki says.

Presbyterians, too, were building, at Burrows and Mackenzie in 1911 and they added a settlement house across the street to teach immigrants English and provide public services -- the organized process of assimilation.

Now this house of God is under the hammer to become Springs Church Inner City. The settlement house is called Chua Hai Hoi.

Winnipeggers extoll the legendary North End for its formative place in the city's cultural, economic and social history. These buildings are sentinels and faithful servants to the waves of people who struggled to find their place and then move on.

Rostecki and I move on to Point Douglas. At Annabella and Higgins we spy a humble wood-frame house that assessment rolls note James Bertram Mitchell built as his first home in 1882. In its day, Rostecki notes, this little house on the prairies was a talker.

After leaving the North West Mounted Police, J.B. was the architect of 48 Winnipeg schools from 1892 to 1928, including Earl Grey and Laura Secord. Working alongside superintendent Daniel McIntyre, who set high standards for modern, public education here, Mitchell believed schools trumped good streets in public spending. Many of his buildings remain at the core of our neighbourhood identities today.

This little structure at Annabella and Higgins is not designated heritage. In its environment, it looks unremarkable and an unsympathetic owner could easily tear it down. (Mitchell's home on East Gate is on the inventory list.)

Not all the buildings on the inventory will get protected; written in the 1970s to launch a process of official designation, it at one point held as many as 1,000 addresses.

The idea of an inventory itself is evolving because the concept of heritage, and how to value it, is expanding. Icons of cultural and historical significance go well beyond buildings.

A day trip into history shows you don't have to go far to stumble over heritage in this city. If we stretch our thinking about the wealth around us, take stock of what the past continues to contribute, less of it would need a city official's stamp of protection.

catherine.mitchell@freepress.mb.ca

 

Manitoba's oldest public building neglected/ J1

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 26, 2011 A19

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