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Analysis

Save the heritage of the Public Safety Building

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES </p><p>The Public Safety Building should be considered for heritage building status.</p>

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The Public Safety Building should be considered for heritage building status.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/4/2016 (423 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There’s nothing like a tour with a knowledgeable guide to learn about a building or a neighbourhood. It can even be a mind-changer.

For years, Winnipeg’s Civic Centre struck me as a dull pair of inward-looking buildings. It took a detailed tour of the interior and exterior with one of the architects, the late Bernard Brown, to appreciate what they set out to achieve and the constraints under which they worked. It does not evoke the "warm and fuzzies" like the old Victorian pile, rather the "cool and frissons."

John Kiernan, director of planning, property and development for the City of Winnipeg, nominated it for heritage designation in 2014. The ensuing report noted: "The city hall complex is an integral part of the group of 1960s modern architecture structures in the area that include the (Centennial) Concert Hall, planetarium and Manitoba Museum across Main Street and the Public Safety Building and parkade across King Street."

City hall received municipal heritage designation last year (and the St. Vital Library from the same period the year before) but the Public Safety Building has not been treated with the same fairness. To date, no one has nominated it, even though the recent Deloitte report that recommends demolition quoted a favourable informal evaluation of its architectural and heritage value and said: "In general, demolition is not a sustainable approach to deal with heritage buildings."

So why are we treating the PSB so carelessly when there is a process through the city’s historical buildings and resources committee of experts for completing a full heritage evaluation? Have city councillors taken a guided tour with the architect?

Canadian poet, columnist, editor and non-fiction writer Mark Abley’s first book was a literary travelogue published in 1986, Beyond Forget: Rediscovering the Prairies. (Forget — pronounced "for-jay" — refers to the village in Saskatchewan.) Born in England in 1955, Abley moved with his family to the Prairies as a child but left to study at Oxford and travel. He settled in Montreal in his late twenties before deciding to rediscover, "A region, a pattern of culture that I had rejected with such ignorance and ease." He hired a car, toured throughout the three Prairie provinces, and wrote an insightful book about his travels.

Abley wrote: "I liked the oddness of Winnipeg, its paradoxes, its nonchalant complexity. I admired the extravagance of its history and the abundance of its rivers... Architecturally, politically, emotionally, the city is a jumble. But the jumble has life and style."

In Calgary, he found: "Rather than attempting to blend the old with the new the city has gone all-out for novelty... Because of the city’s faith in unrestricted enterprise, its developers have enjoyed a clear hand to destroy historic buildings and open spaces. Sometimes, a development has been mere vandalism."

Edmonton didn’t fare much better, and Abley especially disliked West Edmonton Mall: "By rights, Edmonton is too small a city to support so grand a folly. When the Earl of Southesk passed this way in 1859 it consisted of little more than a fort by the North Saskatchewan River. The fort no longer exists, nor do the city’s other historic buildings."

Since then, Calgary and Edmonton have worked to conserve what little is left of their historic buildings. Delegates to the National Trust for Canada conference in Calgary in October had several walking and building tours to choose from, including two examples of brutalist architecture (e.g. the PSB): the Century Gardens and the very cool former Centennial Planetarium (the latter now home to a consortium of arts organizations).

The layers of Winnipeg’s relatively short history can be seen through its historic buildings partly because it hasn’t grown as fast as other cities and partly because it has, so far, valued its historic buildings.

Heritage Winnipeg, the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation, and others have advocated for the Public Safety Building — but it needs Kiernan or a city councillor to nominate it to allow the historical buildings committee to complete an evaluation.

Elizabeth Fleming is a freelance writer based in Winnipeg.

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