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Dalnavert-Candace House partnership sound

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Dalnavert Museum

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Think of it as a slow death by heritage preservation.

Earlier in April, the Manitoba Historical Society voted to partner with Candace House to repurpose Dalnavert Museum in downtown Winnipeg as a resource centre for crime victims. At first blush, it seemed like a perfect fit.

The museum that operated in the home had been closed for months, no longer financially viable. Candace House, a non-profit entity championed by advocate Wilma Derksen, had a well-rounded plan to breathe new life into the home, ensuring it would be preserved well into the future.

Then, the champions of heritage preservation arrived.

A group touting itself as the Friends of Dalnavert this week announced a campaign to save the museum and turn back Candace House from occupying the home, a plan the group believes is a crime against history itself. Most vocal was Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg, who claimed the historical society made no serious attempt to save the museum, calling the plan to partner with Candace House a betrayal.

Tugwell's assertions are more than a bit misleading. The problems at Dalnavert have been well-known for six months, ever since its closing was publicized in the media. If there was a plan to save the museum, it could have been revealed during that time.

Despite their late-to-the-dance strategy, the friends have managed to gain some political support. Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, chairwoman of the city's historical buildings committee, expressed her concern about the plans for Dalnavert House, a property that already has obtained the city's highest heritage designation and thus is protected by law.

By her own admission, Gerbasi knows little about what Candace House is all about. Even so, she doubts the city would approve changes to the building.

As the city's top heritage watchdog, Gerbasi ought to do more homework before dismissing Candace House.

First off, Dalnavert House's interior is not authentic. Built in 1895, it functioned for years as a boarding house before it was restored in the 1970s. It is, a historical society source said, "a 1970s interpretation of what a Victorian home looked like."

Second, although the home was built and occupied by Hugh John Macdonald -- son of prime minister John A. Macdonald -- there are but a handful of artifacts in the museum that actually connect to its founder. (Hugh John Macdonald was a premier and judge in Manitoba.)

Third, it was a failure as an attraction. This is not a criticism of the historical society or the volunteers who preserved this home. Merely an acknowledgement that although it did enjoy some robust years, it can no longer survive as a museum.

Last, for Dalnavert House to continue as a museum, it would have required a significant amount of taxpayer money to underwrite its operation. Money that is not available if current trends in heritage preservation are any indication. This isn't a priority for government at any level, and that's why so many house museums are closing across the country.

Winnipeg is, thanks to an almost complete lack of urban redevelopment in the second half of the 20th century, replete with heritage properties. From Victorian mansions to the Chicago-style warehouses of the Exchange District, we have quite a stockpile of glorious old brick and mortar and timber.

We also have an enormous problem finding ways of breathing life into these splendid properties.

Signature buildings such as the Hudson Bay downtown store sit nearly empty and uncertain, no longer needed as a centre of retail activity, and too big and too expensive to repurpose. Far too many other smaller, less prominent heritage properties remain vacant and underused because there is no demand.

There have been successes such as the Red River College campus on Princess Street and the Winnipeg Adult Education Centre on Vaughan Street.

Both involved profound historic buildings that had either become structurally or financially unsound. Both were saved by creative redevelopment and repurposing.

In 2004, the Winnipeg Adult Education Centre invested heavily in the original 1894 stone structure with a dynamic glass and steel addition designed by assertive Winnipeg architect David Penner.

Red River College performed a similar feat with its award-winning redevelopment of the Princess Street facades into its flagship campus, a vision of architect Doug Corbett.

The beauty of developments such as these is that by saving some of the best parts of the original heritage structures, they become living, breathing, fully functioning entities once again.

In other words, they are historic buildings that have become relevant to the present.

Preserving a nearly 120-year-old home is a worthy goal. However, it does not need to remain a museum to retain its heritage.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2014 B1

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