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Don't rush to demolish heritage

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As the Winnipeg Airports Authority rolls out its communications strategy leading up to the opening of the new airport terminal at the end of October, the dark side of the story is the fate of the 1964 terminal.

Last year, CBC reported the airport terminal would become the new home of the Western Canada Aviation Museum. This was quickly modified to say that no decision had yet been made on what would happen to the old terminal.

Since then the airport authority has said only that it wants to demolish the building.

So what happened? The Free Press reported in November 2006 that Barry Rempel for the airport and Shirley Render, the museum's executive director (and an airport board member) were working with Arni Thorsteinson of Shelter Corporation on a proposal to use the airport terminal. All parties were aware of the building's condition audit.

In March 2007, Treasury Board President Vic Toews announced $90,000 in funding for the museum "to examine the viability of an enhanced facility as part of an upgraded Winnipeg International Airport."

The feasibility study, Aviation Adventure, recommended readaptation of the north end of the terminal building plus a new addition to accommodate some of the museum's collection.

The remaining three-quarters of the terminal was for "commercial development." Three months later, the airport quietly dropped the proposal, telling Thorsteinson it would not meet its needs.

In September 2007, the airport's landlord, Transport Canada, followed Treasury Board policy by asking the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office to carry out a heritage character evaluation of the Winnipeg terminal.

Architectural historian Andrew Waldron produced a thorough report on its historical and architectural value. But before the evaluation could be completed, Treasury Board halted the process, citing a new interpretation of the ground lease between the airport and Transport Canada. Neither the airport nor the federal government cared to know about the heritage value of the building. The airport board has refused to meet with members of the boards of Heritage Winnipeg and the Manitoba Historical Society. The airport did not answer numerous queries from Culture Days requesting permission to tour the airport building.

Transport Canada went far in the 1950s and 1960s to commission a number of sleek, state-of-the-art airport buildings that would announce Canada to world travellers. The Winnipeg terminal was renovated with sensitivity in the 1980s. Winnipeg's airport is the last, most complete terminal in Canada remaining from this innovative period.

Architecture buffs are unanimous in their admiration for the airport. Herbert Enns, University of Manitoba architecture professor and designer of the book, Winnipeg Modern Architecture 1945-75, identifies three particularly outstanding Manitoba modernist buildings -- the Faculty of Architecture (John A. Russell Building, 1959), the Manitoba Health Services Building (now Blue Cross Building, 1959) and the Winnipeg International Airport.

One of Henry Kalen's eloquent black-and-white photographs of the airport graces the cover of the book. Bernard Flaman's chapter gives further insight into the inspiration and history of the airport. Hal Kalman, author of A History of Canadian Architecture, endorses and reinforces this praise for the airport terminal.

Recently, sensible institutional owners have made major reinvestments in several Winnipeg modernist buildings. The U of M has restored the integrity of the John A. Russell building at a cost of $6 million, bringing it up to modern standards. The result is a beautiful, much loved, fully used building.

Blue Cross put out a request for proposals for a new office building. Out of 20 responses, they chose 599 Empress St., a building they had occupied before Manitoba Health Services and which had been vacant for some time.

They made extensive renovations at a cost of $12 million. Blue Cross has kept the modernist intent of the building while ensuring the building suits its needs.

The Workers' Compensation Board building (the Monarch Life Building at 333 Broadway) is another modernist gem that is undergoing repair and renovation of its outer walls. The black granite facade has been temporarily removed, panels numbered and stored while the building envelope is brought up to modern standards. WCB could have taken a cheaper route but it chose to stay true to the original building.

These three properties have no formal heritage status. They have enthusiastic owners working with local architects and designers who appreciate the utility, flexibility and attractiveness of modernist buildings.

Together, creative teams have found ways of restoring and enhancing them for future generations.

Successful examples of airport re-use include Le Bourget Air and Space Museum in Paris, the Crowne Plaza Liverpool-John Lennon Airport hotel and Silent Wings Museum in Lubbock, Texas.

Times have changed since the airport authority's initial request for expressions of interest. The Canadian Air and Space Museum has just been evicted from its Downsview, Toronto building and may be looking for a new home. How many other potential users would like an opportunity to consider using this landmark?

Heritage Winnipeg, the Manitoba Historical Society and the Heritage Canada Foundation continue to urge Transport Canada and the airport to solicit business proposals to rehabilitate and re-use the Winnipeg airport building. There should be no rush to demolish until a serious and concerted effort is made to explore all possibilities.


Elizabeth Fleming is a Winnipeg

freelance writer and researcher.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2011 A14

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