The Vaughan Street Jail, Winnipeg's oldest public building, once held children as young as five -- a thief was a thief in the 1880s -- along with drunks, vagrants and murderers.
Open the doors and you experience Winnipeg's metamorphosis from frontier prairie town to Western Canada's hub of trade, commerce and immigration. Incredibly, this cultural gem, built in 1881, is shut to the public, deemed unsafe for even the occasional tour, an insult to heritage conservation.
"It's almost empty, and it's falling apart," says Cindy Tugwell of Heritage Winnipeg. "What long-term plans do they have?"
"They" is the provincial government. The answer: none.
So along with the nameless, faceless street urchins, the notorious and famous who temporarily called it home, the jail slides into obscurity.
Among its ghosts is Earle "the Strangler" Nelson, a serial rapist and murderer and the last man hanged at 444 York Ave. from a gallows that stood in what today is a makeshift parking lot. Executed Friday Jan. 13, 1928, the American fugitive killed 14-year-old Lola Cowan, who was selling paper flowers to help feed her family, and also pregnant Elmwood mother Emily Patterson. He raped his victims after they were dead and stuffed their bodies under beds.
The jail held the rabble-rousers of the Winnipeg General Strike. John Queen was elected as an MLA while behind bars for sedition. He later became mayor of Winnipeg. Helen "Ma" Armstrong, a women's union leader who organized a blockade of the Eaton's store, was held for four days on charges of inciting violence.
The last public building of its age still standing in Winnipeg, and perhaps in Manitoba, the jail was removed from Heritage Winnipeg's Doors Open tours four years ago.
With cables bracing some walls, holes pocking an upper floor where pipes once ran and second-storey windows boarded up, it's a symbol of how an undisputed heritage gem can fall into disrepair and ultimately disappear.
While espousing its place in the history of the province, the government has not designated it as a heritage building under its own Heritage Resources Act, which prohibits demolition, neither has the city.
Kristen Verin-Treusch is credited with digging up details on the former jail's past: A turn-of-the-century judge who advocated for and presided over Canada's first juvenile court; a hangman who fell into disrepute in Canada after decapitating the condemned; a legal stenographer who nurtured and nursed sick and dying women and children in the cells.
Verin-Treusch believes Big Bear and Poundmaker -- two legendary aboriginal leaders of the North-West Rebellion in Saskatchewan -- were held at 444 York after trial in Regina in 1885 and before being taken to Stony Mountain Penitentiary.
Buildings that are valued are kept in good condition. Left to the ravages of the elements, though, they are vulnerable to the drum beat of redevelopment. And renovations that don't respect heritage undermine the case for preservation.
Winnipeg's wounds from this battle to prevent demolition by neglect are still raw. The Shanghai building on King Street, which served as city hall when the now long-gone "gingerbread" city hall was under construction, was just the latest battle between conservationists and developers.
City hall accepted the Chinatown Development Corp.'s undocumented claims that the Shanghai was falling apart, and not feasible to restore or reuse. History redux: The gingerbread city hall itself came down because politicians made specious claims that it was structurally unsound. The Eaton's building, too, was described as fragile, yet no report was made public. The privately owned Ryan Block, its exterior dismantled and rebuilt at great public expense, was turned into a parking garage after years of neglect.
Advocates will argue that it is the job of governments to get tough with private owners. Courts, however, have upheld private-property rights in such disputes, and no government will designate a building without the consent of owners.
What's needed is respect for both camps. Successful preservation strategies depend on a willing partnership created through education and incentives, not coercion and threats.
"Property owners have rights and a number of people don't believe that," says heritage planner Giles Bugailiskis. "These folks don't understand the difficulty of private owners to keep up and pay taxes on a property."
Preservationists use Dennistoun House in Osborne Village to illustrate the fragility of heritage protection -- it all depends on political will. The building was sound, on the city's conservation list and stood in a beloved old neighbourhood recognized by a secondary planning document as deserving special attention during development. The owners wanted it gone to build condos. City council agreed and when it went to court, the judge said the city was within its rights to delist it.
Conservationists themselves often disagree on where to draw the line. Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, a member of the city's historical buildings committee, is still angry that the Grain Exchange Annex was torn down to make way for a parkade.
Randy Rostecki, a historical consultant who wrote a big chunk of the heritage inventory list in the 1970s, says you can't win them all. You have to pick your battles and give a little. The owners of the Grain Exchange building needed the parkade to keep the main building financially feasible.
Some see a middle ground.
Heritage Winnipeg's Cindy Tugwell says the city's historical buildings bylaw should require owners of heritage buildings to keep a maintenance fund to stop demolition by neglect.
That is being considered as officials rewrite the bylaw.
But there are equally glaring weaknesses in the city's process for reviewing and protecting its heritage.
When a building's owner seeks to demolish a structure listed as having potential or confirmed heritage value, city council takes the owner's word that a building can't be saved or isn't worth saving. Why does the bylaw not demand an independent structural engineer's report on a designated building's physical condition before demolition is permitted?
"That's something that 15 councillors and the mayor have to ask, and there's just no interest," says a well-placed source at city hall.
In the Shanghai controversy, councillors accepted that it was structurally unsafe on the word of the Chinatown Development Corp., which wants to build a seniors residence on the land.
Coun. Jeff Browaty, chairman of the property and development committee, which supported the Shanghai request, said he is sympathetic to the criticism, yet adds: how many hoops should council demand owners jump through?
"Perhaps for buildings of higher heritage ranking, giving them a (greater) level of requirement is not a bad exercise," Browaty however concedes. "It is probably time to look at what controls are in place for our heritage buildings."
Senior heritage planner Giles Bugailiskis argues strongly that Winnipeg's efforts over the years have been vigorous and fruitful. Its grant scheme has paid out tens of millions, levering hundreds of millions in private investment. It is generous, covering renovations or upgrades, returning up to 50 per cent of an owner's investment by cutting the municipal tax bill over 10 years.
"I think Winnipeg's done a great job," he says. "Yes, there have been buildings that get demolished, but that happens everywhere. Winnipeg has not lost a lot."
All heritage is local, they say, but preservation can't fall on the city's shoulders alone. The federal government, although it recognizes historical sites, buildings and people across the land, has no incentive scheme for assisting private property owners to keep up or restore heritage buildings. The provincial government keeps a relatively small list of heritage assets and makes assistance available for non-profit groups, but takes a decidedly passive approach to protection.
The Vaughan Street Jail has lost its front stairs, but Chris Hauch, assistant deputy minister of Infrastructure and Transportation, argues it is not neglected nor falling apart -- the roof was replaced recently. Government trades and work crews occupy a part of the main floor.
Verin-Treusch has greater ambition for the former jail. She saw the potential for turning it into a tourism magnet after she led thousands of people into 444 York's macabre basement before the building was yanked from the Doors Open tours.
Inspired by a visit to Scotland's Inveraray Jail, just a few years older than Vaughan Street, she culled details on inmates from old monthly reports of attorneys general and proposed the idea to Culture, Heritage and Tourism. She didn't get beyond stage one.
"All we needed from them was specs to create a business proposal, information on the heating system, etc.," she says. "They didn't respond."
The interest is deserved, the province says.
"There's no building like 444 York," Hauch says. "It's a very special building because of its age and could potentially be the oldest government building in the province."
But where's evidence of that pride? The department has no plans for it, beyond a staging area for work crews.
It is a public asset, built with public money and now locked to public curiosity, its legacy sorely neglected.
Lip service isn't a demolition order, but it certainly chokes the life from heritage.