Fresh face Renovations to Fort Garry Hotel’s lounge find the venerable room looking chic and feeling structurally sound

When the Palm Lounge at the Fort Garry Hotel closed to the public last October, some fans of the stately, iconic lounge worried what might become of the space.

Read this article for free:

or

Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe with this special offer:

All-Access Digital Subscription

$1.50 for 150 days*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles
Continue

*Pay $1.50 for the first 22 weeks of your subscription. After 22 weeks, price increases to the regular rate of $19.00 per month. GST will be added to each payment. Subscription can be cancelled after the first 22 weeks.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/12/2021 (366 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When the Palm Lounge at the Fort Garry Hotel closed to the public last October, some fans of the stately, iconic lounge worried what might become of the space.

Upping the ‘ooh-la-la’

A new roof and paint job in the Oval Room aren’t the only things the Fort Garry Hotel has refreshed — it has also revamped the food and beverage options in the brasserie and throughout the hotel.

Starting this summer at the Sunset Terrace, the Fort Garry’s new patio, Montreal-born chef de cuisine Mathieu Bellemare and local sommelier Christopher Sprague worked together to reimagine the menu, with an emphasis on French fare and wines from (or inspired by) French producers.

Bellemare, 38, has been with the Fort Garry Hotel since he arrived in Winnipeg 10 years ago; the Sunset Terrace, and now the Oval Room, has seen him take the culinary lead for the first time.

A new roof and paint job in the Oval Room aren’t the only things the Fort Garry Hotel has refreshed — it has also revamped the food and beverage options in the brasserie and throughout the hotel.

Starting this summer at the Sunset Terrace, the Fort Garry’s new patio, Montreal-born chef de cuisine Mathieu Bellemare and local sommelier Christopher Sprague worked together to reimagine the menu, with an emphasis on French fare and wines from (or inspired by) French producers.

Bellemare, 38, has been with the Fort Garry Hotel since he arrived in Winnipeg 10 years ago; the Sunset Terrace, and now the Oval Room, has seen him take the culinary lead for the first time.

“We work all together as a team — with Christopher, with the chefs downstairs… we thought, ‘What should we do? What can be a little different from what other people are doing?’ We decided to go more with a brasserie style, a French influence.”

Fort Garry owner Ida Albo elaborates on Bellemare’s thinking. “We wanted something that was Canadiana. But we have partners from Quebec, we’re a chateau hotel, and there really isn’t a brasserie in Winnipeg. The idea of going French in here just seemed to dovetail with the kind of menu items we were looking at. We started with the Sunset Terrace…it’ll continue to evolve.”

The terrace proved to be an ideal setting for trying out dishes. “It was a really good testing ground to see what the public really wanted,” Sprague says. “We found those items — the mussels, classic French dishes — really took off out there. So we knew that this was the right way to go.”

The menu at the Oval Room will evolve seasonally, with offerings throughout colder months meant to provide heartier options than were available on the patio. “Adding dishes like the meatloaf, a turkey sandwich for winter — I wouldn’t serve that in the summer,” says Bellemare. “And dishes like the salmon, we make it heartier.”

Sprague, 46, joined the Fort Garry Hotel after nearly 20 years as the sommelier at 529 Wellington, whose wine program garnered a number of national and international awards.

“Christopher is a pro — he makes you as excited to drink a $30 bottle of wine, a good value wine, as you would be if you were drinking a $250 bottle of wine,” Albo says. “He gets really excited to get those value finds and to be able to put them on the menu and tell people about them.”

For Sprague, the hotel offers a very different type of challenge. “A singular restaurant with a good wine program operates differently than a hotel. Now we have the ability to build a different kind of wine cellar. This is the first of many projects, especially when we look at the Oval Room, the patio, our next restaurant… I have to build a more central wine cellar to accommodate more different types of cuisine.”

He’s also working on bringing in unique, seasonal spirits and has curated an all-local beer lineup, including an exlusive beer from Good Neighbour Brewing Co. that includes honey sourced from hives on the hotel’s roof.

The next big culinary project at the hotel is a white tablecloth Italian eatery located in what is now the Broadway Room. Albo has enlisted a Michelin-starred chef to consult on the menu, while Sprague will spearhead the Italian wine offerings.

“There are a lot of Italian connections in Winnipeg,” he says. “There’s a large Italian community here with deep roots — especially in the wine world.”

The eatery is slated to open in spring 2022.

Bellemare is excited about the culinary future of the hotel. “Every day it’s something new for us — new project, new commitment… Right now we are in Phase 1. Everything’s been upgraded — it feels like a different restaurant, a different place.”

— Ben Sigurdson

They needn’t have worried. The room is as eye-catching as ever — and is in better structural shape than it has been in decades.

In January 2019, a burst sprinkler caused water to soak the ceiling of what has now been renamed the Oval Room Brasserie.

“The water had rained down on the room,” says Ida Albo, the Fort Garry Hotel’s owner and managing partner, while sitting at the Oval Room’s newly restored bar. “We started seeing parts of the paint coming off.”

Giving the Oval Room a facelift wasn’t a new idea. “About 10 years ago, we had engaged an architectural historian to give us a concept for the room,” explains Albo. “So we had that concept; we were going back to what the room looked like when the hotel opened in 1913.”

Albo tracked down an old photograph of the room from its early days, and her sister Belinda, an interior designer in Toronto, began working on plans for the room’s décor.

“We had all the approvals, we had the carpet, we had the fabric, but we never went ahead — other priorities came up, and we just never had to do it.”

Given the water damage to the ceiling and portions of the walls, however, far more than just cosmetic touch-ups were required.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Oval Room chef de cuisine Mathieu Bellemare has reinvented the hotel lounge’s menu in a French brasserie style.

Enter Vic Hart of Lakewood Interiors and Renovations, who does both residential and commercial renovations, as well as historic restorations. For a project of this scale, the 49-year-old Hart knew he had to call in the big guns— Gord, his 80-year-old father.

Gord Hart got his start in plaster and moulds in the late 1950s, and is one of a handful of highly skilled and experienced hands still working who can tackle complex renovations and restoration of plaster using rubber moulds. He’s done all manner of historic fixes, including in areas of Winnipeg’s Marlborough Hotel, the Law Courts building and the schoolhouse at the Batoche National Historic Site in Saskatchewan, where Louis Riel was captured during the Northwest Resistance of 1885.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Hotel owner Ida Albo

Vic got his start in the business working for his father at Hart & Son Plastering before eventually starting Lakewood Interiors. Together, the pair have worked on a number of heritage projects, including the seventh floor of the Fort Garry Hotel (after the departure of the Crystal Casino) and the rotunda of the Manitoba Legislative Building, which they tackled last year while working on the Oval Room.

“We did the rotunda. It wasn’t as intricate, but we did have to do some plaster repairs,” says Vic.

Once the Oval Room’s ceiling had dried from the sprinkler mishap, the Harts got up on scaffolding to take a closer look and assess the damage.

“It didn’t look too bad from the ground,” says Gord. “But when you got up there and started doing exploratory surgery, we started seeing it was a very extensive repair job.”

An engineering company was called in to drill holes in the plaster to test its durability in a number of spots. And while some portions were still in decent shape, others were crumbling.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Sommelier Christopher Sprague has created wine list that’s heavy on French offerings.

”In one area, I was digging, and I saw the ceiling move,” says Gord. “So I called Vic’s son Ben and I said ‘Get over here.’ Ben came over and held it — I didn’t know what was going to happen, and I was underneath it.

”I said, ‘OK, Ben, just let go and jump out of the way.’ And as we did I bet you 300 pounds of plaster fell straight down.”

The repair process involved making plywood jigs roughly in the shape of the damaged parts of the ceiling. They’re then flipped upside down and a rubber mould based on a similar but undamaged portion of the ceiling is created. Plaster is poured into the mould; once it sets, everything’s carefully flipped over so the plaster can be raised and attached to the ceiling.

Some of the more eye-catching components of the ceiling, including portions of the detailed floral pattern, needed extensive work. “About 12 feet of that came straight down,” says Gord.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Gord (left) and Vic Hart, restored the ceiling in the Oval Room Brasserie, formerly the Palm Room.

Replacing those sections, as well as some of the cherubs that were beyond repair, required intricate, painstaking attention. “We actually replaced four or five of those cherubs completely,” says Vic.

One of the most important components to restoring a historic space like the Oval Room isn’t getting the work pristine so much as it is about getting the work to mirror the original.

“When we try to replicate something, we don’t make it perfect, because that’s going to stand out,” Vic says. “We try to make it imperfect.”

Gord adds, “If (the) existing (structure) has a few little discrepancies in it, you have to put them in… otherwise it looks like it doesn’t match.”

SUPPLIED Restoration of the Oval Room Brasserie in progress; the plaster ceiling required extensive, intricate work.

Once the plaster work was done, the room was painted in its new colour, a metallic champagne taupe that looks remarkably different in daylight than it does in the evening. Once the paint was applied, the Harts made minor tweaks before the final coat was applied.

The result is a ceiling which is both eye-catching and structurally fit.

“We had an engineer come in and give us the OK,” says Gord. “I would open up pieces, they would come in and check it, take pictures, and then we’d close it up.”

Adds Vic, “I think a big part of the structural value of the ceiling is the way it’s designed. It kind of holds itself together.”

SUPPLIEDGiven the water damage to the ceiling and portions of the walls, however, far more than just cosmetic touch-ups were required.

In addition to repairs on the ceiling, the Harts took up the task of removing the wood and brass from the bar top and repairing the wall behind it.

“We had to rebuild a lot that was missing, which got destroyed when they were building the original bar,” says Vic. He points to a section of the wall near the bar and adds “You’d never know, but that corner down there is all plaster. It’s not marble, but it’s been painted to look like marble.”

On Oct. 20 of this year — almost a year to the day after restration began — the Oval Room and Brasserie reopened to the public. The piano has been moved to the lobby near the entrance, and daily live music has returned. Existing chairs were recovered, parts of existing tables repurposed and an eye-catching arrangement of flora and chairs now stands above leafy, retro-inspired new carpet in the centre of the room.

“It needed a centrepiece,” says Albo. “It was almost an afterthought. It really gives the room a focal point.”

Albo is relieved to have the Oval Room back open and business picking up again after a tough pandemic — while insurance covered some of the restoration, she says the cost of the Oval Room’s new look is “not for the faint-hearted.” Nonetheless, reaction from new and returning guests, she says, has been overwhelming.

Vic Hart, meanwhile, continues more modest fixes throughout the hotel, including work on some of the guest rooms, while the lobby’s front desk is also in the process of getting a refresh.

But for the extensive work done on the Oval Room, Hart is thankful to have been able to bring his dad in to help with the fine details.

“There’s not a lot of high-profile jobs like this around… this is very intricate. He knows how to put things together. He’s a MacGyver — he knows the plaster like the back of his hand.”

ben.sigurdson@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @bensigurdson

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The room’s stunning ceiling had to be extensively restored after a leak damaged the plaster.
SUPPLIED Vic, left, and Gord Hart, of Lakewood Interiors during restoration of the Oval Room Brasserie at the Fort Garry Hotel.
MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The Oval Room Brasserie at the Fort Garry Hotel
MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Chairs were recoved to give the Oval Room Brasserie a new look.
Ben Sigurdson

Ben Sigurdson
Literary editor, drinks writer

Ben Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.

Report Error Submit a Tip