The common thread Main Street Project expansion in former Mitchell Fabrics store will improve, increase vital social-fabric restoration work

The outstretched mannequin’s hand lies on an upstairs table in the dimly lit hollow of the once-bustling Mitchell Fabrics store. Its lifelike presence startles me.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/04/2019 (1439 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The outstretched mannequin’s hand lies on an upstairs table in the dimly lit hollow of the once-bustling Mitchell Fabrics store. Its lifelike presence startles me.

The delicate hand with the painted nails speaks of better days, when the mannequin stood proudly on display in a prominent corner of the Main Street institution modelling the latest fashions. But over time it became displaced; only the arm and hand remain now.

Resting on the table, the mannequin’s fingers reach towards the warmth of the light streaming in through the storefront windows. In the stillness, it seems to gesture, “I’m ready for change.”

Fabrics hold a special weight in our lives.

From the day we are born — swaddled in a cosy blanket — until we take our last breath, fabrics are woven into our lives as close as our skin. So it comes as no surprise the significance of a fabric store that once sold the raw materials for potential dreams is now being turned into a place where people can transform their lives.

In less than a year, Main Street Project, which offers refuge for people struggling with mental-health problems, addictions and homelessness, will revolutionize the way it operates. With the addition of the 36,000-square-foot former Mitchell Fabrics space, clients will no longer sleep on mats tightly sandwiched together on the floor of the social agency’s existing 2,100-square-foot building just down the street.

Instead, the shelter will feature a newly constructed health and wellness facility with specialized services tailor-made to fit the client, much like a fine bespoke suit. For Winnipeg’s most vulnerable citizens, it won’t just be a shelter, but a place of healing. Main Street Project is the only shelter in the city that doesn’t bar entry to people under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Founded in 1946 by Mendel Mitchell, the Winnipeg landmark at the corner of Logan Avenue and Main Street opened its doors to thousands of customers over the years and had woven itself into the community like the fabric it sold.

After a 70-year-run, the store closed its doors in 2017 and now the building was on the cusp of change. Main Street Project purchased the building in September 2018. Earlier this year, I visited the former store, having been given the opportunity to photograph the space before the massive renovation began.

When I arrived, the building was virtually empty. Rows of wooden shelves that once busted at the seams with fabric were bare, covered only in a layer of dust.

As I scanned the expansive space searching for anything that showcased the thriving business it once was, I found a few notable items, including thread. Industrialized spools of thread were clustered together on a table left behind in the basement. The colours had faded but their strands were strong.

On the main level, hidden beneath a long wooden shelf, was a large bolt of thick olive-green brocade fabric possibly from the 1960s, which may been used to fashion curtains to block light from a room.

Two heavy metal filing cabinets on the second floor probably hadn’t been removed due to their sheer weight. The cabinets were once packed full of McCall patterns all neatly folded into their packages with enticing illustrated pictures on the cover beckoning to be opened. The patterns were long gone and the drawers only echoed the sound of squeaky metal.

Workers had already started tearing down walls in the basement, exposing the foundation and its roots. A musty smell permeated the space, hinting of more history in the place.

The once five-storey building covering a city block was built in 1906-07 and owned by Mr. and Mrs. Fraser. It was then known as the Bon Accord building. It was designed by prolific Winnipeg architect John D. Atchison and featured a mix of residential and office space.

Most notably, the building had served a purpose much like what it soon will become. There had long been a presence of a mission of some sort since the building’s infancy. Mrs. Fraser, while raising her own 10 children, was devoted to missions working with the poor. The original mission provided meals and a place of rest to young men and others in distress, according to a 1907 Manitoba Free Press article.

When Main Street Project opens its doors, the building will have come full circle, offering a new legacy of hope for Winnipeg’s most needy.

There were many items I found that day but none so mesmerizing as the mannequin’s hand. I don’t know where it once stood or how it was left behind, but its posture seemed to reach across a chasm from the past and point to a future loaded with potential dreams.

Ruth Bonneville

Ruth Bonneville

As the first female photographer hired by the Winnipeg Free Press, Ruth has been an inspiration and a mentor to other women in the male-dominated field of photojournalism for over two decades.

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