Building on the past

Small communities rising to the challenge of saving historically significant structures


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Summertime is when many Manitobans take to the highways on vacation or to visit loved ones. If you go off the beaten track into some of our smaller communities, you can still find a rich, though dwindling, collection of buildings that make up our province’s built history.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/08/2017 (1998 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Summertime is when many Manitobans take to the highways on vacation or to visit loved ones. If you go off the beaten track into some of our smaller communities, you can still find a rich, though dwindling, collection of buildings that make up our province’s built history.

Maintaining and renovating these structures would be difficult in any setting, but in a community with small — in some cases, shrinking — tax base and limited pool of volunteers, the challenge is all the greater. Thankfully, small, but dedicated, groups of people in many communities have taken on the often decades-long commitment to preserve and restore some of these structures for future generations.

Three buildings that are in different stages of renovation are the Rivers Train Station, Rapid City Consolidated School and the Ninette Sanatorium. If you find yourself near one of these communities, be sure to stop in and check them out.


Rivers Train Station

University of Manitoba, College of Medicine Archives The Ninette Sanatorium once consisted of more than a dozen buildings on 160 acres of land overlooking Pelican Lake. Today, there are just six buildings left.

Built: 1917
Architect: Grand Trunk Pacific Railway

Rivers, located 250 kilometres west of Winnipeg, was once one of the province’s most important railway hubs.

In 1907, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTP) chose the town to be a divisional point on its trek west to the Pacific coast. This meant a huge investment in the community in the form of a roundhouse, (a semi-circular building used to service locomotives), repair sheds, a coal storage yard, and bunk houses for some of the 300 or so men employed at the facilities.

This two-storey station was built in the summer of 1917 to replace the original circa 1909 station, which was razed by fire.

Christian Cassidy The Rivers Train Station is the only passenger stop between Portage la Prairie and Melville, Sask., and Dauphin and the U.S. border.

The GTP was absorbed by the CNR in 1920, but the town continued to be an important railway hub for decades to come. The station was likely at its busiest during the Second World War, shuttling personnel and equipment to and from Canadian Forces Base Rivers.

The CNR began to reorganize its facilities in the 1950s and, soon after, most of the town’s railway buildings were demolished or sold off. Today, the train station is the only significant structure remaining from Rivers’ storied railway past.

In 1989, the station, which by then was owned by VIA Rail, was closed. The company was asked to hold off on any demolition plans until the town could decide whether or not they wanted it to have a role in Rivers’ future. The company agreed, and in 1992 the building was designated a municipal heritage site and received federal recognition under the Heritage Railway Stations Protection Act.

In 2006, a formal Rivers Train Station Restoration Project Committee was created to bring the building back to life.

Christian Cassidy The Rivers Train Station's roof was replaced in 2016 at a cost of around $70,000.

Donna Morken is the chairwoman of the committee and has been involved with saving the station for nearly 20 years. She is driven by the fact that, “Prairie railway stations were the heart of the community, they were the beginning of many communities as the railway pushed west and united the country from sea to sea, adding, “Prairie railway stations are not unlike the grain elevators, if we do not restore them they will be gone forever.”

In 2014, the restoration committee signed a 40-year lease agreement with VIA Rail for the station, which means all its fundraising efforts go toward the renovation itself, not a mortgage payment. In 2016, the largest project to date was undertaken with the replacement of the roof, at a cost of about $70,000.

Morken notes the station is not just an important part of the town’s past, but also of its future. Plans for the renovated space — the completion date is still unknown — include a tourism office, a museum, offices of the Rivers and Area Community Foundation, and an arts and culture space.

There will also be a VIA Rail waiting room as, starting in 2008, Rivers became the only on-off passenger point between Portage la Prairie and Melville, Sask., and between Dauphin and the U.S. border.


Ninette Sanatorium

Christian Cassidy When completed, the Rivers Train Station will house offices, a museum, an arts and culture space and a VIA Rail waiting room.

Built: 1909-10
Architect: Walter Shillinglaw

Nestled in a wooded area on the shores of Pelican Lake at Ninette, 215 km southwest of Winnipeg, this old sanatorium looks more like a resort than a former medical facility.

The Ninette Sanatorium for Consumptives was constructed in 1909-10 by the Manitoba Sanatorium Board to serve as the province’s largest tuberculosis sanatorium. The first three structures consisted of the main administration building, which included sleeping quarters for staff, and two treatment pavilions with a capacity of about 50 patients.

The idyllic site, which once comprised 160 acres, was seen as key to its success as a healing facility. At the time, the only known treatment for the disease was constant rest, fresh air and wholesome food.

Christian Cassidy The former Ninette Sanatorium's main administration building as it looks today.

The facility was in a constant state of expansion. In 1912, three buildings, including an infirmary, to treat more advanced cases of the disease, were added, doubling its capacity. It doubled again near the end of the First World War when the federal government had two pavilions built for the use of soldiers afflicted by the disease.

By the late 1940s, there were six sanatoriums of various sizes around the province. Ninette was by far the largest with a capacity of around 350 patients.

As better treatments, including drug therapies, were discovered in the 1950s, the need for sanatorium stays decreased. By the early 1970s, the Ninette facility was home to a few dozen elderly, former tuberculosis patients who did not require further treatment but had nowhere else to go.

In 1972, the sanatorium board sold the site to the province. It then became home to 150 residents of the very overcrowded Manitoba School for Retardates at Portage la Prairie, a live-in centre for adults with learning disabilities. The Ninette facility was renamed the Pelican Lake Training Centre.

In 2000, the training centre closed and the site remained mostly vacant until Saskatchewan businesswoman Ronnie Aschenbrenner happened across it in 2008.

Christian Cassidy The remaining sanatorium buildings are in various states of disrepair.

The owner of a hotel in Arcola, Sask., Aschenbrenner, was looking for new business opportunities when someone told her about the former sanatorium, part of which was being sold off by its private land owner.

When she saw it, Aschenbrenner said it was love at first sight and knew exactly what she wanted to do with it. “I bought it with the hope to make a writers’ and artists’ retreat. Someplace to spend a beautiful retirement with positive people. I mean, look at the atmosphere, it’s beautiful.”

She purchased four of the six remaining buildings on seven acres of land. The buildings include the main administration building, two patient pavilions and the nurses’ residence.

At first, Aschenbrenner, who had no previous construction or development experience, was determined to “just make it work” and set off on a five-year renovation plan. Soon after, though, she experienced a personal financial setback and the plan came off the rails. She now admits she took on much more than she could handle.

Aschenbrenner has been reaching out to different parties in the hope of creating a partnership to find new uses for the buildings. In the meantime, she has teamed up with the Saskatchewan and Maritime Paranormal Society to offer tours of the facility during the day and then a chance to watch their ghost-hunting techniques at night.

The tours raise only a small amount of money, but for Aschenbrenner they are more about raising awareness of the existence of the facility. The last tour in August 2017 attracted more than 300 visitors.


Rapid City Consolidated School

Christian Cassidy Extensive renovations are necessary in many of the buildings that remain at the old Ninette Sanatorium.

Built: 1902
Architect: William Alexander Elliott

The imposing façade of the Rapid City Consolidated School would not look out of place in a large urban setting.

The school was built in 1902 to replace a woefully outgrown 20-year-old structure and was seen as not just an attractive new building for the town, but a sign of hope for area children.

At its grand opening, Mr. S. L. Head of the school board expressed hope parents in the region would make use of the school, (this was long before school attendance was compulsory and parents had to pay a fee of a couple of dollars to enroll their children), to give them a better future. He said in his speech: “It will give the boys and girls a fair start in the race for life, start them out with a good education, something they cannot lose, and if they have ambition they will come out on top.”

Christian Cassidy The Rapid City Consolidated school has served as a school, a museum and a library since it was built in 1902.

The most famous person associated with the school is undoubtedly author Frederick Grove.

Trained as an educator, he worked at a number of rural Manitoba schools, including as principal of Rapid City’s, from 1922 to 1924. During his time here, two of his books, Over Prairie Trails and The Turn of The Year, were published.

By 1960, enrolment in area schools had dropped to the point some feared losing their provincial funding. The following year, a number of schools and school divisions amalgamated at Rapid City, located 40 km northwest of Brandon, and the school added ‘consolidated’ to its name.

A new school was constructed in the town in 1966, but the old building continued to serve the community for decades.

In 1973, it became home to the Rapid City Museum and was joined the following year by a regional library which occupied the second floor for more than a decade.

The building’s condition deteriorated through the 2000s and the museum closed around 2007. This forced the municipality to decide what it wanted to do with the building.

‘It’s very exciting to be around a group of people as passionate as you are’– Duncan Martin, chairman, builing committee, Rapid City Museum Board

At a town hall meeting, it was decided the building should be renovated into a mixed-use facility comprising of rental suites, daycare space and a revived museum.

The Rapid City Museum Board was tasked with getting an engineering report and plans drawn up for the space and, the toughest part, with fundraising and co-ordinating the renovations.

Duncan Martin, an area farmer and chairman of the board’s building committee, said the past year has been its busiest yet. A call out to the community added new board members, the building’s roof was reshingled and the basement level was gutted. Later this summer, the exterior brickwork will be repointed.

The small amounts of funds that can be raised in a community of fewer than 500 people and a lack of available grants means the Rapid City Consolidated School will not be restored to its former glory quickly, something Martin is aware of. “Honestly, I’m projecting that it will be ten, fifteen, twenty years, before we get it the way we want it.”

He says the committee, though, will keep chipping away one small job at a time.

Martin admits at times the scale of the work required can seem daunting, but that is offset by the fact the project has become a fun, community-building exercise. He says of the committee: “It’s very exciting to be around a group of people as passionate as you are.”

That interest extends beyond the committee table, says Martin. Something he especially notices at fundraising events: “The turnout at our last movie night, you saw 100 people there. That’s a quarter of the population of our small town. Many (are) people you’ve never seen before.”

Christian Cassidy writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.

Christian Cassidy The facade of the Rapid City Consolidated school.
Christian Cassidy

Christian Cassidy
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