Century-old tunnel repair milestone for legislative building future
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Workers are digging up dirt at the Manitoba Legislative Building — literally.
On the surface, for months, the east side of the lawn facing Broadway has been fenced off, with heavy equipment working away.
Below the surface, a massive effort is ongoing to upgrade some of Manitoba’s oldest subterranean infrastructure — a more-than-100-year-old tunnel — to extend its life for another 100 years.
The two-metres high by 2.5-m wide service tunnel provides utilities (such as steam heat, power and IT connections) to the legislative building that officially opened July 15, 1920.
The power house across the street is the central heating and cooling plant that generates and distributes utilities to a number of nearby government buildings.
Passersby on Memorial Boulevard in recent weeks may have noticed huge, loud blasts of steam shooting from an exhaust pipe at the power house, where one of the older boilers was being replaced, a government spokesperson said. As part of the commissioning process, the boiler was fired to full load with excess steam vented outside, creating a visible plume and significant noise.
After more than a century of use, ceiling leaks had sprung in the tunnel. Work began in 2020 to add a concrete jacket to its exterior, along with a waterproofing membrane and enhanced drainage along its entire length, the project request for proposal stated. It’s expected to be completed in November.
The service tunnel was built in two phases from 1915 to 1916. A 1918 Department of Public Works annual report praised the power house, which served nearby University of Manitoba buildings downtown, the provincial jail, law courts building, land titles office and “new parliament building.”
“Anyone who has not inspected this installation and seen it in operation cannot appreciate the magnitude of it,” the report boasted. “The power house and tunnels are kept in excellent order and bear silent testimony to the efficiency of the chief operating engineer and his staff.”
Restoration of the tunnels 104 years later is the kind of work that seldom receives the credit it deserves, said Heritage Winnipeg executive director Cindy Tugwell.
“The maintenance of the building, the roof, the structural integrity of the building — any kind of work that they have to do that the average person doesn’t see is probably the most critical work they’ll do,” said Tugwell.
“It’s important for people to know that because, aesthetically, a building still looks great on the outside, it could be falling apart inside,” she said, giving the example of Exchange District building 92 Arthur St. the city ordered May 12 to be vacated until a crushed beam that supported its sixth storey could be repaired.
Preservation and maintenance work is ongoing and necessary with treasured old buildings, she said. “Structurally, they can be sustaining major water damage and then have to be vacated, and the last thing we want is a vacant building.”
Three years ago, the Progressive Conservative government (with all-party support) passed Bill 21 (Legislative Building Centennial Restoration and Preservation Act) that set out a process to guide and fund the restoration, preservation and maintenance of the building and its associated infrastructure.
An advisory committee was set up to come up with the plans, with $10 million a year set aside for 15 years to do the work.
“We could go back decades and decades past, through many governments, and nobody has really wanted to put the money forward to keep the building up-to-date — to the point where parts of the building have been falling off,” said house Speaker Myrna Driedger, who co-chairs the committee.
“Metal parts of the building have been falling off. We’ve got chunks of limestone that have fallen off. Luckily, nobody has been injured to date but there’s been deterioration going on for a long time,” she said Wednesday.
“We’ve had government after government that has kicked the can down the road to now,” and the tunnel restoration is just one part of overdue maintenance, she said.
“There are hundreds of millions in dollars that are needed to keep it up to date but nobody was willing to take the risk… when the Opposition party is going to say ‘Well, no, you should put it in education, you should put it in health care.’”
The legislation makes sure repairs and upkeep happen.
In addition to the tunnel repair, the entire eastern side of the building has been fenced off for restoration of its original exterior and stone and metal work. The project includes upgrades to waterproofing the foundation and exterior stairs, and restoration to the courtyard retaining walls and entrance ramp.
The entire building will eventually be getting a similar face-lift over the coming years, with facade restoration expected to be completed in 2031.
“By putting this legislation forward, we got through a hurdle,” said Driedger. “It was passed by all parties and everybody agreed that it was a really good idea… and so we’ve had full support in moving forward.”
With democracies around the world on shaky ground and under attack, there’s something comforting about that bipartisan effort — and the stature and purpose of the building they agree is worth saving, the Tory MLA for Charleswood said.
“Right now, our democracy feels so fragile and there’s just something reassuring in knowing that that building’s been there a long time, it’s going to be there another hundred years or whatever. And it stands for something so much bigger than us and some things that are so important.”
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.