Richard Morantz and Ron Penner stood in the vestibule of the former Academy Uptown Lanes Wednesday morning, a few feet from where there once were broken-in bowling shoes, gumball machines, and tiny computer screens that announced to the world that little Jimmy rolled a strike on his eighth birthday.

Richard Morantz and Ron Penner stood in the vestibule of the former Academy Uptown Lanes Wednesday morning, a few feet from where there once were broken-in bowling shoes, gumball machines, and tiny computer screens that announced to the world that little Jimmy rolled a strike on his eighth birthday.

"You’re actually standing in the pizza oven," said Morantz, the CEO of Globe Capital Management, which acquired the Academy Road building in 1989. Or rather, where the pizza oven used to be. For this is no bowling alley, not anymore.

Over the past two years, Globe has redeveloped the property into high-end loft rental apartments along with several thousand feet of commercial space, overseeing an $11 million renovation that saw the interior gutted while maintaining the municipally-protected exterior, constructed in 1931 and designed by legendary Winnipeg architect Max Zev Blankstein.

"We built a new building inside a very old one," said Penner, the COO and senior vice-president, putting into simple terms a highly complex process that should set the 90-year-old building up to remain relevant and usable for at least a century, if not significantly longer.

Globe Capital Management's Ron Penner (left) and Richard Morantz. (MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

Globe Capital Management's Ron Penner (left) and Richard Morantz. (MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

The property has lived many lives: it was designed by Blankstein for entrepreneur Jacob Miles of Allied Amusement Ltd., as a 1,600-seat movie theatre, marrying Moorish, Spanish, Islamic, and Greek architectural styles with the burgeoning Art Deco movement to create a mash-up reminiscent of the epic romance of the cinema of the 1930s. Inside, there was the feeling of being in a Moorish village, with a projector lighting the room with twinkling stars, clouds crossing the ceiling, and a bright silver moon, with every light controlled by rheostats, a city report on the building says.

The building married Moorish, Spanish, Islamic and Greek architectural styles with the Art Deco movement of the 1930s. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

The building married Moorish, Spanish, Islamic and Greek architectural styles with the Art Deco movement of the 1930s. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

During a highly productive period, as moviegoing exploded, Blankstein, who died a week after opening night of the Uptown, designed several theatres across Manitoba, including the Tivoli (now the Food Fare on Maryland), the Lido in The Pas, and the once Miles-owned Roxy on Henderson Highway, which like the Uptown, became a bowling alley in 1960 as television sapped the theatre business.

During that conversion, the interior of the Uptown theatre was gutted, stripping away the cobalt-blue ceiling dotted with twinkling stars, the iconic columns, the orange curtain, and the Art Deco plaster detailing that lined the walls. All that remained inside, per the city report, were a few rows of seats on the second floor, the shell of the original projection room, and the steel truss roof, which Blankstein favoured to promote a clear sightline to the screen.

Thirty lanes were installed across two storeys, and for 58 years, thousands of guests came through annually for league nights and bowling parties, aiming for a strike, a spare, or an avoidance of the gutter.

The original marquee has been maintained. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

The original marquee has been maintained. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

When Globe acquired the property in 1989, Morantz, who had a birthday party there as a child, giving him a sentimental connection, said it was seen as a long-term investment. But in 2018, when the alley’s lease ran out, the company reassessed the building’s future and considered what its next life would be.

The company pursued the highest and best value with the likeliest potential to meet and exceed the value of investment, and decided that high-end residential rentals were the way to go. Collaborating with Nejmark Architect and Concord Projects Ltd., among other partners, the company went forward with plans for the mixed-use redevelopment, which Morantz said met a need in the River Heights neighbourhood while maintaining a local icon.

The units in the newly renovated Uptown Lofts on Academy Road are posh, and still provide praise to the past. (MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

The units in the newly renovated Uptown Lofts on Academy Road are posh, and still provide praise to the past. (MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

In October 2019, demolition and remodelling began, giving the project a head start a few months before the pandemic started. Gutting the interior continued throughout the summer, and before potential tenants could even see the units, marketing director Ethan Morantz, Richard’s son, said the company was already receiving calls to sign leases sight unseen.

A few hangups with the city occurred, as is often the case with heritage buildings and large-scale renovations, however, the project met projected timelines and budgets, despite that and the pandemic. And, the exterior was brought back to its original colour scheme, with the metalwork cleaned and restored, the marquee has also been maintained and given a fresh neon-light overlay.

Now, its 23 units are more than 80 per cent leased.

"It’s actually 91 per cent leased now," said Ethan; only two units remain available, and two of the ground floor commercial units have been accounted for, one by a dress shop and the other by a tenant in the wellness field. There are still sizeable commercial spaces available, including a 2,000 square-foot main floor space, which could be fit to meet the needs of any number of industries or retail sectors, renting at approximately $25 per square foot, and an equally large space on the second floor, renting at around $18 per square-foot.

While the commercial sides are enticing, the residential units themselves, which rent starting at $1,600 and are mostly two-bedroom, meet the lofty expectations. On the first and second floors, the units are bright and airy, with nice touches, including subway-tiled bathroom floors, clean, white backsplashes, in-suite laundry, and tons of natural light. Through consultation with the relevant heritage bodies, the units facing Waterloo Street were given sizeable balconies carved out from the original brick, which still frames the outdoor areas.

Drawing attention to that original steel truss roof, now exposed, the top floor units have the New York loft feeling the developers were going for, giving River Heights perhaps the first apartment building in the city that could compete with the converted factories in the Exchange District. Similar units would likely go for several thousand more dollars per month in other cities.

Of the two remaining units, one faces out onto Academy Road on the third floor, with the exotic, floral-shaped windows letting light in from several feet above the floor. There’s hardly a need to turn a single light on when the sun is out. Another is on the main floor, with an outdoor patio space fenced in from the neighbours, and enough room for a barbecue and a small garden.

The foyer ceiling looks as it would have when the building opened as a movie theatre in 1931. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

The foyer ceiling looks as it would have when the building opened as a movie theatre in 1931. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

As for parking, there are 39 stalls alongside the building, including some set aside in a partnership with the Peg City Car Co-op, which seems to be devising partnerships with every other new development in the city. Those spots are in addition to several outdoor bike stands recently installed, as well as interior bike storage for residents.

Asked whether the building met expectations, Morantz and Penner agreed that if anything, it exceeded them, and given their personal connection to the property, that was a major relief.

And as far as marketing the property, the allure of the project and the place it holds in the public imagination did a lot of the heavy lifting, Ethan Morantz said. Although that would have meant nothing without "the building inside the building," as Penner put it, keeping pace.

"When we bought this building, we saw it as a long-term investment," Richard Morantz said in the vestibule, where the removal of dropped ceilings revealed the original architectural features — columns, Art Deco starbursts, spindles, domed ceilings — as they were when the theatre opened for business in 1931.

The original investment of Allied Amusements — $300,000 in 1930 — is still paying off nearly a century later. Call it a lucky strike.

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
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Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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